HAVANA – They are called "Raulistas" — top military men who manage much of Cuba's economy and populate the upper reaches of power. On Sunday, these men will likely ensure that Raul Castro not only succeeds his brother Fidel as president, but remains in firm control.
Having served in Raul Castro's Defense Ministry for decades, Cuba's active and retired military leaders today oversee key economic endeavors, from farming to the tourism, that bring in hard currency.
Five active generals sit on the Communist Party's powerful 21-member Politburo, including two who run the important interior and sugar ministries.
While loyal first to Fidel Castro, many of these men have particularly close friendships with the younger brother. And they are likely to help him consolidate power if he is named president on Sunday following the ailing 81-year-old Fidel's resignation last week.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces are one of the island's strongest and most respected institutions, and with the top generals backing him, Raul is unlikely to face problems from the military at large — a sector that in many countries can be the most dangerous for a new government.
Moreover, Castro's Cuba, unlike many Latin American countries, has never experienced a military coup or rebellion.
President Bush acknowledged the military's influence months before Fidel's resignation, urging it to embrace change and abstain from using force to keep the communist government in power.
"You may have once believed in the revolution. Now you can see its failure," Bush said in an October speech.
Critical to Raul's success will be "the extent to which Raul and the generals are able to uphold loyalty to the chain of command," former CIA analyst Brian Latell wrote in "After Fidel," his recent book about the Castro brothers. "The odds of that will be much in their favor, in the beginning at least."
Dissident Vladimiro Roca, a fighter pilot before he broke with the government, believes Raul Castro has the military leaders' support. But even more than that, "they are interested in maintaining their status," Roca told The Associated Press in 2006 after Fidel Castro first ceded provisional power his brother.
That status is significant.
Gen. Abelardo Colome Ibarra, 68, oversees the island's vast domestic security and intelligence apparatus as interior minister. Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, 65, controls the Sugar Ministry. Other generals and colonels have run fishing, transportation and Habanos S.A., which works with a European firm to market Cuban cigars abroad.
Ramiro Valdes, 75, one of only three men honored with the title of Commander of the Revolution, for years operated a key company importing computers and other electronics, until Raul named him communications minister shortly after Fidel fell ill.
The armed forces also manage a chain of hundreds of small consumer goods stores and a tourism company that runs more than 30 hotels, with subsidiaries that provide domestic tourist travel by air and land.
Generals who once served as battlefield commanders have become leaders of a new military entrepreneurial class, with personal stakes in Cuba's future.
"Second- and third-tier officials have every incentive to stand together, if only as the best strategy for preserving their equities," Latell wrote.
The military's economic enterprises are run by the Defense Ministry's Business Administration Group, overseen by Raul Castro's second-in-command and confidant, Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, 72.
By all accounts, Raul Castro is a highly organized manager with a pragmatic business sense that could lead him to allow openings in Cuba's economy. He hinted as much in a speech last year, saying some "structural changes" were needed. He did not elaborate.
He is known as a warm and jocular man who dotes almost as much on his troops as he does on his family, but also has proven to be extremely tough. In 1959, in the first months after the revolution, he and Ernesto "Che" Guevara oversaw the executions of officials from the deposed government of dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Raul Castro was also among those on the ruling Council of State who upheld the death penalty for highly decorated Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa — reportedly once one of his closest friends — and three officers convicted of drug trafficking.
Ochoa and most of the top generals led Cuban troops on the battlefields of Angola and Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s. But when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its primary benefactor and arms supplier, drastic changes became necessary.
Fidel Castro announced that Cuba would no longer fight in foreign wars. Troop strength, which had peaked at an estimated 300,000 in the early 1960s, fell dramatically, to some 37,000 active troops and 700,000 reservists, according to "Jane's World Armies."
As the military's importance waned abroad, Raul Castro ensured his troops remained relevant by giving them important new roles in homeland defense and the economy.