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Cuba's regime may be 'shaken to its core' by the death of powerful general Rodríguez López-Calleja

Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja.jpeg
Asamblea Nacional de Poder Popular de Cuba
Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja addressing Cuba's National Assembly in Havana last year.

Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, a top communist party boss, led the military-controlled corporation that accounts for most of Cuba's economy.

Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, one of Cuba’s most powerful military and economic leaders, died Friday morning in Havana — and the news has many Cuban exiles in South Florida hoping the island’s communist regime will be further weakened by his demise.

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Cuban state media say Rodríguez López-Calleja died of cardiac arrest. He was 62. He ran the military-controlled corporation known as GAESA, a multi-tentacled state business conglomerate that accounts for most of Cuba’s economy — especially its vital tourism industry.

Rodríguez López-Calleja was an ex-son-in-law of former Cuban President Raúl Castro — and one of the regime's top political bosses. He was a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee — arguably the regime’s most powerful body — and the National Assembly.

“The death of López-Calleja leaves a huge vacuum," said Andy Gomez, former director of the University of Miami's Cuban studies center.

"I would say he was one of the top five figures, if not the top three figures, in the inner power circle of Cuba. He controlled the economic arm of the Cuban regime. He surrounded himself with some talented people, but are they capable of stepping in for him? I don't think so.”

Gomez said he and many other Cuba experts believe Rodríguez López-Calleja was possibly being groomed to fill the role of Castro, who is 91, as the military (or real) power looming over the island's civilian power, including officials like President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

As a result, many Cuban exiles see Rodríguez López-Calleja’s death as another debilitating blow to the regime, which is wrestling with an acute economic crisis and citizen unrest, including last summer's unprecedented island-wide anti-government street protests.

“In the context of an extremely hermetic regime, I think it shakes the regime to the core," said Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, head of the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance in Miami.

"The Cuban regime is about personal power, not rule of law. This guy handled the finances, laundered the money and controlled Cuba’s access to banking systems throughout the world.”

Boronat also pointed out that Rodríguez López-Calleja is the latest of several top Cuban military generals to die in the past year. Last week Enrique Acevedo González, who fought with the Castros during the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, died at 79. 

Cuba’s economic collapse and ramped-up political repression are driving record numbers of Cubans to migrate to the U.S., especially over the U.S. southern border.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.