Writing in the Spanish newspaper, El País, on Wednesday – the same day as our own editorial on ‘Political changes in Cuba’ – about Sunday’s electoral victory in El Salvador by the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, which has close ties to Cuba,  Jorge Castañeda, the former Foreign Minister of Mexico and now Professor of Latin American Studies at New York University, inserts, almost in parenthesis, an extended monologue about the significance of the political defenestration in Cuba of the ex-Vice President and economic czar, Carlos Lage, and the ex-Foreign Minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, among other former senior figures of the regime.

On Wednesday, we pointed out that “a degree of confusion as to the reasons for their dismissal has arisen with Fidel Castro’s observation that the two were enticed by ‘the honey of power’ into making particular misjudgements and initiatives in proposing government policies.” But there was no doubt that, whatever the internal machinations of the Communist Party of Cuba, the retired president was making, in spite of his cryptic words, a clear statement in favour of his successor and younger brother, Raúl.

Indeed, many observers regard the statement as an unambiguous indictment of the leadership ambitions of two of the younger members of the Cuban political elite, which were threatening the stability of the post-Fidel, Raúl-led transition under way in Cuba.

Now, in light of  Fidel Castro’s reference to “the honey of power” and based on his own presumably well-informed sources, Professor Castañeda is speculating that, although the purge of Mr Lage and Mr Pérez Roque is shrouded in almost Stalinist mystery, it is indicative of their participation in a conspiracy against Raúl Castro, supported by none other than President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and intended to thwart the new Cuban President’s intent to open up the island state’s economy, political system and international relations. It is, to put it mildly, an interesting conspiracy theory.

But Mr Castañeda’s scenario does not end there. He also claims that Mr Chávez was read the riot act by Havana and told in no uncertain terms that if he did not cease his intrigues, Cuba, notwithstanding its dependence on Venezuelan economic support and oil, would withdraw its security and intelligence assets in Venezuela and leave him in the hands of his own less trustworthy domestic security apparatus, elements of which had been party to the failed coup of April 2002. The loss of the Castros’ favour would also have placed in jeopardy Mr Chávez’s own claims to be their revolutionary heir and the leader of the Latin America left.

The theory of the ambitions of the disgraced duo is not implausible. However the sensational implication of Mr Chávez in this so-called plot does seem a little fanciful, especially without any corroborating evidence to date. And Mr Castañeda is, of course, not known to be a friend of the radical left in Latin America. But in Cuba, nothing can be ruled out.

Whatever Mr Castañeda’s motivation, Mr Pérez Roque, Fidel’s former private secretary, was a known hardliner, believed to be a member of the faction suspicious of Raúl’s reformist tendencies and preference for “structural and conceptual changes.”

As far back as February last year, Raúl had permitted the official daily, Granma, to criticize the party for corruption among its ranks and mismanagement of the economy. Indeed, we had pointed out then that this new ‘transparency’ was a clear sign for many that Raúl was preparing to replace the hardliners with his own supporters.

It now seems that Raúl has won enough support within the party to press ahead with his reforms, hence Fidel’s blessing and washing his hands of his former protégés.

It appears, moreover, that Raúl recognizes the need to reduce Cuba’s dependence on Venezuela, especially as Venezuelan largesse may well dry up with the drastic reduction in oil prices. And even before the global financial crisis hit last year, Cuba was already experiencing serious economic problems.

Consequently, Cuba has been ramping up its outreach to countries such as Algeria, China and Russia, and more significantly in Latin America, with closer ties with Brazil, Chile and Mexico in particular.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the fact that the USA was Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner in 2007, in spite of the embargo, because of the US Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of October 2000, which changed the US-Cuba trade relationship by enacting certain exceptions from US sanctions legislation for agricultural and medical exports.

With the expected relaxation of US restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, and the very real possibility that the embargo will sooner rather than later become history, the evolution of the relationship with the USA will obviously have to be carefully managed if the eventual opening up of Cuba is not to be too destabilizing a reality.

In this respect, Raúl Castro, his political position considerably strengthened, is probably contemplating moving relatively more quickly to implement the changes he had promised when he took office, if he is to deliver the promise of better conditions the Cuban people have been awaiting for a year now. To do otherwise, to delay change for too long might well be, in the opinion of Óscar Espinosa Chepe, a Cuban economist and journalist, “a recipe for political suicide and increased risk of social upheaval.”

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