Tensions in the Leadership

It is no easier today than it was fifty years ago to gauge the state of play within the Cuban nomenclatura. In fact it is now even more difficult to assess how decisions are being made, how power is shared and delegated, and who in the leadership tiers below the Castro brothers may be rising or falling in influence. Yet there are numerous reasons to postulate that tensions are greater now than at any time since the Ochoa-de la Guardia purges of 1989.

Most importantly, confusion may well be rampant about Fidel Castro’s evolving role. Almost three years since surrendering Cuba’s presidency –but not his position as Communist Party First Secretary– he has reasserted some of his historic decision making prerogatives. His health has apparently improved and with it perhaps his dissatisfaction with the quality of leadership that his brother Raul, Cuba’s president since February 2008, has been providing.

Fidel recently overruled Raul by repeatedly expressing intransigent positions regarding the prospects for improving relations with the United States. In numerous commentaries, or “reflections” as he and the Cuban government prefer to describe them, he has insistently voiced strident anti-American views that are rarely repeated with the same acidic spins by other Cuban officials. It seems reasonable to speculate, therefore, that Fidel may be at odds with policy prescriptions developed within the leadership since Raul’s assumed the presidency. Yet, Fidel’s manifestos, now emanating almost daily from his convalescent quarters, carry enormous weight and have never been contradicted or repudiated.

Remaining unseen and unheard in any public venues, Fidel’s new prominence must be sowing confusion and resentment among government and party leaders, especially those responsible for foreign policy. He embarrassed Raul during the visit earlier this year of Chilean president Bachelet by publicly advocating positions at odds with longstanding Cuban government policy. In a steady stream of commentaries –all but a few concerned with Cuba’s international relations– Fidel has made clear that he is once again the ultimate arbiter in this area of policy making. His musings are prominently played by all the major Cuban media and are carefully studied and parsed by officials throughout the leadership. And as Fidel’s directorial role has expanded, the contours of Cuban policy in such critical areas as relations with the United States have become unusually clouded.

The dismissal in March of foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque, one of Fidel’s previously most loyal acolytes, surely also heightened leadership tensions, especially since two other long-prominent officials were disgraced simultaneously. Former vice-president Carlos Lage’s dismissal was not as surprising as Perez Roque’s, however, because he had been passed over in February 2008 for higher office and in the year that followed his visibility had been steadily declining. It seems that his dismissal had been in the cards for some time. But, Perez Roque’s fall was sudden and unexpected. Just days after the axe fell he had been scheduled to depart for Japan at the head of an official Cuban mission to discuss technical cooperation. So perhaps even he had no inkling of what was about to befall him.

Fidel’s involvement in these dismissals –perhaps his insistence that they be carried out summarily– is suggested by the language he unleashed against them in one of his reflections. Lage and Perez Roque had been “seduced by the honey of power” he wrote. The vitriol was characteristic of the brutal way in which Fidel had disgraced scores of other top officials in the past.

All this suggested that the former foreign minister had somehow betrayed his master and that the decision to fire him was mainly Fidel’s, and that it was executed swiftly and mercilessly. Since then, Bruno Rodriguez, the new foreign minister, has basked in Fidel’s approval. He was singled out for praise in Fidel’s reflection of May 2. And to be sure there was no confusion in leadership ranks about his new preeminent role, Fidel noted that “at our request” (reverting to the use of the royal pronoun he so commonly employed in the past) Rodriguez had provided him support. There was no mention of Raúl in this context.

Meanwhile, hints gleaned from remarks by the Castro brothers in recent months may have elevated concerns in the nomenclatura that Fidel plans to retain his position at the top of the communist party hierarchy and to use it as a cudgel to impose his will. Raul told actor Sean Penn last October that he continued even after assuming the presidency to work from his old office. And he added that “In Fidel’s office, nothing has been touched.”

Dr. Brian Latell, is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS). He was a Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University. Dr. Latell served as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America from 1990-1994. His work as a Latin America specialist for the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Council began in the 1960s. He was awarded the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal. Latell has published extensively on Cuba, Mexico, other Latin America subjects, and on foreign intelligence issues. His latest book is After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader.

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