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Veteran of Cuban revolution named defense minister

HAVANA (Reuters) - General Leopoldo Cintra Frias, who joined Fidel Castro’s rebel army in 1957 and is in the Communist Party’s top leadership, has been named Cuba’s minister of defense, the government said on Tuesday.

The 70-year-old Cintra, a career military officer who has been serving as first vice defense minister, replaces Julio Casas Regueiro, who died of a heart attack on September 4.

The appointment of Cintra follows a well-trodden path by President Raul Castro, who has spoken of bringing new blood into the government but mostly appointed fellow veterans of the revolution to top positions.

Still, Cintra is a decade younger than most of his bosses -- Raul Castro is 80 and first vice president Jose Ramon Machado Ventura is 81. Fidel Castro, who no longer holds a leadership position but remains a power behind the scenes, is 85.

The post of defense minister is particularly important to Raul Castro because he held the job for 49 years until he succeeded his brother as president in 2008.

He has placed military men in a number of high positions, entrusting them to carry out wide-ranging economic reforms he has proposed to strengthen Cuban communism for the future. Military businesses control a wide swath of Cuba’s Soviet-style economy.

President Castro also views military personnel as less prone to the wide-spread corruption he is now on a mission to eradicate.

The two-month delay in announcing a replacement for Casas raised questions about whether Castro wanted Cintra for the job, despite their long association and Cintra’s presence on the powerful Political Bureau of the ruling Communist Party.

But his appointment follows the weekend interment of Casas’ ashes at a monument to fighters in the revolution, suggesting Castro may have been waiting for the conclusion of that tribute to make the announcement.

Before taking a place in the government, Cintra held several high commands in the military and led troops in Cuba’s long military involvement in Angola.

He fought under Fidel Castro during the revolution that ended when the rebels toppled U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959.

The government said General Alvaro Lopez Miera, 68, would replace Cintra as first vice defense minister while keeping his position as chief of staff of the armed forces.

Reporting by Jeff Franks and Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Mohammad Zargham