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Raul’s economic czar

 

Brian Latell, The Latell Report

   

Marino Murillo Jorge was virtually unknown even in Cuba just a few years ago. Today he is Raul Castro’s most trusted economic adviser, following a meteoric rise in the Communist Party and government leadership. He did not even come to Raul’s attention until after Fidel Castro left office in 2006. At that time Murillo was an inconspicuous vice-minister for domestic trade, elevated not long before from a position as an auditor and accountant at the food ministry.

 

He was, nonetheless, one of three new members added to the military-dominated Politburo at the recent party congress. He is also a vice president of the Council of Ministers and in March was elevated from Minister of Planning and the Economy to Chairman of the Economic Policy Commission.

 

Adel Yzquierdo, his former deputy in the ministry, succeeded him and was elevated with him to the Politburo. Clearly the 50 year-old Murillo enjoys Raul’s unqualified confidence, earned, it appears, by dint of his compliant, efficient, but unimaginative conduct in a succession of administrative posts.

 

Reliable sources have recently described him to me as plodding, practical, and limited. “He is a mediocrity,” I was told, “a smart and clever mediocrity, but no more than that.” These sources believe Murillo has been elevated to a level “beyond his competence . . . he lacks vision, but is a good auditor and bureaucrat.”

 

Clearly then, he is out of the mold of Cuba’s earlier economic czars beginning with Che Guevara, and including Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, Humberto Perez, and most recently Carlos Lage. The two Carloses, and many other influential economic managers over the decades, labored of course in the shadow of Fidel Castro. None of them was ever truly a “czar.” It was the elder Castro who always dictated inviolable policy guidelines and principles, defining the strict boundaries of every aspect of economic life, and niggling constantly over the most trivial details.

 

But today economic dynamics are vastly more fluid. Someone qualified to play the role might actually become an economic czar. As Raul Castro struggles to invigorate and restructure the economy through cautious market openings and reforms, his top economic counselor is arguably in a more powerful position than any of his predecessors were under Fidel.

 

Serving under Raul, a brilliant economist with some political standing of his own, exercising skills of persuasion and mental agility, would be in a much better position to craft truly transformative change. Under Cuba’s desperate circumstances today, a wiser, more talented man than Murillo might even be able to persuade Raul and reigning regime hardliners of the need to boldly open the economy to private initiative and diversified foreign investment.

 

But Murillo is unlikely to play such a role; and that perhaps is the main reason Raul chose him. He has no political base of his own, I am told, other than Raul who plucked him from obscurity. He has no viable ties with the military or meaningful experience in uniform. A former Cuban official told me, “I don’t think he has the power to become an economic czar.”

 

In the late 1990s he spent from nine to twelve months broadening his previously limited education as a student in the national defense college. It was there that for the first time he began to learn from officials trained in other disciplines and with broader experience. But afterwards he was still not considered “a powerful player” in leadership circles. I was asked rhetorically by someone who knew him, “how can he deal with the likes of the three star generals who have been with Raul for fifty years?”

 

General Castro will be 80 on June 3. Physically he is limited by how much time and energy he can devote to the spectrum of pressing policy matters. He is surrounded by other elderly men, most of whom are doctrinaire, risk-averse products of the failed Cuban system. Even a Guevara or Lage would be hard pressed to persuade them that a swift transition to an enterprise economy would not result in political calamity.

 

But Murillo probably has no inclination to advocate such sweeping change. “On balance,” I have been told by someone who knew him, “I don’t think he will want to open the economy, and I don’t believe such views were why Raul elevated him.”