Cuba: Havana's Military Machine

On Castro's island, most of the population is under arms

Since 1980 Cuba has become the most thoroughly militarized nation on earth. According to the authoritative London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Cuban regular army numbers 145,000 men, most of them conscripted privates who serve for three years. They are backed up by at least 110,000 ready reserves, who are trained forty-five days or more annually. This force has been lavishly armed by the Soviet Union and boasts an astonishing 300 T-62 and 650 T-54/55 main battle tanks (MBTs). By way of comparison, Canada, with two and a half times the population, infinitely more wealth, and serious NATO commitments, relies upon a regular army of only 22,500, with 114 antiquated MBTs. Cuba's army also has 1,400 major artillery pieces, 60 light and amphibious tanks, and 650 other armored vehicles, as well as 600 anti-tank guns.

The Cuban Navy, with 12,000 men, maintains three submarines, two modern guided-missile frigates, and a large number of patrol craft and minesweepers. Canada makes do with an equal number of submarines and twenty-three assorted anti-submarine-warfare vessels; its navy has only 10,000 men. The Cuban Air Force (whose previous chief, General Rafael del Pino, defected to the United States in 1987) is a very potent one. Its strength is 18,500 men(including the Air Defense Command), with 250 combat aircraft, mostly MiG-21, -23, and -27 models. Significantly, it possesses only seven troop-carrying Tupolev TU-154 transports, severely restricting Castro's ability to intervene on his own. Canada, with 23,050 airmen, has only three fighter squadrons, or roughly forty-five planes, to defend its skies. The Cuban military machine is considerably more powerful than that of any other Latin American nation-including Brazil, which has a population of 142 million, fourteen times Cuba's.

The cost of Cuba's regular uniformed military establishment is shockingly high-especially for such an underdeveloped country-even though most of its expensive hardware (the hardware received from 1980 to 1986 alone is valued at approximately $4 billion) is delivered free of charge by the Soviets. The best estimates point to military expenditures of $1.8 billion or more in 1985. This military outlay amounted to more than 10 percent of the government budget and exceeded eight percent of the island's gross domestic product. Only Nicaragua, Guyana, and Chile devote more of their GDP to military purposes. Military expenditures per capita in Cuba amount to more than $160 a year. Brazil, in contrast, spends $8 or $9, Guatemala $22, and Paraguay $23. War-torn Nicaragua, alone in Latin America, spends more than Cuba: $195.General Pinochet's Chile allocates $135 per Chilean.

This is a heroic financial burden for Cuba to bear, yet very little of it stems from Fidel Castro's military forays in foreign lands. The Soviets normally ferry Cuban regiments to their foreign duty stations and transport the Cubans' tanks and other heavy weapons directly from the USSR. Even force maintenance in the field is often subsidized. In 1981, according to one scholar, Cuba received$250 million for its military and civilian operations in Angola alone. The annual subsidy rose to as much as $500 million before the oil glut caused it to plummet. Ironically, this payback(which represents a very substantial percentage of all Cuban hard-currency earnings) comes essentially from American petroleum companies' activities in Angola's oil-rich Cabinda enclave. Since the former Portuguese colony can generate income in virtually no other manner, it does so with American-pumped petroleum.

The first Cuban military mission in Africa was established in Ghana in 1961. Cuba's military forces appeared in Algeria, in 1963, when a distinctly military "medical brigade" came over from Havana to support a moribund regime. By 1966 as many as a thousand soldiers and military advisers were serving in a number of African nations, along with civilian personnel. In Guinea-Bissau, Cuban combat units saw action, fighting with Amilcar Cabral's rebel army against Portuguese colonial rule. Also, and much to his later embarrassment, Fidel Castro posted a large group of instructors to train Eritrean rebels who were waging a secessionist war against the tottering Emperor Haile Selassie.

By 1973-probably earlier-Cuban military advisers and instructors could be found in the Middle East, often in combat roles. Hundreds of Cubans served in unstable Marxist South Yemen, not only instructing the Yemeni armed forces but also training Dhofari guerrillas, who were busily destabilizing Oman. The guerrillas were finally overcome by elite British units after years of low-intensity but bitter fighting. In 1973, probably at Moscow's behest, Castro dispatched 500 Cuban tank commanders to Syria. These men performed well and died well in the Yom Kippur War with Israel. Not long after their debut in Syria, Cuban military personnel were training, arming, and advising Polisario guerrillas who were fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara. The Cubans, still working out of Algeria, continue to help the Polisario guerrillas, albeit with no notable success. Recent diplomatic developments indicate a rapprochement between Algeria and Morocco, whose troops have long striven to dominate the Western Sahara.

