Cuba's generals to set to shape economic future
With the promotions of some of Cuba's top men in uniform, Cuba's
military is expected to play a significant role in future economic reforms.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
As he climbed up the ranks of Cuba's armed forces, it was years before
Julio Casas Regueiro could shake the reputation that he was being
promoted because of who he knew — not what.
Casas wasn't a good military man, one of his former bosses said, but
with promotions from a friend in high places — then-Defense Minister
Raúl Castro — he eventually proved to be a great logistician and
And now he is Cuba's new defense minister and vice president, moving up
after Castro was elected the island's president Feb. 24. He'll not only
be leading Cuba's armed forces but is also expected to apply his
business acumen to the country's ailing economy.
Castro's decision to surround himself with Casas and three other
generals at the top level of government underscores the vast trust that
the new president has in his military buddies, experts say. And while
the armed forces are unlikely to take on any more major business
initiatives — that would hardly be possible — the generals are
expected to become the masterminds of efficiency-minded plans to boost
the island's economy.
Cuba's 55,000 member Revolutionary Armed Forces is already in charge of
most of the business sectors, including hotels and domestic airlines.
With its top leaders now in some of the nation's highest positions of
power, its role in a post-Fidel Cuba is likely to be reinforced, experts
Casas' promotion as one of five vice presidents in the ruling Council of
State is a prime example.
''Casas Regueiro was always considered someone who was somewhere he
should not be — someone who got there through friendship,'' said José
Quevedo, a former general who now lives in Miami. “Eventually, he
became the person who took advantage of military discipline for use in
business, and that showed results.
“He's more a businessman than soldier.''
MASTER OF LOGISTICS
Casas and Castro became close friends in the 1950s, when both were
members of Fidel Castro's ragtag army of guerrillas fighting to topple
Fulgencio Batista. Casas founded the rebel army's Sixth Column and the
National Police after the revolution's triumph in 1959. He participated
in the Bay of Pigs and later became the military's point man for logistics.
''He worked brilliantly,'' Raúl Castro said when he announced the
appointment. “He [stood out] in a phase of the Air Force when we had a
vacuum and no one to name.''
Quevedo — who was Casas' boss at one point — said the now-72-year-old
distinguished himself managing logistics.
''He was repudiated by most of his own men,'' Quevedo said. “Then the
economics of the armed forces was in his control, and he developed
purely logistical experience at the highest level. He's good at that.''
A former head of Cuba's Eastern Army — one of the three main regional
divisions — Casas was also first vice minister of defense. A veteran in
Cuba's involvement in Ethiopia, he is also a member of the Communist
Party's Political Buro and a member of the National Assembly since 1981.
He's been on the Council of State's central committee since 1998.
''I have criticized practically all the Armed Forces generals,'' Castro
told the Assembly.
“I do not recall having made a criticism in these past 50 years of
comrade Julio Casas, except that he is very stingy. But that's where he
gets his economic success.''
True enough: the former banker is credited with the Armed Forces'
so-called ''business perfection plan.'' He sent top military officers to
study hotel management and accounting abroad to bring home a sense of
efficiency and business expertise to the armed forces.
Soon, the FAR was not just running troops. Under Casas, the military
formed GAESA, the holding company that runs up to 60 percent of Cuban
state companies, including hotels, airlines and retail outfits.
His No. 2 in the company was Col. Luis Alberto Rodríguez, Raúl Castro's
AN ECONOMIC FORCE
In a post-Soviet Cuba, the severely shrunk and equipment-short FAR is
not the military power it once was, but a money machine that's still one
of the government's most respected institutions.
Military enterprises now control an estimated 90 percent of the nation's
exports and 60 percent of its tourism revenue, and employ 20 percent of
state workers. Generals are in charge of several ministries, including
sugar and fisheries, and young conscripts work agricultural fields to
Somewhere in Cuba, Raúl Castro said , there's a signed legal document
citing Casas as the only person with the right to veto the new
president's economic decisions.
''If you look at Casas Regueiro, he has played a role in every
state-owned enterprise — tourism, agriculture, retail,'' said Dan
Erikson, a Cuba expert at the InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington, D.C.
“He's known to be tight-fisted in a penny-pinching sense in his
managerial style. He did a relatively good job in running a system that
by design is going to be inefficient and unproductive.''
Casas' business experience is critical, because Castro's chief task as
head of state is to save the nation's ailing economy. Cubans are growing
increasingly frustrated because of high prices and low salaries, and are
eager to see changes that would allow them more control over their
''If there is an economic opening, the military will play a role in
that,'' Erikson said.
Castro has suggested that the solution to boosting Cuba's production and
economy is by relaxing some of the bureaucratic regulations that stifle
growth. But when he named old-timers to top positions of power, many
experts said it was a signal that reform is a long way off.
Besides Casas, Castro also promoted old-timers José Ramón Machado
Ventura, 77, as first vice president and Interior Minister Gen. Abelardo
Colomé, 68, to second vice president.
Western Army Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frias and Alvaro López Miera, head of
the joint chiefs, were also named to the council. In a column published
last week, Fidel Castro said their appointments were his suggestion and
not a result of Raúl Castro's “militaristic tendencies.''
But some say their appointments could just be a sign that Raúl Castro is
looking to spread that military efficiency and discipline to other
aspects of the economy.
Castro probably deliberately surrounded himself with military loyalists
so he could implement reforms in the context of socialism, said Hal
Klepak, a professor of military and war studies at the Royal Military
College of Canada who has studied and taught in Cuba.
''Casas Regueiro was the architect of military reform — this is a sign
that the economy will be taken a bit more seriously,'' Klepak said.
“This is the man who sent military officers to Spain for MBAs. But he
is not going to upset the apple cart. The FAR's role is to hold the
reins while the politicians sort things out.
“If the reforms threaten the revolution, they will not be implemented.''