Cuba: Havana's Military Machine

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

In 1977 another cry for help reached Havana from Africa. This time it was from Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the besieged Marxist ruler of Ethiopia. His regime was under growing pressure-indeed, invasion- from neighboring Somalia, beset by anti-Communist rebels at home, and facing a serious secessionist movement in Eritrea province. Castro, despite his substantial commitment in Angola, rushed a dozen regiments to Addis Ababa, and these disciplined forces undoubtedly turned the tide and saved the fraternal Mengistu regime.

At its peak, in 1978 and 1979, the Cuban expeditionary force in Ethiopia consisted of some 24,000 fighting men, and about 11,000 are still there today, mostly in garrison duty. The Cubans did repulse the Somalis, they did help erase internal guerrilla bands, but they did not-and will not-resolve the Eritrean imbroglio. (See "The Loneliest War," July, 1988, Atlantic, for more on Eritrea.)

Cuban troops and military and civilian security advisers are sprinkled liberally about the African continent-a continent, incidentally, with which Cuba conducts virtually no trade. In fact, as one scholar has noted, "since 1975 Third World countries have accounted for only 4-7 percent of total Cuban trade." According to well-informed sources, some 2,500 civilian and military advisers serve in Mozambique, where the leftist regime is threatened by anti-Communist RENAMO rebels. Another hundred advisers serve in the Congo; a handful are in São Tome e Principe and Equatorial Guinea; and the tiny homeland-state of Lesotho, in South Africa, has a token seven Cuban advisers. Cuban civilian advisers (some security-related) play important roles in Benin, Malagasay, and Guinea-Bissau. In the Arab world some 3,000 can be found in Libya and Algeria, among other things training terrorists and Polisario guerrillas. Cubans serve in Iraq; South Yemen continues to rely on Cuban and Soviet advisers; and Havana also posts units to Syria and Afghanistan. At least modest contingents have been posted to a number of Southeast Asian countries as well.

In this hemisphere, in addition to various guerrilla movements that have received not-so-covert Cuban aid, and Colonel Tortoló's abortive mission in Grenada, the Nicaraguan military buildup has been guided and shaped by Castro's legions. Some 4,500 Cubans are in the country, including large contingents of military and security personnel. According to a 1985 issue of The Economist, the military and civilian personnel sent to Nicaragua from Cuba are kept busy "teaching the locals how to spell revolución and load Kalashnikovs."

The costs of Castro’s foreign forays go well beyond Cuban bloodshed. Cuba has also lost prestige and stature as a role model for the developing world. Cuba’s huge military apparatus, drawing heavily upon reservists, co-opts much of the nation’s best talent, to the detriment of the faltering civilian sector. Another cost is the continued chill in Cuba’s relations with the United States. Yet another, probably, is the falloff of economic and technical aid to the Castro government from various Western nations, such as Norway, Sweden, Holland, West Germany, and Canada. Moreover, both Costa Rica and Colombia severed relations with Cuba in 1981, and relations with other Latin American nations have also generally deteriorated. Cuba has also lost credibility in the “non-aligned” movement (of which Castro was the acknowledged leader) over the issue of Afghanistan. In 1980 Cuba was one of only nine nations to vote against (with fifty-six in favor and twenty-six abstaining or absent) a resolution of the non-aligned states requesting the United Nations to condemn the Soviet invasion. The vote in the United Nations was even more pointedly anti-Moscow, with Third World member states condemning the invasion by a vote of seventy-eight to nine (with twenty-eight abstentions or absences).

Adrian J. English, the author of Armed Forces of Latin America, and hardly a Cuba-baiter, wrote in 1984 that "Cuba is . .. probably the world's most completely militarised country." He was not exaggerating. Hugh Thomas, another British authority, remarked that same year that "the emphasis on war and weapons, on the importance of fighting, borders on the psychopathic." Four years after English and Thomas wrote of this phenomenon, the qualifiers no longer seem necessary.

That a distinctly (and increasingly) underdeveloped nation could manage this hypermilitarization is truly remarkable, but the actual cash outlay for military hardware has been negligible. In fact, Cubans negotiating for hard-currency loans from the West say that all of Cuba's arms imports are gifts from the USSR and other socialist countries, and hence not a drain on the nation's balance of payments.

The volume of Soviet aid to Cuba (running lately at half of all Soviet aid) is huge, if not known to the last ruble or peso. At the very least, Soviet economic assistance has totaled $17 billion in 1961-1979, rising to 25w 30 percent of Cuba's GDP. Another reputable source has estimated the economic side of Soviet aid for 1961-1985 to be $40 billion. Economic aid has increased dramatically in the 1980s, and has been averaging nearly $5 billion a year-$13 million a day.

These figures support the general assessment that Cuba's economy would collapse without Soviet subsidies. No nation on earth receives more economic aid per capita, and yet the Cuban economy, less productive arid more tied to humiliating monoculture than it was before Castro, barely lurches along. Despite all the largesse, productivity per worker continues to drop, the birthrate has recently fallen with unprecedented rapidity to a very un-Latin low of fourteen per thousand, and the suicide rate has soared above the traditionally low Latin American profile-past that of Sweden, with 17.5 per 100,000-to a disturbing 21.1. Recent cases include Osvaldo Dorticós, who was the Minister of Justice, and Haydée Santamaria, a long-time Castro associate. The draconian rationing system doles out meager allotments of food, clothing, and consumer goods, and Cuba's hard- and soft-currency international debt is hundreds of times the pre-Castro figure (as early as 1975 it was four times as high on a per capita basis as Brazil's).

