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FIRING OF FOREIGN MINISTER ROBERTO ROBAINA STIRS SPECULATION ON INTERNAL SHAKEUP IN CUBA.

At the end of May, President Fidel Castro replaced Cuba's Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina with Felipe Perez Roque, a close personal aide. Speculation about the motives behind the shift centered on Castro's wish to regain diplomatic ground lost recently after a crackdown on dissidents and international condemnation of Cuba's human rights record.

Before the appointment, Perez, 34, was a member of the Council of State and the Central Committee of the Communist Party and a deputy in the National Assembly elected at the age of 21. He is regarded as Castro's personal protege, who for several years has been given numerous assignments in domestic and international affairs. He has accompanied Castro on trips to summit meetings and other international gatherings over the past seven years.

A statement from the Council of State published in the official newspaper Granma said the Perez appointment was occasioned by the "tense international situation" and the need for "a deeper, rigorous, systematic, and demanding effort" in foreign relations. The unusually blunt language implying some failure on Robaina's part suggested he might lose his place in the top leadership, especially since no new post was mentioned for him. The statement said only that Robaina was awaiting a new assignment.

The unexpected move surprised most observers in Cuba, including officials in the Foreign Ministry. On the day of the announcement, Robaina was preparing for a diplomatic trip to Haiti, Panama, and Venezuela beginning June 1.

Still, some foreign diplomats in Havana told reporters rumors had circulated for weeks that Robaina might be on his way out. He had recently canceled a trip to Europe and was conspicuously absent from various state functions and ceremonies.

The reaction in Washington was muted. State Department spokesman James Rubin said, "We do not expect it to have any mpact on the nature of our relationship--[it] tends to be in the form of rearranging the deck chairs, in our view."

In Cuban-exile circles, the change was seen as "more of the same." Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) spokeswoman Ninoska Perez said the new minister would be a "puppet" of the Cuban government.

Robaina had received considerable praise for his work in improving Cuba's diplomatic standing during the six years of his tenure. He was credited with effectively presenting the 1996 Helms-Burton Act to the international community in such unfavorable light that almost all US allies and trading partners went on record opposing it.

Analyses of his removal varied widely. Perhaps the most simplistic was the view, held by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), that Robaina was fired for making a comment that Castro did not like. "The comments made recently by Robaina that the regime would survive the death of Castro is an insult for the president," he said.

More serious commentaries tended to interpret Robaina's removal as an attempt to compensate for a series of diplomatic setbacks this year and as a return to more hard-line or orthodox policy positions. Some analysts said the shift indicated Castro wants more direct control over foreign policy. In particular, they said, Castro wants to change Cuba's image abroad, damaged by a crackdown on dissent (see NotiCen, 1999-03-18), an increase in judicial executions, and the April vote to censure Cuba by the UN Human Rights Commission (see NotiCen, 1999-04-29).

Whether a new foreign minister will--or is expected to-- do better than Robaina in promoting Cuba's image abroad without changes in Cuban policy remains unclear. A US businessman with contacts in Cuba said, "Robaina's ability to `sell' Cuba has been harmed not by his salesmanship but by the fact that the product he was trying to sell changed."

Cuba specialist Gillian Gunn Clissold of the Georgetown University Caribbean Project said criticism from such friendly nations as Canada took the Cuban leadership by surprise. She predicted that the law passed by the Cuban parliament in February against "collaboration" with the US (see NotiCen, 1999-03-11) might undergo changes to make it less repressive.

New minister says appointment does not mean radical changes In his first public statements following the appointment, Perez said that Cuba's foreign policy does not depend on a single individual and that his appointment implied no "spectacular change." He also denied he was identifiable as a member of a group of "ortodoxos" within the leadership as suggested in some of the foreign press. He called the idea the result of excessive speculation.

On the contrary, he called himself a reformer. But a reformer to him is one who follows the line of the Castro revolution at home. Abroad, it means continuing his predecessor's efforts to promote the core policy goals of Latin America integration, improving relations with Europe, an end to the US embargo, and normalized relations with the Cuban exile community in the US.

In his first public policy statement, Perez denounced the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) war against Serbia and called for an indictment of NATO Secretary General Javier Solana for war crimes.

These remarks echo a series of recent strong attacks by Castro on US and NATO policies that the Cuban government clearly sees as a precedent for future NATO military actions in other countries, including Cuba. [Sources: Associated Press, CNN, Granma (Cuba), Department of State daily press briefing, 05/28/99; El Nuevo Herald (Florida), 05/05/99, 05/29/99; The Washington Post, 05/29/99; Reuters, 05/28/99, 05/29/99, 05/30/99; Notimex, 05/28/99, 05/29/99, 06/02/99]
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Comment:FIRING OF FOREIGN MINISTER ROBERTO ROBAINA STIRS SPECULATION ON INTERNAL SHAKEUP IN CUBA.
Publication:NotiCen: Central American & Caribbean Affairs
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Words:907
Previous Article:CUBA & US MEET TO REVIEW IMMIGRATION ACCORD.
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