- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

HAVANA (AP) — The ouster of Cuba’s two most prominent younger leaders leaves more doubt than ever about who will guide the country once the Castro brothers and their gray-haired revolutionary contemporaries are gone.

President Raul Castro is 77. His hand-picked No. 2, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, is a year his senior. And there are no obvious next-generation successors in the ranks of mostly obscure communist party officials, military officers and bureaucrats who were suddenly promoted this week in Cuba’s largest leadership shake-up in decades.

“This is the old guard, most of them are very traditional hard-liners,” said Uva de Aragon, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami. “It’s disappointing in a sense that it doesn’t give a lot of room to think about a generational transition.”

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A number of potential heirs-apparent have risen to Cuba’s top ranks in the 50 years since Fidel and Raul Castro took power as youthful rebels, only to be cast aside, die or grow too old to be more than a stop-gap leader. The two most recent possibilities were 43-year-old Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and 57-year-old Vice President Carlos Lage, both now demoted in this week’s Cabinet reshuffle.

Fidel Castro hinted in an essay published Tuesday that Perez Roque and Lage failed to do enough to quiet whispers that they could emerge on top in a post-Castro Cuba. “The central sin at play here is to have ambition,” said Ann Louise Bardach, author of the book “Cuba Confidential.” She said this leadership shake-up is the biggest since Fidel Castro unleashed a mass purge of Cuban leaders in the mid-1960s, citing nebulous charges of corruption.

One figure widely known because of his public speeches as a youth leader Otto Rivero Torres fell into disfavor amid rumors of corruption in government initiatives he oversaw and lost his last major post in Monday’s shakeup.

The younger generation also lacks the heroic glow surrounding the aging men whose deeds are exalted in schoolbooks and on television serving on a provincial ideology committee doesn’t have the same zing as marching with a rifle alongside Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

A Communist Party Congress this year could shed some light on future successors perhaps from Cuba’s military but Lage’s demotion leaves Cuba without a clear third-in-line to the presidency for now, said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became an anti-communist dissident.

“I can’t give you a name, but it’s the military, the generals who in practice are now even more powerful perhaps than Machado Ventura,” added Espinosa Chepe, who was freed for health reasons after being jailed for his political beliefs. “If Mr. Raul Castro were to fall ill, the military would take a larger role.”

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, agreed that the country’s military has emerged stronger after the shake-up. “I don’t think there’s any question that it gained the most from this,” said Suchlicki, who has written about the longtime defense minister’s “militarization” of Cuba since inheriting the presidency a year ago.

More soldiers at the top could make a key player of 67-year-old Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, the former sugar minister who in November took over the long-vacant post of agricultural minister.

Rosales del Toro has held a series of high-ranking military posts, including head of Cuba’s Western Army. Also, while his name and face are well-known to the Cuban public, his personality seems low-wattage enough to avoid drawing the Castros’ ire for being too ambitious.

Suchlicki believes another personality to watch is Ramiro Valdez, 76, a hard-liner who could be seen as an eventual compromise between Cuba’s military and its revolutionary leaders. He fought alongside the Castros and Guevara in the 1959 revolution and holds the honorary title of “commander.” But Valdez Mendez is a civilian and was tapped to replace Rivero Torres as Cabinet vice president on Monday. He also recently accompanied Raul Castro on a lengthy visit to Russia.

Bardach said she “would not rule Machado or Ramiro Valdez out as they have so much history and synergy with each other and as long as they’re breathing and upright, they’ll probably be around.”

Another eventual presidential possibility, she said, could be Raul Castro’s son Alejandro, an adviser to his father and official at the Interior Ministry.

“If I had to bet, it would be on Raul’s family,” Bardach said, adding, “at least today, I’d go with more dynasty, surrounded and protected by historicos,” a reference to those who fought in the 1959 revolution.

But more than individuals, Cuba’s government depends on strong institutions.

“It’s very, very difficult to look at personalities. I like to look at Cuba from an institutional point of view, the strength of the military, the strength of the Communist Party,” Suchlicki said. “As long as we don’t see any cracks in the military, or the party …. there is going to be, or at least very likely to be, a continuation of the current regime.”

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