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Alleged plot against Raul Castro draws skepticism

  • Story Highlights
  • Former Mexican foreign minister says Raul Castro removed two top-ranking officials
  • It's claimed they were plotting to overthrow him fearing he'd betray Cuban revolution
  • Report says plotters received support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
  • Some long-time Cuba watchers skeptical over the report
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By Arthur Brice
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(CNN) -- Some long-time Cuba watchers expressed skepticism Tuesday over a report by a former Mexican foreign minister that Communist leader Raul Castro removed two top-ranking officials earlier this month because they were plotting to overthrow him with the support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Fidel Castro, beset by illness, ceded power to his younger brother, Raul, pictured, last year.

Fidel Castro, beset by illness, ceded power to his younger brother, Raul, pictured, last year.

Jorge G. Castaneda, who served as Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 - 2003, wrote in the March 23 issue of Newsweek, which became public Saturday, that Deputy Prime Minister Carlos Lage Davila and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque were concerned that Raul Castro would make concessions that would betray the 50-year-old Cuban Revolution.

"For at least a month or so, Lage, Perez Roque and others were apparently involved in a conspiracy, betrayal, coup or whatever term one prefers, to overthrow or displace Raul from his position," Castaneda wrote. "In this endeavor, they recruited -- or were recruited by -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who in turn tried to enlist the support of other Latin American leaders, starting with Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic, who refused to get involved."

The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington did not answer a verbal and written request for comment.

The Dominican Republic Embassy in Washington did not answer telephones calls at various numbers.

Robert Pastor, who served as a Latin America National Security adviser for President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, returned Saturday from a weeklong visit to Cuba.

Pastor said he wrote Castaneda a letter upon his return expressing his disbelief in Castaneda's contentions.

"This is Jorge at his most creative," Pastor said Tuesday.

Louis A. Perez Jr., a Cuba scholar who has written 12 books on the nation, also expressed his doubts.

"Where is this coming from?" Perez asked. "I operate with the idea that there has to be some standard of plausibility. Is there discontent in Cuba and was Lage seen as the heir apparent? Yeah, that's the conventional wisdom since last year. But that there's a conspiracy between Lage and Perez Roque? I don't think so. It would be helpful if the people who write these reports cross the barrier of speculation."

Castaneda freely offers that he has no proof, calling his thesis "informed speculation."

"I have no way to substantiate any of this," he said by telephone Tuesday from Mexico City. "I have no evidence of it."

Instead, Castaneda points to an "enigmatic" comment former leader Fidel Castro made in a column after the two men were removed.

"He resorted to a baseball metaphor on the occasion of the World Baseball Classic to praise Dominicans for not participating (the team's plans had been unclear) and to claim that Chavez's baseball players, 'as good and young' as they might be, were no match for 'Cuba's seasoned all-stars,' " Castaneda wrote in the Newsweek article.

Castaneda says Castro was thanking Dominican President Fernandez and sending a veiled message to Chavez.

The former Mexican official also points to Chavez' silence on the removal of the two men as further proof that he was involved.

The two fired functionaries were acting out of loyalty to the revolution, Castaneda wrote.

Fidel Castro, beset by illness, ceded power to his younger brother last year. Most analysts see Fidel Castro as the more idealistic and doctrinaire of the two brothers, while Raul is viewed as more pragmatic.

"Their reasons for wishing to unseat Raul were mainly turf and power," Castaneda wrote, "but they also feared that the leader was beginning to feel threatened by the reaction of the Cuban people to excessive economic and social deprivation, and after his brother's demise would be unable to control the flow of events. Consequently, he would accept a series of economic and political reforms to normalize relations with the United States. ...

"They believed this to be a betrayal of the revolution, and the beginning of the end of its survival."

According to Castaneda, Raul Castro detected the plot and went to his brother and gave him an ultimatum: support him or the plotters. Fidel Castro agreed to back his brother, Castaneda wrote.

The Castro brothers then called in Chavez and gave him a "devil's alternative: back off, while maintaining economic support for the island, or lose his Cuban security detail and intelligence apparatus, exposing himself to coups and assassination attempts from eventual Venezuelan replacements. He chose to stick with the Castros."

Castaneda acknowledges that Pastor and others have criticized him but says, "I ask that they offer a better explanation."

Says Pastor, "Most of them are quite conventional explanations. Everyone knew he was going to change the Cabinet. The only question was when the changes would be."

Raul Castro was merely trying to make the government more efficient, Pastor said.

"What was he doing?" he asked. "Merging different ministries, trying to decentralize and strengthen the government's capacity to undertake economic reforms."

But Castaneda points to the manner in which the two men were removed as proof that there was more to it than just a change in government.

Why weren't Lage and Perez Roque given ambassadorships or other face-saving posts, as is often done in cases like this, he asked?

Instead, Castaneda said, the men were stripped of all posts and made to sign letters in which they confessed to unspecified "mistakes." And one day after the two men were removed, Fidel Castro wrote in his column that they were ousted after they became seduced by the "honey of power," which led them to an "unworthy role." Castro further said the two men had reawakened the illusions of "foreign powers" regarding Cuba's future.

Castaneda says Raul Castro was worried about what would happen after Fidel dies and was trying to avert a succession battle. Perez Roque, 43, might have been perceived as a threat.

"Perez Roque was popular in Cuba; his youth, his humble origins, his combative nature all brought him closer to the people than most Cuban bureaucrats," Castaneda wrote in Newsweek.

Pastor notes that the decision to remove the two men was not popular.

"There was pushback in Cuba among the [Communist Party] cadres and the public who said, "We've connected with these two people. Why are they going?" Pastor said. "They didn't feel the government had given an adequate explanation for changing those individuals. They were concerned about the language of the resignations and about Fidel's comments."

Interestingly, Pastor said, "They blamed Fidel more than they seemed to blame Raul."

Perez, the Cuba scholar, also noted Fidel Castro's apparent passing from power.

"Nobody speaks of Fidel anymore," Perez said. "He's a non-presence. Out of sight, out of mind. The only time anyone speaks of him is when they are asked about him."

All About Raul CastroCubaHugo ChavezFidel Castro

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