By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published February 8, 2007
HAVANA -- Six months after ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power, young hard-liners linked to Castro have all but disappeared from public view as economic czar Carlos Lage -- a moderate reformer -- has seen his profile grow, diplomats and analysts say.
Notably absent from the spotlight since Castro handed authority last July to his younger brother, Raul, are Otto Rivero, Hassan Perez and other young radicals collectively known by diplomats and some Cubans here as "the Taliban."
The so-called fourth-generation revolutionaries were promoted to key positions by Fidel Castro but may not fit into Raul Castro's priorities, suggesting less focus on ideology and international affairs, and more on governing efficiently.
A member of Cuba's powerful Council of Ministers, Rivero, 38, was selected by Castro in 2005 to run the massive social investment program under what the Cuban leader described as his "Battle of Ideas." It was a campaign designed to boost revolutionary fervor and return to socialist orthodoxy in this impoverished nation.
With Castro's blessing, Rivero and his young advisers spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year in state funds to build and repair hospitals, health clinics, schools, recreational facilities and other projects. In doing so, Rivero often wielded more power than government ministers.
Impaired by corruption
But the effort was hampered by corruption and inefficiency, and in recent months Raul Castro stripped Rivero and other young ideologues of much of their authority and returned power to various ministries.
"They have lost the kind of power that Fidel gave them to go everywhere giving orders and saying what should be done," said a Havana-based diplomat who asked not to be identified.
"The ministries have returned to their logical role. Raul wants an effective organization," the diplomat said.
One Cuban official who has benefited from the realignment of power is Carlos Lage Davila, 55, a pediatrician who is credited with implementing limited reforms that rescued Cuba's faltering economy in the 1990s.
Diplomats noted that Lage was chosen to give a prominent speech during Fidel Castro's delayed 80th birthday celebrations in December.
And last month, Lage -- secretary of the executive committee of the Council of Ministers, a top policymaking body -- led a high-level delegation to Venezuela to sign economic accords that further cemented ties between the two leftist nations.
A second envoy said he recently spotted Lage playing racquetball at the exclusive Club Havana, quipping that the brilliant economist is preparing for his enhanced role in the spotlight as Cuba's unofficial prime minister.
"He looked like a politician trying to get into shape and polish his image," the envoy said.
At the same time, the role has diminished of Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 41, the former personal secretary of Fidel Castro, analysts say.
Before Fidel Castro's illness, Perez Roque was the second-most visible leader in Cuba after the commander in chief himself. He often spoke at political rallies and appeared as Castro's heir apparent.
"He was clearly more prominent than any minister of foreign affairs in any other country," said the Havana-based diplomat. "He was the maximum interpreter of Fidel Castro's ideas. Now, he is just the minister of foreign affairs."
Although Fidel Castro ruled unchallenged for nearly a half-century and talk of his death was long taboo, the Cuban leader prepared the nation's leadership, if not the nation itself, for this moment.
Shortly after the revolution's triumph in 1959, Fidel Castro named Raul Castro, a top commander during the revolutionary war, as his successor. Cuban authorities also developed a detailed succession plan.
In addition to calling up army reserves and flooding the country with police and security agents, Fidel Castro named Raul Castro to head a small governing council that includes Lage, Perez Roque and longtime Communist Party loyalists Esteban Lazo Hernandez and Jose Ramon Machado Ventura. Also aiding Raul Castro are several top generals.
Not only was Rivero omitted from the inner circle but so, too, was Hassan Perez, a 29-year-old communist youth leader whose national profile soared following the battle over Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy rescued at sea, brought to the U.S. and returned to Cuba in 2000.
Analysts say Raul Castro's steps to reorganize the government are logical given that he is a different leader from his older brother, who is likely never to return to power.
Raul eschews spotlight
While Fidel Castro consolidated authority in his own hands and used his charisma to push the country in whatever direction he chose, Raul Castro avoids the spotlight, delegates responsibility and, above all, demands results.
"The government now is institutionally focused," said Daniel Erikson, head of Caribbean programs at the Inter American Dialogue, a Washington policy group. "It's not going to be a cult of the personality."