Fidel Castro: 2 leaders undone by ‘honey of power’

HAVANA – Fidel Castro said Tuesday 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.

Castro’s column provides the first hint of why two of the government’s most public faces were abruptly removed Monday in Cuba’s largest leadership shake-up 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 on the changes, “even though there was no law” requiring his consent, and said international wire services were “rending their garments” and spreading rumors that “Fidel’s men” were being replaced by “Raul’s men.”

He also wrote that most of the ousted officials didn’t owe their jobs to him anyway. And while he didn’t name names, he said the “two most mentioned” were too eager to advance. That was almost certainly a reference to Felipe Perez Roque, out as foreign minister, and Vice President Carlos Lage, who was removed from his post as Cabinet secretary.

“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.”

Foreign analysts have often described Lage, 57, and Perez Roque, 43, 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, fired or promoted in what the government called a streamlining effort.

These changes were more about solving internal economic problems than any Cuban maneuvering for possible talks with President Barack Obama’s new administration, some analysts said. Obama has said he is willing to talk with Cuban leaders and wants to loosen restrictions on travel to the island by Cuban Americans.

“Like Raul, these (new) people are portrayed more as pragmatists than ideologues,” said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. If Raul Castro “can fix up the economy he doesn’t need the relationship with the United States that much.”

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 have been popular in Cuba. Lage is unpretentious and traveled 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.

They would not be the first top officials dismissed after seemingly becoming too comfortable with power. Perez Roque’s predecessor as foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, was sacked for unexplained reasons, and ideology chief Carlos Aldana, a close deputy to both Castro brothers, suddenly stepped down before that. “Fidel Castro has a long history of mentoring younger leaders, giving them important portfolios and then basically banishing them once they began to feel secure in their own power,” said Daniel Erikson, of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

But Erikson questioned how much power Fidel Castro himself still has, noting how he wrote after the fact that he had had a hand in the shake-up.

“It seems to be imposing backward logic on the situation,” said Erikson, author of the book, “The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution.” “Given the fact that Fidel has such a long-standing close relationship with Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage it’s hard to see how this changing of the guard leaves Fidel with more influence than before.”

Perez Roque 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.

But former CIA analyst Brian Latell said he long predicted Perez Roque’s days would be numbered once Fidel Castro left power.

“Perez Roque’s style has always been much more confrontational, maybe bombastic, then Raul’s,” said Latell, who wrote the book “After Fidel” in 2002.

Perez Roque’s exit “will facilitate discussions with the U.S. whenever that does develop,” Latell added.

The foreign minister was replaced by his deputy, Bruno Rodriguez, who once served as Cuba’s UN ambassador.

Sarah Stephens, who directs the Center for Democracy in the Americas in Washington, met Rodriguez in 2007 while leading a delegation of U.S. lawmakers to Cuba, and said they “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.

Others see the changes as more of the same. 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,” she said, “but they are all monolithic in their views and come from the same cadre of leaders.”