Speculation following ministerial changes

Campaign News | Tuesday, 3 March 2009

By Patricia Grogg for the Inter Press Service

While the staff of the cabinet ministries set to undergo major reforms are gearing themselves for what lies ahead, the people of Cuba, from academics to pensioners, are speculating about the extent of the recently announced changes and hoping they will bring improvements to their lives and to living standards in general.

Meanwhile, the official daily of the Communist Party, Granma, published an article Wednesday in which former president Fidel Castro clarified that the major cabinet shakeup announced Monday has his full support.

The column also set off new conjecture as to why powerful figures like former foreign minister Felipe Pérez Roque and former cabinet chief Carlos Lage were unexpectedly removed from those posts.

Referring to them only as "the two most frequently mentioned," the convalescent Castro wrote that "the honey of power, for which they had made no sacrifices, awoke in them ambitions that led them to play an undignified role. The external enemy was filled with illusions for them."

By contrast, the statement in which the Council of State announced the ministerial shuffle Monday consistently used the respectful term "compañero" and the verb "released" from their posts, rather than "dismissed."

"I told you yesterday that this was a ‘truene’," one neighbour remarked to another. Leaning out of their windows, the two women lowered their voices as a group of tourists walked by.

In Cuban slang, a public employee who has been "tronado" has been "thunderously" sacked and put on the "pajama plan" - in other words, sent home.

"Fidel’s reflection reveals that there were problems with Lage and Pérez Roque, but provides no real explanations. We will have to wait for things to be clarified further," an academic source who asked not to be identified told IPS.

Less cautious, a young university professor commented that the removals came as a big surprise because "many people in Cuba thought they (the officials in question) were set to govern in the future."

"Now, all of us would like more information," said another professor. "Fidel’s accusation is very serious."

The 57-year-old Lage is a member of the governing Communist Party’s powerful Politburo and was reelected as vice president of the Council of State in February 2008. Pérez Roque, 43, is a member of the Council of State and of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

In the past, both officials formed part of the "Commander-in-Chief’s Coordination and Support Group", a government team made up of younger Communist Party leaders that was in charge of overseeing and implementing projects and initiatives considered top priority by Fidel Castro, who due to his failing health was permanently replaced as president in February 2008 by his younger brother Raúl.

The special group functioned parallel to the cabinet of ministers.

Observers suppose that as part of Raúl Castro’s process of streamlining the government’s institutions, such parallel structures no longer have a raison d’etre. And it is in that light that the restructuring of the cabinet - which includes the merging of several ministries, to concentrate efforts and resources and boost efficacy - should be understood, they say.

In the view of the younger Castro brother, Cuba’s institutions are one of the "pillars of invulnerability of the revolution, in the political terrain." In that sense, one of the decisions that was most widely welcomed was to "release" Otto Rivero from his responsibilities as vice president of the Council of Ministers.

Rivero was in charge of the so-called "battle of ideas", a plan created to "perfect" Cuban socialism in a number of areas, which included programmes that have now been put under the aegis of the "respective investing bodies," according to the official statement.

"The new government wants the ministries to truly fulfill their roles. These parallel bodies created a dangerous duality of power, concentrated in people who did not have to answer to the Council of Ministers - not to mention the fact that they opened a door to the chaotic use of funds," an academic with experience in the matter commented to IPS.

While some researchers were somewhat sceptical about the government reforms put into motion by Raúl Castro on Monday, the source who spoke at length with IPS expressed enthusiasm, and said he hoped that under the new Minister of Economy and Planning, Marino Murillo, Cuban state enterprises would become more competitive, face fewer hurdles and receive greater incentives.

He also applauded the merging of the Ministries of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, under Minister Rodrigo Malmierca.

The academic described Malmierca, who up to Monday was at the helm of the Ministry of Foreign Investment, as "a person with ‘frequent flier miles’, who knows how the economy and world politics work."

The source, who asked to remain anonymous, said "Cuba is betting on real insertion into the global economy," and for that reason it must overcome internal problems and eliminate, for example, regulations and laws that lead to "the constant undersupply of the country’s stores" and that stand in the way of the export of domestically produced goods by Cuban companies.

And while some analysts have criticised the appointment of several armed forces officers to the cabinet, arguing that it will usher in a degree of "militarisation" of the government, he said he disagreed.

With respect to the naming of army general Salvador Pardo Cruz - the former head of the Military Industry Union - as Minister of the Steel Industry, he said it was a good decision, pointing out that the military managed to upgrade and modernise their equipment based on local initiative, resources and organisation, with a strategy that could be transferred to the steel industry, which he said is currently "undercapitalised" due to a lack of coherence in the ministry’s policies.

No less strategic was the appointment of José Miyar at the head of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, along with the transfer of the "scientific pole" - comprised of Cuba’s main scientific research institutions - to the ministry. (It currently answers directly to the Council of State). "No one knows more about science in Cuba than he does," said the source.

That decision also eliminates the unequal treatment received by the research institutions grouped on the west side of Havana and other parts of the "scientific pole" around the country.

"I think Chomi (the name by which people in Cuba know Miyar) will bring about a shift among scientists and science, a sector that has been called upon to become a dynamic productive force in the country," the expert said.

Cuba’s biotech industry, which began to be developed in 1998, is generating more than 300 million dollars a year in exports, according to unofficial reports. And countries that have good relations with Cuba have expressed a growing interest in joint operations that would allow the sharing and even the transfer of know-how.

"I think Cuba is making progress towards the creation of conditions to make the leap forward and pull out of the hole, and that it will become an efficient country, where work will once again be the source of social recognition, and which will be inserted in a diverse world, based on its own diversity, and that Raúl will have the merit of launching this crusade," the source added.

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