HAVANA (Reuters) - President Raul Castro’s cabinet shake-up last week has raised concerns among Cubans about the military’s increased role in government and how it could affect their daily lives and the future.
Raul Castro’s reshuffle, the biggest since he took over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in early 2008, brought more generals and former officers into the government. It also removed two prominent civilian figures — Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage — long associated with Fidel.
The changes skewed further in the military’s favor the seven-man leadership of the powerful Political Bureau of the Communist Party and the Council of State, of which Lage was one of three civilian members.
While the government explained the shake-up as part of efforts to streamline the administration and make it more efficient, ordinary Cubans were abuzz with speculation about the impact it could have on official policies and daily life.
There were even some fears expressed that the government’s more military image could endanger or delay expected moves by new U.S. President Barack Obama to try to improve relations between Washington and the Communist-ruled island.
“All everyone is talking about is the militarization of the government and what it might mean,” said a resident in Havana’s La Lisa neighborhood.
“Some worry it will be harder to resolve problems on the black market, others that Obama might not relax remittance and travel restrictions,” she said, asking not to be named due to the internal sensitivity of the government changes.
Obama has made clear he favors relaxing limits on family travel and cash remittances by Cuban Americans to Cuba, although he has said the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo should stay in place to press for democratic reforms.
Some Cuban workers wondered whether the high-level reshuffle would be repeated at lower levels in Cuba’s one-party political system and state-run economy.
“Everyone at the factory is fretting that heads are going to roll from the director on down,” said one worker at a plant run by the steel and metallurgy ministry, where General Salvador Pardo Cruz was named to replace a civilian minister in last week’s changes.
Many Cubans saw the reshuffle, which replaced cabinet chief Lage with a relatively unknown general, General Jose Amado Ricardo Guerra, as giving the government more military muscle then ever before.
Lage, who had a reputation as an economic reformer, was perhaps the country’s most popular politician and he was also one of only three civilians on the seven-member Political Bureau of the Communist Party. He resigned his remaining party and government posts after his sacking.
Cubans by and large respect the military and view them as pragmatic, but at the same time they are now wondering about the significance of the reinforced military leadership.
“The military has always been part of the revolution, but subordinate to the government and party,” a Havana medical student said, asking not to be identified like other residents interviewed at the weekend.
“There is a fine line and it appears to have been crossed,” she said.
Last year, when Cuba’s parliament elected a new Council of State and Raul Castro officially took over from Fidel Castro, Lage received more votes than anyone except Raul Castro.
Many Cubans had looked at Lage, 57, as a potential future leader of their country. He had a reputation as an austere and hard working technocrat and had been assigned critical foreign and domestic roles by Fidel Castro during the crisis years that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.
Some Cubans expressed doubt about Fidel Castro’s written explanation that Lage and Perez Roque had held personal ambitions for power, saying the government should spell out this accusation in more detail.
One local economist, also requesting anonymity, said Raul Castro inherited a legacy of chaos from his brother in the government and the economy, and had vowed to improve both.
“I don’t care how many generals Raul appoints, as long as life improves, there are more buses, wages make ends meet and he can force the bureaucracy into line and fight corruption,” he said.
Editing by Jeff Franks and Pascal Fletcher