Castro purge may be defensive move

March 10, 2009


Castrologists, or practitioners of the obscure science of trying to interpret the moves of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship in Cuba, are almost evenly divided about the meaning of last week’s Cabinet purge on the island: some see it as a sign of change, while others see it as a sign of resistance to change.

Before telling you how I see it, let’s take a quick look at the three main theories behind the firing of a dozen top Cuban officials, including former Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and former economic czar Carlos Lage. Both had long been rumored to be among the most likely successors to 77-year-old President Gen. Raul Castro.

Perez Roque, 44, a former all-purpose personal aide to Fidel Castro and the quintessential Fidel loyalist, was a hard-liner. A man of limited intellectual reach who prided himself on being a Cuban “Taliban,” he once told me with a straight face that Cuba had more press freedoms than Miami. (If that were so, I responded, Cuba would have long allowed anti-Castro media on the island.)

Lage, on the contrary, was almost universally seen as a reformer. A 57-year-old physician by training, he engineered the economic reforms that allowed Cuba to emerge from its “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

Late last week, as is customary with ousted officials in Stalinist regimes, both dutifully issued their public “mea culpa” in the Cuban government press, after Fidel Castro, 82, wrote an article in Cuba’s official press claiming that they had succumbed to the “honey of power,” and stating that “the external enemy was filled with illusions for them.”

Among Castrologists’ most frequent explanations of the purge:

The “sign of change” theory: Raul Castro is consolidating his power by firing Fidel loyalists, and putting his own — mostly military — men in top Cabinet positions in anticipation of the Obama administration’s moves to relax U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

By dumping Fidel loyalists and replacing them with his own protégés, Raul is also promoting a new generation of leaders who will be better suited to deal with the new diplomatic and political realities, the most widely held theory among Cubanologists goes.

The “resistance to change” theory: In anticipation of the Obama administration’s expected moves to relax some U.S. sanctions on Cuba, the Castro brothers fired the youngest, best-known and most internationally connected members of the Cabinet to send a clear signal that there will be no political cracks within their regime. Call it a reconcentration of power, if you want. If the U.S. relaxes its sanctions, the Cuban government is trying to present itself as a monolithic bloc, the theory goes.

The “scapegoating” theory: The most salient characteristic of the Castro regime, like that of all dictatorships, is the constant search for scapegoats. As independent Cuban journalist Odalis Alfonso Toma wrote on the Web site cubanet.org last week, “Every time that we reach a peak in administrative or executive crises, new charges of misappropriation of funds or abuse of power pop up against officials in the highest levels of government.”

My opinion: My humble guess is that what happened last week is a combination of the second and third theories. Fidel Castro’s article stating that Perez Roque and Lage had given Cuba’s enemies “illusions” of change on the island leads me to believe that their ouster was a defensive move by a decrepit dictatorship.

It has happened time and again. Every time external events threaten to press Cuba toward democracy, or that somebody within the Cuban Cabinet emerges as a potential successor to the Castro dynasty, the Castro brothers have reacted by circling the wagons and retrenching to hard-line stands.

In the late 1980s, when the former Soviet Union started its perestroika process of political opening, Fidel Castro fired — and later executed — charismatic army hero and reputed reformer Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa.

In 1992, amid the democratization of Cuba’s former Eastern European allies, Castro fired Carlos Aldana, the second-most powerful Communist Party official, and the best-known reformer within the Cuban government hierarchy. Like the victims of last week’s purge, these and other ousted officials have always signed public statements confessing their alleged sins.

Now that Washington is vowing to relax U.S. sanctions, Cuba’s ruling family is likely to continue carrying out limited economic changes disguised as continuity, but is circling the wagons to try to stave off outside pressures for a political opening.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.


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