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.

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."