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5 Cuban generals have mysteriously died. Is it linked to country’s spike in COVID-19?

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 7/28/2021 Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald
a flag flying on a clear day: Cuba's flag flies next to a monument to national hero Antonio Maceo in Havana, Cuba. © Dreamstime/TNS Cuba's flag flies next to a monument to national hero Antonio Maceo in Havana, Cuba.

Five Cuban generals — most of them elderly and retired — have died in the past nine days. The Communist regime isn’t saying why but critics suggest the string of high-profile deaths may be linked to skyrocketing cases of COVID-19 as the country struggles to contain its biggest spike yet.

One of the dead generals, Ruben Martinez Puente, 79, was indicted in Miami in 2003 for the shooting down of two American private planes over international waters in 1996. Four members of the Cuban exile organization Brothers to the Rescue were killed. At the time, Martinez Puente was the head of the Cuban military air force. He was never formally tried in the United States.

Martinez Puente, who was retired, died on Saturday, July 24, according to a note from the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. The note did not provide the cause of death.

Four other generals have also died in a span of nine days but official Cuban media have not published any details on what caused their deaths. The deaths happened just days after islandwide protests against the government.

Agustín Peña Pórrez, the head of the Eastern Army, which encompasses divisions across six provinces, died on Saturday, July 17. A member of the Communist Party Central Committee, he was the youngest of the five and was about to turn 58 this week. The Cuban Communist Party official newspaper, Granma, published pictures of his funeral and Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted condolences, calling his death “sad news.”

Retired Brigadier General Marcelo Verdecia died Tuesday, July 20, in Santa Clara, according to the local newspaper 5 de Septiembre. He was a former Fidel Castro bodyguard during the Sierra Maestra guerrilla fight and the revolution’s early days.

Then state television reported the death of retired Brigadier General Manuel Eduardo Lastres Pacheco on Monday this week. And on Tuesday morning, the Twitter account of the Central University of Las Villas reported the death of retired Brigadier General Armando Choy Rodriguez, 87. According to the publication, he allegedly died on Monday evening, but state media have not confirmed his death.

State media also did not provide birth details for Verdecia and Lastres Pacheco.

The lack of information has prompted speculation in the island and the exile community that some, if not all of their deaths might be related to the COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the island.

“High ranking military officials in #Cuba have had some incredibly bad luck lately,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Monday. “Four of them have suddenly died in the last eight days.” He followed up with another tweet Tuesday, after reports of Choy Rodriguez’s death.

“And then there were five,” he said.

Cuba is going through the worst of the pandemic, hitting new records almost every week. Despite the tightening of restrictions and a vaccination campaign to inoculate the population with a locally produced drug, the government has not been able to contain the spread of the contagious delta variant. Just in the last three days, health authorities reported about 25,000 new cases and 221 deaths.

Human rights organizations have denounced the government’s response to the pandemic, which they say has put the already deteriorated public health system on the brink of collapse.

“Every day we receive information from our network of observers on the island, who report Dantesque scenes taking place related to the COVID-19 situation. Hospitals are collapsed in some provinces,” said Alejandro González Raga, the executive director of the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights.

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