Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Leadership Change As Seen from Havana

Raul Castro stirs up Cuban leadership
Posted: Tuesday, March 03, 2009 11:27 AM

By Mary Murray, NBC News Havana Bureau Chief

HAVANA – Cuba’s President Raul Castro sure knows how to get the nation to sit up and listen.

While most people were at school or work and far away from their TV sets on Monday, a news announcer read a typed sheet of paper announcing the reshuffling of 10 Cabinet positions and the collapse of four key ministries into two. But by the end of the day, the shake-up was all people were talking about.

The Cuban public seemed most surprised by the removal of two men closely aligned with Raul’s predecessor, Fidel Castro, and pegged as the frontrunners of the next generation of leaders.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque was replaced by his own deputy, Bruno Rodriguez. And Dr. Carlos Lage lost his job as Cabinet Secretary to Brig. Gen. Jose Amado Ricardo Guerra, but Lage remains one of the Council of State’s vice presidents.

Both men are popular leaders, especially with the island’s younger generations.

Possible successors no more
Prior to being named foreign minister, Perez Roque, 43, was Fidel Castro’s chief of staff – he was just fresh out of engineering college when he landed that job. At his appointment in 1999, he became the youngest member of the Cabinet and the only one born after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

The nation watched him grow from a shy figure in Fidel’s shadow into a self-assured politician who adroitly managed Cuba’s complex foreign relations with more than 140 countries. For the moment, Perez Roque remains a senior member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

Lage, 57, is a pediatrician by training who has been active in Communist Party politics since his student days. He rose to prominence during the turbulent years that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been the island’s financial lifeline. Lage become known as Cuba’s economic czar, credited with designing the financial reforms that allowed the island to survive the crisis that began in the early nineties.

Lage remains an extremely popular figure here. People remember him as the young politician who, like millions of workers, rode a Chinese bicycle to the office when the country had no cash to import oil. He was often spotted jogging along Havana’s public streets without bodyguards or fancy running shoes. In the summer of 2006 when Fidel Castro required surgery, Lage was one of the select group given provisional powers to rule in Fidel’s absence. He has widely been considered one of the successors to the Castro brothers’ rule.

Over the past year as Raul steered Cuba along his own course, Lage and others in Fidel's inner circle seemed to have lost influcence. Today there is no clear successor to 77-year-old Raul, except for his hand-picked vice president, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who is actually a year old than the younger Castro brother.

In addition to the shuffling of some 10 Cabinet positions, Raul also took a stab at reducing the socialist government’s enormous bureaucracy.

Under Monday’s measures, the food and fishing ministries collapsed into one entity, as did the ministries of foreign trade and foreign cooperation. As with any reduction in public spending, these moves are expected to leave hundreds of state workers without jobs.

Still dominated by ‘historic generation’
Monday’s announcements could well add to grievances from younger people who complain that their generation holds little influence and power in today’s Cuba. Kids routinely grumble that the island is run and dominated by what’s known here as the "historic generation," the men who fought with Fidel Castro and seized power half a century ago.

Jesus Montoya, 23, said he heard the announcement in a packed university commons room. "It did not go over well. Some kids even started booing."

Personally, Montoya says he is reserving judgment since he backs any actions to reduce the government's size. "I hope this will naturally lead to a larger private sector. People need to stop relying on the state and the state needs to allow people to rely on their own abilities to make a living." He wants Raul to allow Cubans to open up their own businesses.

That however does not seem to be a priority for Raul’s administration, although he has allowed more private taxis on Havana’s streets. Instead, he seems focused on trying to tackle the colossal issue of government waste.

‘A matter of survival’
Since officially taking office on Feb. 24, 2008, Raul has hammered away at the idea of Cuba needing to save money and resources by becoming more efficient. "It’s a matter of survival," he has said on more than one occasion.

Over the past year in office, Raul has spearheaded drives to reform state-run companies, open up the agricultural sector and to downsize government. Under his mandate, the younger Castro has even supported economic incentives, almost a treasonous idea to the elder Fidel Castro who organized Cuban society around the ideas of equality and egalitarianism.

With the Cuban state controlling over 90 percent of the economy, Raul’s push for economic reform has had an across-the-board affect.

His government has adopted modern management and accounting practices with local managers being granted more day-to-day decision-making power.

Both state and private farmers can now legally charge higher prices for their products after meeting state quotas. And, in some industries, Cuba has abolished nationally set wage ceilings so that salaries are tied to both an individual's performance and that of the collective.

Raul also has allowed Cubans to buy computers, own mobile telephones, rent cars and spend nights in hotels previously only accessible to foreigners. While most cannot afford such luxuries on their low wages, people generally applauded the end to the discriminatory practices in the Cuban market.

'Two plus two always makes four – not five'
But Raul was forced to curtail his economic and social reform drive after three devastating hurricanes swept the island last season and caused some $10 billion in damages, equal to 10 percent of Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product.

During the 2008 closing session of parliament, Raul revealed that recovery could easily take up to six years but that "this did not mean reforms have been shelved."

At that meeting he turned the spotlight on government deficiencies, calling the lack of accountability and waste in government spending one of the "fundamental problems" of Cuba’s socialist system. He revealed plans to set up a watchdog agency on government spending, eliminate some $60 million a year in state-run company bonuses and cut in half all travel perks for Communist Party and business leaders while promising to raise wages and create jobs.

"We have to eliminate improper gratuities and bloated subsidies, otherwise the bills won't add up. Two plus two always makes four – not five," Raul said.


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