Veteran inner circle can assist Raúl Castro

August 11, 2006

Miami Herald- Gerardo Reyes

For all of his public life, Cuba's Raúl Castro has surrounded himself with trusted friends and aides whose help he will need to rule the island if his brother, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is unable to recover from surgery.

Almost all veterans of the 1950s revolution and 'international missions' to wars in places like Africa and Latin America, they could help Raúl consolidate his jump from minister of defense to the island's ruler.

The world's longest-serving defense minister also has critics and possible challengers within the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FAR for its Spanish acronym.

But his inner circle can handle the figures of the domestic economy with the same ease with which they handle the logistical details of the armed forces. And several are members of the highest echelon of the Communist Party of Cuba.

With a budget of $1.47 billion, the FAR controls a vast array of active-duty soldiers, reservists and militias, as well as the island's intelligence agencies and the day-to-day management of important government enterprises.

'Raúl's power will be based on these people for a long time,' said Alcibiades Hidalgo, Raúl's former secretary, who defected in 2002. El Nuevo Herald consulted with Hidalgo and other experts on just who these trusted Raúlistas are:

• Gen. Abelardo 'Furry' Colomé Ibarra: The interior minister is Raúl's best friend and described as charismatic.

'I don't think a day goes by that they don't meet and talk,' said Domingo Amuchástegui, former member of the Cuban intelligence services who now lives in Miami. ``They've known each other since the struggle against the regime of Fulgencio Batista.'

• Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro: The deputy minister of defense, a member of the Communist Party's ruling Political Bureau and brother of Gen. Senén Casas, the former minister of transportation who died in 1996. Another of Raúl's best friends. He was a judge in the tribunal that in 1989 sentenced to death Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa on charges of treason and drug trafficking.

In an article published in the Cuban media in mid-1989, he urged fellow officers to overcome ``the curtain of fear, to consult our neighbor without assuming that we lose prestige or authority, and to listen with sincerity.'

A report by the University of Miami's Cuban Transition Project says Casas is perceived as ``a despotic and corrupt bureaucrat.'

According to Hidalgo, Casas has the same characteristics as Colomé Ibarra: ``a pragmatism that dismisses theoretical discussion, and an absolute, emotional submission to his boss.'

• José Machado Ventura: A physician, orthodox communist and hard-liner in the Political Bureau.

• Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frías: The commander of the Western Army, one of the three main commands.

• Col. Luis Alberto Rodríguez Callejas: He's married to Raúl's daughter Deborah and is the main man in charge of the FAR's economic enterprises.

• Lt. Gen. Alvaro López Miera: The first deputy minister of defense and chief of the general staff. At age 62, he is the youngest Raúlista.

• Jaime Crombet Hernández-Baquero: An engineer, and one of the civilians closest to Raúl. He is vice president of the legislative National Assembly.

'Raúl listens to him, thinks that he's worthwhile and that he might play a role in the future,' Amuchástegui said.

• José Ramón Balaguer: The minister of public health and a member of the Political Bureau.

• Carlos Fernández Gondín: The first deputy interior minister and a top intelligence officer. Because of his power and ties to Raúl, 'he feels that he doesn't need to give explanations to anybody,' Hidalgo said.

• Rigoberto García Fernández: The chief of the Youth Labor Army, with the rank of vice minister. At age 78, he is the oldest member of Raúl's circle.

• Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro: The minister of the Sugar Industry, assigned by Raúl in 1997 to revitalize a sector that was plagued with problems.

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