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Cuba Gov't Shakeup A Changing Of The Guard

A Cuban Government overhaul and the replacement of various prominent Ministers announced Monday has taken an even more unexpected turn as former President Fidel Castro weighs in in support of the moves with some startling comments questioning the behavior and motives of two of the top figures in question.

Describing them only as "the two mentioned in the wires as the most affected", Castro who was sidelined by illness in 2006, writes that the "honey of power, for which they had made no sacrifice, awakened in them ambitions that led them to a shameful role."

(Getty Images)
We had reported that current Cuban President Raul Castro appeared to be replacing Fidel Castro stalwarts with his own cadre, something the elder Castro denies in a commentary posted on the web Tuesday afternoon. Instead he says, he was consulted about the changes.

Without naming names, Fidel Castro distances himself from Felipe Perez Roque, 43, who had been Foreign Minister for nearly a decade now and who prior to that was the former President's personal secretary. He's been replaced by his second-in-command and former Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Bruno Rodriguez. For some time now, observers have noted that Perez Roque seemed relegated to the sidelines at public events.

The other person in question, Carlos Lage, 57, is considered the architect of the economic reforms that marked the 1990s in Cuba. Monday's announcement only said he had been replaced as Vice President of the Council of Ministers but did not say anything about his membership in the Council of State and his role in devising ways for Cuba to cope with its current economic problems. His replacement is a Brigadier General who until now worked in the Armed Forces Ministry close to Raul Castro.

Perez Roque has been considered a highly successful foreign minister who oversaw Cuba's expansion of relations with Latin America nations and more distant countries and guided it through rough times with the European Union over the issue of human rights.

Lage was a popular figure who many had expected to be elected the country's first vice president in last year's elections. He had often represented Cuba at international gatherings such as the World Economic Summit in Davos and on occasion was sent in Fidel Castro's place to meetings such as Ibero-American Summits. He projected a modest image, seen mostly in short sleeve cotton shirts. He was a familiar figure surveying damages during hurricane season and often in a hard hat inspecting major economic projects. But Lage had virtually disappeared from public view in recent months, ignored by the local media.

Fidel Castro today writes of these two men: "The external enemy was filled with illusions about them." The reference to an "external enemy" will be understood by every Cuban reader to mean the United States. However, most people on the island won't learn of these remarks until Wednesday as the Cuban media normally carries the former President's commentaries the day after they are posted on the web site.

Despite their demotions on Monday, Perez Roque, like Lage retains, at least for the time being, his seat on the Council of State, the country's highest governing body. But the suggestion that they have been seduced by power leaves their futures in question. Still, the official note announcing the changes refers to both men as "compañero" the Cuban revolution's familiar form of address for comrades. And, in addition, neither man can be removed from the Council of State until parliament meets since it is that body that elected them.

If Cubans were unsettled by yesterdays sweeping restructuring of government ministries and cabinet changes, Fidel Castro's latest pronouncement will have even more impact. Plans for the merging of various ministries had been announced last year as part of efforts to eliminate waste and increase productivity. The changes should have been announced at a parliament session last December but were put off due to the crisis provoked by three consecutive hurricanes that left behind nearly $10 billion in damages.

In other words, if Monday's announcement was at least partially expected, today's strongly worded commentary was not and is bound to lead to speculation at home and abroad about how the changes will impact on any possible improvement of relations with the United States.

Yesterday most observers agreed that it was doubtful that any of the Cuban Government moves were linked to legislation to relax restrictions on travel and trade with the island being considered in the U.S. Congress. However, that opinion should now be reexamined in the light of this new development, although it is still unclear whether the changes are more or less favorable to any opening between the two countries. But under the Cuban political system, the body that exercises the leading role in setting the guidelines for the country's foreign and domestic policies is the Communist Party and not individuals no matter how high the post they hold.

Portia Siegelbaum is a CBS News producer in Havana.

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