Cuban military involvement in Angola dates only from 1975-the same year in which an upswing in Soviet military aid to Cuba occurred. Cuban security personnel arrived first, and then, in September, Operation Carlota, a Soviet airlift, brought in entire regiments of combat troops to protect the fragile Marxist government from Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebel army. Once a recipient of clandestine American aid, the anti-Communist Savimbi, with some support from South Africa's veteran legions, appeared to be winning a ghastly civil war in the bush; the Cubans went -in to stem the tide. In a preliminary October clash with South Africans emerging north from Namibia, at least 400 Cuban soldiers were killed. In the Battle of Bridge 14(December 9-12) a larger Cuban contingent attempted vainly to halt the advancing South Africans and suffered what were blandly termed "heavy losses." But the South African drive stalled, and newly arriving Cuban regiments forced Pretoria to re-examine its open commitment to Savimbi. Moscow also upgraded Cuba's military hardware, and soon a cornucopia of weaponry became available; the Soviets delivered heavy weapons straight to Angola, so that the Cuban troops, like a rapid-deployment force, could quickly and easily be airlifted by the Soviet Air Force, carrying only handheld weapons.

The rapid Cuban buildup enabled the Marxist MPLA (the Angolan Popular Liberation Movement) to retain much of the nation, blunting the Savimbi offensive and discouraging South African participation-not bad results for a Caribbean island nation. By 1977 almost 20,000 Cuban soldiers, half of them reservists, held the balance of power in Angola, and though they could not rout UNITA, they had clearly achieved their internationalist goal.

Castro's regiments saw only sporadic combat from 1977 to 1983, but their number continued to grow, stabilizing at 30,000-35,000 men and then swelling to 45,000, the level maintained today. In 1983 the majority of the Cuban combat units were encamped around Luanda, the capital; those in the field, however, were handled roughly by Savimbi, and in 1984 several thousand men died in large-scale clashes with the rebels. Since those bloody encounters, and owing in part to falling morale among MPLA conscripts, reportedly the Cuban military is beginning to replace Angolan military units in the battlefields of the south. Unfortunately for Cuba's minuscule (and declining) hard-currency reserves, the war-ravaged economy of Angola is drying up as a source of income. Some 3,000 East Germans and 1,500 Russians are also in Angola, but these men run the railroads, manage the economic infrastructure, and advise the Angolan Army and security forces. The Cubans do the fighting and the dying.

A number of elements have recently led to disillusionment within Cuba regarding the Angolan venture. One of these is race. Roughly 50 percent of the Cubans serving in Angola are blacks. Is this because almost all Angolans are black? Some Cubans wonder. So do some outsiders. The former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who spent time in Cuba as a fugitive, wrote despairingly as far back as 1976 that Castro had long displayed a habit of "shipping out to foreign wars the militant young black officers as a safety valve on the domestic scene," asserting that "as Africa runs out of wars of liberation, Fidel Castro runs out of dumping grounds" for his nation's large black minority. Even Cleaver, however, did not foresee that Castro would find a continuing, counterrevolutionary employment for his legions.

Another source of disillusionment is the fact that most Cubans killed in Angola-perhaps 5,000 since 1975-are not returned home but are buried where they fell (the same is true for those killed elsewhere in Africa). Castro, who admits that more than 400,000 Cubans have served in Angola, never alludes to casualty figures. Once, when asked directly, he responded that he never mentions the subject because "the enemy must not have that information."

The fact that a high proportion of the regiments sent to Angola are reserve units is also a potential source of conflict on the island. The members of these units have already completed their three years of arduous, spartan military service and have been hoping to do only forty-five days or so of annual training stints. A reservist who does not object to defending the beaches of his own nation against a foreign invader may question being asked to fight and die thousands of miles from home for what his leaders consider a matter of ideology and personal pride. Very probably a high proportion of the roughly 30,000 young Cubans imprisoned for refusing military service or Angolan duty are reservists. In January of 1985 one thoroughly disillusioned lieutenant colonel, Mourino Perez, the coordinator of Cuba’s African operations, defected to the West, saying he was “tired of burying Cuban soldiers in Africa.”

Yet another source of discontent is that Fidel Castro and his brother Raul (the Minister of Defense and Castro’s deputy in all other positions) use Angola as punishment duty for recalcitrants. A case in point is Colonel Pedro Tortolo, who was the commander of Cuban military personnel on Grenada when the U.S. forces invaded. Tortolo was ostentatiously court-martialed and sent to Angola as a private, along with most of his Grenada command.

In Cuba today the veterans of Angolan service are commonly referred to as the “generation of disenchantment,” and they regard themselves much the way that Vietnam veterans did in the United States in the 1970’s. The disenchantment is likely to grow in significance, because Castro shows no signs of wishing to disengage. The Angolan President, José Eduardo dos Santos, may well resolve the problem for him, however, because, according to the influential Jane's Defence Weekly, the Angolan leader is upset with the Cuban Army's "success rate" against Savimbi and is negotiating with Kim Il Sung to replace the Cubans with North Koreans.

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