- Associated Press - Monday, September 20, 2010

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba’s Cabinet minister in charge of oil and nickel production has been removed for incompetence, the government announced on Monday.

The government of Raul Castro discharged Yadira Garcia Vera as minister of basic industry due to “her deficiencies in heading the institution, particularly reflected in the weak manner in which she controlled resources destined for investment and the production process,” said a small but sternly worded item in the Communist Party newspaper Granma.

Ms. Garcia Vera, 54, will be replaced by her vice minister, Tomas Benitez Hernandez, until a permanent new minister is named by the Council of State, Cuba’s supreme governing body. Ms. Garcia Vera is also a member of the island’s powerful Politburo, and apparently remains in that post since the announcement made no mention of it.

It was not clear, however, if the move was related to last week’s announcement that the government will lay off half a million state workers, remake its official salary and tax structures and encourage pockets of private enterprise in what could prove to be a major overhaul of its communist system.

Holding a chemical engineering degree, Ms. Garcia Vera was viewed as an ideological hard-liner and rising Communist Party star when she took over the basic industry ministry in 2004, replacing Marcos Portal Leon, who was fired amid a wave of electricity shortages.

When she assumed the post, Granma praised Ms. Garcia Vera as a “young but experienced leader of the [Communist] Party” who is “modest, capable and efficient.”

It also noted then that she played a role in the high-profile custody battle between U.S. and Cuban relatives for ex-castaway Elian Gonzalez. She was a top official of the party in Matanzas province, where Elian’s father lived.

There were no such kind words in Monday’s blurb, however.

Nickel is Cuba’s top export and expanding oil output is a major priority. The government has laid out zones in the Gulf of Mexico where private energy companies, mostly from Canada and Europe, have said they could one day drill test wells searching for crude.

A 2004 test well by a Spanish company was not considered commercially viable, however, and Washington’s 48-year-old trade embargo prohibits U.S. companies from investing in Cuban oil exploration and production, even though the island’s Gulf waters are close to the Florida coast.

Raul Castro, 79, succeeded his older brother Fidel as Cuba’s president in July 2006. Since then, he has moved to reshape the island’s Cabinet.

His government replaced the health minister in July, a month after the transportation minister was fired for professional mistakes and the head of the Sugar Ministry was ousted after admitting incompetence.

Attorney General Juan Escalona Reguera, who fought under both Castro brothers in the rebel army that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day 1959, was replaced in March. Health problems were cited as the reason.

Also in March, Rogelio Acevedo, who as a teenager fought alongside the Castros and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was abruptly dismissed as the overseer of Cuba’s airlines and airports for unexplained reasons. Cuba has since been awash with rumors that Acevedo was secretly running his own airline and otherwise misusing state aircraft.

This year’s changes come after a major March 2009 house-cleaning that saw Cuba fire Vice President and de-facto economic czar Carlos Lage, as well as the island’s foreign minister and economics minister in a shake-up involving the removal, transfer or demotion of more than 20 officials.



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