Critical vacancy atop Cuba's army
BY BRIAN LATELL
The strongest and most essential institution in Raúl Castro's government
has been without a leader since Sept. 3 when three star general Julio
Casas died unexpectedly. Nearly eight weeks later the vacancy in the
revolutionary armed forces ministry suggests that the leadership is in a
quandary about who should fill it.
Beginning in October 1959 when Raúl assumed command of the military, he
and Casas were its only chiefs. The younger Castro reigned until
February 2008, later boasting in a remarkable flourish during an
interview that he had been the longest serving defense minister in human
His faithful crony Casas, who fought with him in the late 1950s
guerrilla struggle, succeeded as minister when Raúl officially took over
the presidency. But now Raúl must elevate another man to the only job in
Cuba where viable challenges to his supremacy could originate. There
have been just two known instances of severe disenchantment in the armed
forces, and both were dealt with by the Castro brothers with cruelty and
In late 1959 the courageous Huber Matos, one of the most respected
veterans of the insurgency, was imprisoned on Fidel's orders by a
kangaroo court. Thirty years later, during the summer of crisis in the
Soviet bloc, General Arnaldo Ochoa, then the most accomplished and
popular military commander, was executed on trumped up charges. In both
cases, the offenders had lost confidence in the Castros' dictatorship
and sought liberalizing change.
If absolute loyalty to the regime were the only requirement for filling
the defense post, several candidates could be relied on. Three-star
generals and vice ministers Leopoldo Cintra Frías and Ramón Espinosa
Martín, both in their early 70s, certainly qualify. They served
dependably, if unimaginatively, as commanders of Cuba's two most
powerful regional armies and sit on the Communist Party Politburo.
Cintra Frias ran the strategically important Western Army, headquartered
in Havana, from 1991 until 2009. He has the seniority, but is not one of
Raúl's favorites and has not been identified as acting minister. That he
was not present on October 3 when Raúl met with a visiting military
delegation from Angola may indicate that he is actually out of the running.
Interior minister, Politburo member, and three-star general Abelardo
Colomé Ibarra is closer to Raúl than any other officer, and would be
unquestionably loyal. But his health is reported by many sources to be
in serious decline. Nonetheless, he could prove to be the ideal place
Only two other three-star generals are currently on active duty, just
one of whom is sufficiently close to Raúl to be a serious candidate.
Army chief of staff Alvaro Lopez Miera is said to be like a second son
to Raúl. As a 14-year-old, he went up into the eastern sierra to fight
with Raúl's forces, but was considered too young to take up arms and was
assigned to teach local peasants instead. Now in his late 60s, Lopez is
the youngest of the contenders in an armed force dominated by elderly
Seventy-nine year-old Ramiro Valdes has the requisite experience
managing the armed forces' extensive for-profit enterprises, especially
in electronics and communications, and therefore must be considered a
dark horse candidate. He served two tours as minister of interior, sits
on the party Politburo and the Council of State, and is generally
regarded now as third in the line of succession. But he has been a
perennial rival to Raúl and is not trusted by the senior military
establishment. His appointment would likely open many old wounds.
In short, there is really no one among the candidates who meets all of
Raul's criteria. As Cuba's only four-star general, he will continue as
the country's highest ranking military officer, but, at 80 years of age,
he is too old and preoccupied with righting the precarious economy to
manage day-to-day ministry affairs. He has undoubtedly been busy since
Casas' death consulting with his top generals, trying to forge a
consensus, and demanding their loyalty amid the unanticipated new
uncertainties this decision poses for him.
Raúl is all too aware that the man he chooses as Cuba's next defense
minister will instantly become the second most powerful leader on the
island. That succession, therefore, is nearly as important as the
presidency. Whoever it is Raúl ultimately selects could easily be the
man who will lead post-Castro Cuba into a new era.
Brian Latell is a senior research associate at the Institute of Cuba and
Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami and a former National
Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency.