Julio Casas Regueiro dies at 75; Cuba's defense minister

Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, an accountant who fought in Cuba's revolution and then used his training to run the military's lucrative economic enterprises for two decades before becoming defense minister, has died. He was 75.

Casas died Saturday in Havana of heart failure.

Casas served under Raul Castro in the rebel army that ultimately pushed out the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in early 1959. Trained as an accountant, he later ran the financial operations of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces.

Among the first things the younger Castro did after being elected to replace his ailing brother Fidel as president in 2008 was to name Casas defense minister, the post the new leader had held for nearly half a century under Fidel. Casas was also elected a member of the Communist Party's powerful 15-member Politburo, which is led by Raul, and was a vice president of the Council of State, Cuba's supreme governing body.

Born in eastern Cuba in 1936, Casas was working in a food warehouse as an accountant when he joined the rebel forces.

Under Raul Castro's command in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains, Casas fought numerous battles against Batista's troops.

He received additional military training in the Soviet Union and fought in Ethiopia during the years that Cuba sent troops to support African struggles for independence.

Beginning in 1990, Casas ran the Defense Ministry's Business Administration Group, which includes a host of efficient and profitable enterprises designed to generate the hard currency Cuba has needed to buy critical imports. One key company imports computers and other electronics.

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. The military also has a large operation producing basic foods for the general population.

The military's role in the economy has grown during Raul's presidency, with trusted generals placed in command of several large state enterprises. In 2010, a military-run company paid about $700 million to buy out Telecom Italia's stake in state phone company Etecsa, a move that raised eyebrows because it came even as the government complained that it was desperately short on funds.

The armed forces are one of the island's strongest and most respected institutions and historically have been solidly loyal to the Castro brothers.

Casas' death is expected to renew questions about the health of the rest of the Cuban leadership. Raul Castro turned 80 this year, and No. 2 Jose Ramon Machado Ventura is the same age. Fidel Castro, who has retired from all public roles, is 85 and has not made a public appearance since April.

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