Cuban lieutenants demoted after failing to resist lure of power

HAVANA – Fidel Castro said yesterday that two of his closest lieutenants had become seduced by ‘the honey of power,’ and hinted that they were demoted because their angling for leadership roles in a post-Castro Cuba had become unseemly. The article Castro published on a government Web site provides the first official hint of why two of the most powerful and public faces of the Cuban government were abruptly removed Monday in Cuba’s largest leadership shakeup in decades. Castro sniffed at suggestions that President Raul Castro is putting his personal stamp on the government he inherited from his older brother a year ago. He wrote that officials sought his advice ‘even though there was no law requiring those who named them to do that.’ And he said the ‘two most mentioned’ were too eager to advance. ‘The honey of power, for which they had not sacrificed at all, awoke in them ambitions that led to an undignified role,’ he wrote. ‘The external enemy was filled with illusions for them.’ The elder Castro did not name names, but the highest profile demotions were the ouster of Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and the stripping of Vice President Carlos Lage from his post as Cabinet secretary. Foreign analysts and news media have often described the two as potential leaders of Cuba once 82-year-old Fidel and 77-year-old Raul Castro leave the scene. The next-in-line under Cuba’s constitution is Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 78. Twenty other officials also were shifted, demoted or promoted in what the government called a streamlining effort. Castro’s column, carried on the Cubadebate Web site, appeared to indicate that Cuban maneuvering for possible talks with President Barack Obama’s new administration was not a major factor. Obama has said he is willing to talk with Cuban leaders and wants to loosen restrictions on travel to the island by Cuban Americans. Both Perez Roque and Lage remain on the Council of State, Cuba’s top governing body, but Castro’s column leaves their future in doubt. No new post was specified for either man, although Lage remains vice president. He is considered the architect of economic reforms that kept the island’s communist system alive following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Both men are far younger than most others in the Castros’ inner circle and have been popular among Cubans. Lage is an unprententious man who travelled in a Russian-made Lada subcompact well before officials mandated small cars for all officials. Perez Roque has a jovial, outgoing personality that many Cubans can relate to. Perez Roque, 43, was Fidel Castro’s personal secretary, had been foreign minister since 1999 and was known for his strident speeches against the United States and its 47-year-old trade embargo. He was replaced by his deputy, Bruno Rodriguez, who once served as Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations. Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, met with Rodriguez in 2007, while leading a delegation of U.S. lawmakers to Cuba and said the group ‘had a very positive experience with him.’ ‘If you (take) the fact that Rodriguez is fluent in English, a former UN diplomat with experience living in the U.S. – and add to those facts that he is replacing Fidel’s hand-picked foreign minister who pursued a narrower set of goals, then you can see significance in this for U.S.-Cuba relations,’ she said before Castro’s column appeared. Daniel Erickson, author of a new book called ‘The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution,’ said the dismissal of longtime Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez also could indicate ‘that Raul is looking to chart a different path.’ But others speculate the changes will make little difference. Uva de Aragon, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, sees a lot of ‘new, old faces’ in the lineup. ‘There might be hues of differences in the personalities and trajectories of these mostly men, mostly white leaders, but they are all monolithic in their views and come from the same cadre of leaders,’ she said.