Cuba on Wednesday announced the removal of two Cabinet ministers amid unconfirmed reports of corruption investigations and arrests in the sectors they oversaw.
An official notice published in the Communist Party newspaper Granma said Communications Minister Medardo Diaz Toledo will rejoin the armed forces and be replaced by Vice Minister Maimir Mesa Ramos.
Tomas Benitez Hernandez is also out as head of the Ministry of Basic Industries, which controls mining and energy. He will be assigned unspecified "other tasks," and deputy Alfredo Lopez Valdes is being promoted to fill Benitez's post.
The report gave no explanation for the change, but the fact that both men are apparently being reassigned and not simply dumped indicates that they themselves are not involved in any probes. But the removals come amid reports of turmoil in both ministries.
"It's a sort of clean-out of the houses, the long-practiced technique of disguising failures ... by changing faces," said Paul Webster Hare, British ambassador to Cuba from 2001 to 2004 and now a lecturer in international relations at Boston University. "Both those areas clearly have been subject to a fog of unfulfilled expectations."
Since last year there have been persistent rumors and some foreign media reports about alleged embezzlement at state phone company Etecsa involving an underwater fiber-optic cable strung from Venezuela.
More than a year after the $70 million fiber link landed in February 2011, there is no sign that the cable has come online and officials have stopped talking about the project.
Businesspeople also say privately that some have been detained at the Moa nickel mine, which is overseen by the Ministry of Basic Industries.
Even as President Raul Castro's government has waged a very public crusade against corruption, Cuban officials have declined to comment on any of the recent graft investigations, which have caught up businesspeople and mining employees and shuttered several foreign-operated companies at least temporarily.
Recently the streets of Havana have been abuzz with speculation about the fate of Miguel Alvarez, the right-hand man of Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon.
The Miami Herald reported last week that the right-hand man of Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon, Miguel Alvarez, had been arrested along with his wife in a probe of alleged corruption. The report, which cited an anonymous source in Cuba, has been impossible to confirm, and Cuban officials declined to comment.
While there's no sign that Alarcon is a target, Hare said having such a close associate ensnared would still deal a blow to his reputation.
"It would be very difficult for (Alarcon) to dissociate himself from that unless he could prove he was the one who tipped them off over it," Hare said. "I think it's bound to taint him."
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