The “Penny-Pinching” General

Fernando Ravsberg

Ramiro Valdez, Julio Casas Regueiro and Ricardo Alarcon at the VI Congress of the PCC in Abril 2011. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños

HAVANA TIMES, Sept 8 – Raul Castro has just lost more than a vice-president; he’s lost his right arm, the man who had accompanied him since the days of the setting up of the Second Front to extend the guerrilla war throughout all of the eastern provinces.

From the very beginning, the military work of General Julio Casas Regueiro had to do with logistics, and he stood out in this task in at least three decisive moments: in the mountains of Cuba, in the battles in Africa and during the economic crisis of the 1990s.

Many agree in that one of the best organized guerilla war fronts was the one commanded by Raul Castro.  Schools and workshops to train and supply the combatants were opened, taxes were collected and an airport was built.

Julio, a twenty-year-old skilled with numbers, was a key piece in that effort when money was always scarce and the troops of the Batista army were trying to prevent the delivery of supplies to the insurgent rebels in their mountain camps.

All-round recognition

His work was also decisive in the African wars.  “Though the victory in the Ethiopia campaign was attributed to General Arnaldo Ochoa, people were unaware of the key role of General Casas in guaranteeing the whole logistics of the operation, without which success would not have been possible.”

Such recognition has greater weight because it doesn’t come from a member of the Communist Party or the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).  Instead, it’s from a political opponent, former Cuban general Rafael del Pino, who deserted 20 years ago to the United States.

Del Pino also recalled that Casas created a General’s Council to debate the most important decisions, adding: “Those recommendations were heard and executed through collective approval.  I don’t believe that many armed forces around the world are directed in that manner.”

Del Pino asserts that the FAR-run complex of businesses was the initiative of the deceased military leader and these were managed “by Major Bombino in a 4 x 4 meter room contiguous to Julio Casas’s office and supported by Amadito, the assistant and secretary of the general.”

The managerial abilities of Casas Regueiro were recognized by President Raul Castro, who even once signed an order which granted him the ability to veto the president’s own economic decisions.

Castro wound up publically expressing that though “I’ve criticized almost all the generals (…) and in meetings I’ve also criticized myself, I don’t remember having ever made any criticism of comrade Julio Casas over these last 50 years, except for him… being too tight-fisted.”

Perhaps in other parts of the world such a description might be considered offensive, but in the case of Cuba, where government resources are constantly wasted, it’s the greatest praise that a leader can receive.

Under the supervision of that “tight general,” and from that “little 4 x 4 room,” was born a different kind of managerial mechanism, one that was more rational and more productive, and that currently is being applied across the length and width of the island.

Three peaks to climb

At this point even Fidel Castro has accepted that Cuba’s socio-economic model is untenable, corruption has grown, the economy is lacking in productivity, the social achievements have deteriorated and that they lack cadre for the generational replacement of top personnel.

But the worst part of this “real socialism” it’s that they have created a powerful bureaucratic class that is today patiently waiting for the deaths of the leaders of the Sierra Maestra so that they themselves may take power, just as occurred in several countries of Eastern Europe.

The pressure on the “historic generation” is not political; the dissident “movement” is socially isolated (as US diplomats themselves have even recognized) and nor is there popular dissatisfaction that would imply problems of governability.

The old guerillas fighters have before them three steep peaks to climb.  The first is to preserve the social achievements: free public health care, citizens’ safety and security (including in the face of natural disasters), education, cultural development and the social security system.

Secondly, to achieve this they are now required to modify the economic model, as necessary to make it productive so that they can pay for all those social programs that most Cubans consider “natural.”

But thirdly, they will not save the social achievements or boost the economy if they’re not able to eliminate or at least behead the bureaucratic sector, which is today bleeding the nation dry and that tomorrow could return it to the times of Meyer Lansky.

It’s true that if they rush and make a mistake, they won’t have time to correct it.  However it seems excessive to debate for years over a citizen being able to sell their own house legally or buy a car without the express authority of the vice-president of the republic.

The death of General Julio Casas Regueiro is a cruel reminder that there’s no luxury of time and that extreme slowness could end up killing the hopes of even those who still believe that change is possible “inside the revolution.” 

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.