Cuba’s most powerful general, Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, who controlled most of the island’s economy and was set to become a key player in a future political transition, died suddenly Friday morning, the Communist Party newspaper Granma said.
Rodríguez López-Calleja, 62, died of cardiorespiratory arrest early Friday, Granma said in a two-paragraph report.
The general was the head of a company within the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces known as GAESA, which controls much of Cuba’s tourism, real estate development, supermarkets, gas stations and many other profitable businesses.
Rodríguez López-Calleja amassed enormous power as a former son-in-law of Raúl Castro and was seen by many as one of the key figures in the future of the island after Castro, who is 91, dies.
“General Luis Alberto, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Party and deputy to the National Assembly of People’s Power, has a brilliant record of services to the Homeland and the Cuban Revolution,” Granma said.
Rodríguez López-Calleja was sanctioned in 2020 by the U.S. government for running GAESA.
“This is the key man in the regime’s economic negotiations, he is the trusted man of the Castro family, he is the man who knows where all the resources are, and his death is an earthquake for the regime,” said Orlando Gutiérrez, a human rights advocate who heads a coalition of exile organizations known as the Assembly of the Resistance.
Rodríguez López-Calleja was born in Villa Clara, in central Cuba, on Jan. 19, 1960. According to his official biography, he was trained in the former Soviet Union and worked as a counterintelligence officer in Angola in 1990.
But he was later tapped to work for what would become Grupo de Administración Empresarial de las Fuerzas Armadas, or GAESA, the largest and most profitable business conglomerate on the island, which controls large sectors of the island’s tourism, finance, international trade, shipping and construction.
He became its director in 1996 and was its president at the time of his death.
Ordinary Cubans and activists blamed the general for several controversial economic strategies, including continuing a hotel construction frenzy during the harsh years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which stripped the government of cash desperately needed for public health and food, a decision that carried deadly consequences when the health system almost collapsed.
He was also blamed for not ceding control over the handling of remittances from the United States when the U.S. government sanctioned GAESA’s financial arm, Fincimex. U.S. officials then suggested the Cuban government switch the remittance business to a public bank, but Cuban authorities refused.
The general was also linked to a network of offshore companies that moved the government’s money around the world to conduct businesses and skirt the U.S. economic embargo. His brother, Guillermo Faustino Rodríguez López-Calleja, is the director or owner of several of those enterprises, an investigation by McClatchy and the Miami Herald showed.
For many years, the general was a shadowy figure, quietly expanding his control over the island’s economy. He reportedly married and divorced one of Raúl Castro’s daughters, Deborah Castro Espín, with whom he had two children.
Despite the divorce, he carried tremendous influence in the Cuban government. In recent years he had been making more public appearances and was named to high-profile political posts.
The general’s attempt to consolidate power became more significant last year as Raúl Castro approached his 90th birthday.
In April 2021, Rodríguez López-Calleja was given a seat on the Communist Party Politburo. In September, he was identified in state media as a “special adviser to the president,” Miguel Díaz-Canel. And without much explanation, he was made a member of the National Assembly in late October, representing Remedios, a town in the central province of Santa Clara.
His death leaves even more uncertainty about a power transition when the younger of the Castro brothers dies, as the country continues to deal with the aftermath of massive protests throughout the island on July 11, 2021.
“Cuba’s governance is largely a family affair, and Rodríguez López-Calleja’s sudden death opens the door to individuals jockeying within the regime to take over his powerful portfolio,” said Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “That, coupled with the upcoming anniversary of the July 11 protests, indicates Cuba may be heading toward a period of greater uncertainty and enhanced repression.”
Several generals and high-ranking officials have died in the past year, many due to the COVID pandemic that ravaged the island. The deaths have prompted speculation, Gutiérrez said, mainly because of the “hermetic” quality of socialist systems.
Rodríguez López-Calleja’s death “weakens” the regime, he said. “Whatever moves are announced in the following days will tell much about the regime’s internal struggles.”
His death also removes one of the possible challengers to Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s handpicked president.
A few hours after Granma broke the news, Díaz-Canel sent condolences and lamented the general’s death on Twitter.
“A revolutionary has left us, a man who served the homeland and the Revolution,” he said.
This story was originally published July 1, 2022 10:45 AM.