Cuba is the most militaristic dictatorship in the history of Latin America.
President Obama announced his new policy of engagement insisting its goal is to empower Cuba's few “self-employed” residents, promoting their success and freedom from oppressive state authorities. Myriad of celebrity visits and distractions since that December 2014 declaration, the actual result has been to strengthen the Cuban military's control of Cuba’s economy and political power. The military has consolidated its control of the island's domestic-security forces and foreign-intelligence services, and been on a deal-making binge that gives it near total control of Cuba's economy.
It’s a political retreat into history.
From Argentina's Juan Manuel de Rosas in the 19th century to Chile's Augusto Pinochet in the 20th century, Latin America has seen no shortage of military dictators wielding control over the political and security apparatus of their respective countries. Cuba's Gen. Raul Castro is no different. Popularly mislabeled a “reformer," Raul was Cuba's minister of defense (known as minister of the revolutionary armed forces, MINFAR) from 1959 until his brother Fidel's illness made him dictator in chief in 2006.
Raul's initial totalitarian power grab was to seize control of Cuba's domestic-security forces and foreign-intelligence services, which had been housed in the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) and led by Fidel's Communist Party apparatchiks. The Stalinist-style trial and purging of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa in the late 1980s was the start. Ochoa and Jose Abrantes, the minister of the interior, were accused of narcotics-trafficking. Raul’s dual targets were strategically chosen to eliminate one of Cuba's most popular and politically threatening military generals, and to take control of the powerful MININT. Ochoa was executed in 1989, while Abrantes died in 1991 of a "heart attack" while in prison at the age of 50.
Cuba's Ministry of the Interior was suddenly headed by a MINFAR general — first Abelardo Colome Ibarra, a Raul confidant, and now by Carlos Fernandez Gondin, Raul's point-man in control of Venezuela's security services.
But the most powerful and symbolic figure in the Ministry of the Interior is another MINFAR official – Col. Alejandro Castro, Raul's only son. Alejandro's stock is rising faster. He became the point man for secret negotiations in Ottawa, Rome and Toronto with the Obama administration officials that led to the 2014 U.S. policy change. His U.S. counterpart in the negotiations was Obama's inexperienced foreign policy advisor and fictional-story teller, Ben Rhodes.
Today, Cuba's military is directing and ultimately responsible for the day-to-day repression of the Cuban people.
Historically, Latin America's military dictators have financed their regimes through key alliances and mutual-interest pacts with a private economic-class of landowners and industrialists. What sets the Castros' apart is its direct and near absolute ownership of the island's economy. The military-owned share of Cuba’s gross domestic product is estimated to be greater than 80 percent.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Castro regime was forced to open its economy to foreign tourists and investment. Raul’s MINFAR reset its priorities to own and control tourism — the most lucrative sectors of the Cuban economy. Today, the Cuban military owns and operates one of the largest conglomerates in Latin America, known as the Grupo de Administración Empresarial, S.A., or GAESA. Its portfolio includes companies that dominate ports, trade zones, tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels, real estate, retail stores, currency exchanges, gas stations, airlines, and other transportation services. Its head, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, is Raul's son-in-law. Note the trend.
Far from empowering Cuba’s small sector of "self-employed" residents, the Castro regime is taking full advantage of Obama's new policy to accelerate the military's holdings of every entity poised to benefit from current U.S.-Cuba relations. GAESA’s companies are experiencing double-digit growth and expansion. For example, its Gaviota Tourism Group, S.A., a subsidiary led by Gen. Luis Perez Rospide, averaged 12 percent growth in 2015 and expects to double its hotel business this year. Aiding in the “transition” to military control of the economy, the Obama administration is contradicting its purported policy goal, and licensing U.S. hotel operators Starwood and Marriott to venture directly with the Cuban military.
GAESA is seizing the opportunity to make two new major acquisitions that required no legal process or public transparency.
Habaguanex, S.A. —
One of the few tourism companies that remained outside the control of the Cuban military, Habaguanex was founded in 1994 under the control of the Office of the Historian of Havana, and run by a close confidant of Fidel Castro, Eusebio Leal. Its properties include nearly all of Old Havana's tourist zone, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, of Hemingway fame, and the Hollywood celebrity favorite Hotel Saratoga. Now under military control, Habaguanex has also taken over the former markets for "self-employed" licensees around the Port of Havana. That now makes it the sole beneficiary of Obama's new U.S. cruise ship travelers.
Banco Financiero Internacional —
This state-owned bank is one of Cuba's most important financial entities. It is solely empowered by the Castro regime to conduct commercial banking operations in convertible currencies. Virtually every foreign company and person engaged in business on the island must open an account in this bank. It was previously under the control of the Central Bank of Cuba and the Ministry of Finance.
While there has been no growth in the number of "self-employed" Cubans, military-owned monopolies are growing at record pace, along with its lopsided impact on the daily lives of the Cuban majority. Sadly, military monopolies do not crumble from "too much business." It is the sense of personal freedom and independence that crumbles, and no amount of Kardashian, Chanel, Shaq and other celebrity distractions are going to hide that crippling loss.
Mauricio Claver-Carone is the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, D.C. Mauricio also is a co-founder and director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. He has served as an attorney-adviser for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Claver-Carone’s work has been featured in a variety of publications including, The New York Times, Politico, and The Hill. Claver-Carone is also the editor of the blog Capitol Hill Cubans. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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