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Cuba leadership shake-up raises questions about US

President Raul Castro's decision to ouster powerful officials close to his brother Fidel raises questions both about who will succeed him and how the biggest government shake up since he took power a year ago will impact US Cuba relations.

world Updated: Mar 03, 2009 11:28 IST

President Raul Castro's decision to ouster powerful officials close to his brother Fidel raises questions both about who will succeed him and how the biggest government shake up since he took power a year ago will impact US Cuba relations. The changes replaced some key Fidel loyalists, including the longtime foreign minister, with men closer to Raul. But they appeared to have little to do with hopes for closer US Cuban ties now that both countries have new presidents. "There is nothing that indicates it's a reaction to anything in the United States," Phil Peters, a Cuba specialist at the Lexington Institute near Washington, said, noting that Raul Castro has long spoken of streamlining Cuba's government.

Peters said it is too early to tell whether the changes could affect relations with the new administration of President Barack Obama, whose proposals for easing US restrictions on Cuba have created hopes for the resumption of negotiations between the two countries on ending decades of hostilities.

The changes also seemed to cast further doubt on who could one day succeed Raul Castro.

The youngest and most prominent of those replaced in Monday's upheaval was Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 43, who had been widely mentioned as a possible future president.

Cuba's current No 2, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, is a year older than Raul and no heir apparent was clear from Monday's list of new leaders.

Roque, who was Fidel Castro's personal secretary before becoming foreign minister almost a decade ago, delighted in blustery, Fidel like denunciations of US policy.

"He was someone who was very close to Fidel Castro and built his career working directly for Fidel Castro," Peters said. Perez Roque was replaced by his own deputy, Bruno Rodriguez, who once served as Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations. Officials announced no new post for Perez Roque.

Vice President Carlos Lage, 57, apparently kept his job as vice president of the Council of State a ruling body more powerful than the Cabinet. But he was replaced as Cabinet Secretary by Gen. Jose Amado Ricardo Guerra, who had been a top official in the military that Raul Castro ran for decades.

Lage, a former Communist youth leader, was credited with helping save Cuba's economy by designing modest economic reforms after the Soviet Union collapsed. Peters said there was no sign Lage's economic role was being reduced.

Another former youth leader, Otto Rivero Torres, was removed as Cabinet vice president. Rivero Torres had already been dropped from the Council of State last year when Raul Castro became president. His replacement is hardliner Ramiro Valdez Menendez, who fought alongside Fidel, Raul and Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the revolution that toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. If Cuba was trying to send a strong message with the shake-up, it did so in the subtlest of ways: The official state media reported the leadership changes at the end of the midday news, following the weather and sports.

Nonetheless, it did not sit well with some Cubans, including Carmen Elizondo, 45, a housewife with three children who said she heard the announcement on the news.

"Ay! It left me feeling cold," Elizondo said. "I don't understand. Why make these changes, more than anything, Felipe? I had a lot of confidence in Felipe. I don't know any of those they put in place."

But retired worker Marta Jimenez, 65, was more optimistic. "People here are not used to change," she said. "But I think this was necessary and will be for the better. It's a restructuring of the country and I see that as good."

Several ministries were consolidated in response to Raul Castro's calls for a "more compact and functional structure" for the often unwieldy communist bureaucracy that oversees nearly all public activity on the island.

Longtime Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez was replaced by Internal Commerce Minister Marino Murillo Jorge; Finance Minister Georgina Barreiro Fajardo was replaced by Lina Pedraza Rodriguez of the Communist Party's secretariat; and Labor Minister Alfredo Morales Cartaya was replaced by Vice Minister Margarita Marlene Gonzalez Fernandez.

Jose Miguel Miyar Barruecos, a close Fidel Castro confidant, was removed as secretary of the Council of State but was given the vacant post of science and environment minister.

Replacing him as secretary of the governing council is Homero Acosta Alvarez, who worked closely with Raul Castro during the younger Castro brother's decades as Cuba's defense minister.