Cuba’s Raúl Castro shook up his Cabinet big time this week—the largest change in decades—when he ousted, promoted or shifted around more than 20 officials.
Most prominent—and surprising to many here in the United States—was the dismissal of Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage, known as the brains of recent economic reforms.
The next day, Raúl’s older brother, Fidel, wrote a letter saying he had been consulted about these changes (oh, but of course he was!).
Fidel explained the ousting of two officials: “The honey of the power for which they had known no sacrifice awoke in them ambitions that led them to an unworthy role." Plus: “The external enemy was filled with illusions about them.” Hmm…? Wonder who that enemy could be?!
Fidel didn’t name the officials specifically, but consensus is he was talking about Lage and Pérez Roque. So, were these two getting too ambitious and angling to take leadership positions in a post-Castro brothers’ Cuba? Going after that honey pot of power?
After expressing initial surprise, several analysts said Raúl was showing his pragmatist streak—by consolidating some government agencies, streamlining the bureaucracy to be more efficient and bringing in more technocrats. This was also Raúl’s way to put his own stamp on the government. And swap out Fidel’s guys for his own comrades.
Raúl replaced Pérez Roque—a longtime Fidel loyalist and one of the so-called “Havana Taliban”—with a career diplomat and “not an idealogue” —possibly a signal that Raúl wants a less politicized foreign policy establishment, suggested Frank Mora of the National War College.
Replacing the Havana Taliban is Bruno Rodríguez, who had been Pérez Roque’s number two, and served as Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations from 1995 to 2003.
In his letter, Lage wrote to Raúl Castro, "informing you that I am quitting my post as member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party and its Political Bureau, and my position as (parliament) deputy, member of the Council of State and vice president of the Council of State."
Using strikingly similar language, Pérez Roque wrote: "I inform you of my decision to quit my post as member of the Council of State, deputy of the National Assembly of People's Power and as member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba."
And, each wrote that they “recognized the errors committed” and “assume responsibility” for them. And they dutifully pledged their loyalty to Fidel, Raúl and the Communist party. But neither apologized.
Typical mea culpas you’d find in communist countries, Mora said.
And what do Pérez Roque and Lage do now?
“They go into pajamas,” Mora said.
What’s that again? Meaning, they have no official responsibility or influence and are essentially retired until—OR IF—the leadership decides to have them back.
Bringing it back to the United States, could this all be good news for defrosting the Cold War of U.S.-Cuban relations?
Not so fast. Several analysts cautioned from reading too much into this and what it could portend for immediate or even short-term policy changes.
“Significant changes in policy will likely be deferred until the yet-to-be-scheduled Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, while more profound transformations are unlikely until after the death of Fidel,” says Enrique Bravo, analyst at the Eurasia Group.
This restructuring is not about Washington, or sending a message to Washington—but about getting Raúl’s house in order, Mora underscored. And, don’t expect any big change out of Havana until Fidel dies—as he remains the biggest obstacle to an opening with Washington.
Most important, any change is contingent on what Washington does from here, Mora said. Havana is watching for the next move from the White House.
Other observers struck a similar, though more hopeful tone, about the massive restructuring:
“This is one of those historical pivot points in normally opaque (often Communist) regimes that will be remembered for generations. Raúl Castro seems fully in control now—and he's done with ideology...We may be at a real moment of opportunity in US-Cuba relations if Obama's team of foreign policy hands can find the guts and smarts to realize that it was wrong during the Bush administration for a Cold War with Cuba to actually get colder over the last ten years—and to realize that incrementalism only works in times of historical continuity,” writes Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation.
So, the ball is in Obama’s court.
*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: email@example.com