Even so, Cuba's militarization rolls along; the Soviets do not ration T-62 MBTs, MiG-23 and -27 combat jets, or artillery. Most Cuba-watchers agree that since 1980 more than $4 billion worth of Soviet military gear has been delivered to Cuba, not counting direct deliveries from the USSR to African theaters of operations. While Cubans today have few consumer goods, their armed services possess an abundance of howitzers and assault rifles.

In addition to its uniformed armed forces and trained reserves, Cuba has copious other military and paramilitary resources to draw upon. One of these is the Youth Labor Army (EJT), composed of young people in their teens who have received military training and use arms. Founded in 1973, the EJT, with an apparently fixed complement of 100,000, was designed to free the regular army from rural civic-action duties, so that it could send more soldiers overseas. Also, since the mid-1970smilitary training in the high schools has been mandatory. What's more, Cuba has some 4,000 elite, KGB-style border guards, the 2,000 member "special troops" of the Ministry of the Interior, and the 15,000-member troops of the shadowy Department of State Security (also in the Interior Ministry). These three "small" contingents together have as many men as the entire regular army of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had in the 1950s, and they are infinitely better armed. Of more recent vintage, though not uniformed, is a 100,000-strong civil-defense force, with evident paramilitary potential.

In 1980 the establishment of a vast new militia to defend the island against "Yanqui" invasion began; the Soviets sent mountains of materiel, from mess kits to mortars, for use by the nascent Territorial Troop Militias (MTT). Dividing the island into 1,300 "defense zones," a la Vietnam, Castro began with several hundred thousand male and female milicianos, many of whom were probably loyal party members. Primarily an infantry force, the MTT is armed and has very specific defense duties complementing those of the uniformed services, which train the militia. Several sources noted an expanded strength to about half a million by 1984. The figure rose dramatically to 1,200,000 the following year, and to 1,500,000 armed and trained men and women in 1986. More than 1,000 MTT regiments are now dug in across the island, armed with relatively light weapons. The MTT would have to be rooted out by any invader from thousands of familiar, prepared positions. Japan in the summer of 1945 was not nearly so well prepared to resist invasion.

The huge MTT (if the United States had a militia of corresponding size, it would have 36 million members), unlike the army, has no ties of any kind with the Soviets on the island. It has no RedA1my officers or advisers and is led by the Cuban Communist Party (of which Fidel Castro is the First Secretary), and only its weapons are stamped "CCCP." Could the MTT, a purely Cuban organization, be meant to counterbalance the "Sovietized" regular army and security forces?

The MTT is highly visible in today's Cuba. Tad Szulc, in his sympathetic 1986 book Fidel: A Critical Portrait, wrote that "the Militias' 340-page illustrated Basic Manual is must reading in Cuba (though it sells for one peso in bookstores), and exercises and maneuvers are conducted continuously."

Less military per se, but with quasi-military security roles, is the phenomenon known as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). The CDR were instituted in 1960, when invasion was expected momentarily and internal tensions were rising. At first some 800,000 people joined the CDR, ferreting out subversives, informing on other people, and monitoring "social attitudes." They were, in short, neighborhood vigilance committees on a grand but inexpensive scale. The Minister of Culture, Armando Hart, has written that the CDR "emerged as a means for the people to defend themselves against imperialist aggression, sabotage, and other enemy actions."

But the CDR in the late 1980s have become a sinister aspect of the Cuban regime, major players in Castro's struggle against the United States and American influence in general. By1983 they boasted a membership of five million Cubans-more than half the population. In August of 1986 Castro proudly announced to the CDR National Congress that membership had grown to 6,662,568. This amounts to two Cubans out of every three-young and old, male andf emale-and includes perhaps 95 percent of all able-bodied adults. Further, Castro claimed special status as guardias for 5,500,000 CDR members. Guardias serve by turns at night as aquasi-police force, patrolling their neighborhoods. With his usual love of statistics, Castro gravely intoned that while Cubans slept the sleep of the just each night, 87,130 guardias were on patrol, ever vigilant to detect crime, subversion, and counterrevolutionary activities.

Though many join the CDR as a matter of form or convenience, or even out of fear, the very idea of such a vast multitude of state-sponsored snoops is mind-boggling. The duties of CDR members are varied: vigilance, police work, internal security, "civic action," morale building, civil defense, and more. Under such a system, a nation's spiritual and creative resources can scarcely be tapped. This perhaps is one of the internal costs of militarizing a society.

The military, always highly visible in Castro's Cuba, bodes ill for the peace and prosperity of people out of uniform. Castro has so militarized Cuban society that, as Hugh Thomas has recently written, "Batista's tyranny seems, from the angle of the present, a mild and indolent undertaking."

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