How Obama’s Cuba deal is strengthening its military

 

Castro’s real heirs are the generals, and they’re going to make a bundle from normalization.

 

James Bruno, in Politico

 

In the hit 1992 movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s fictional Colonel Jessup famously declares: “I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me.” The Cuban officers I met never gave me that impression. As the State Department’s former representative to negotiations with Cuba’s military, I can tell you that our discussions were typically convivial and constructive. And today, President Barack Obama’s initiative to normalize relations with Havana has presented the United States with a truly mind-boggling prospect: Our most reliable partner on that long-isolated island is probably going to be the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, Cuba’s military establishment.

 

And soon they’re going to be making a lot of money.

 

The Communist Party of Cuba may constitute the country’s political leadership, but it is seen increasingly as an anachronism by the population, and after Fidel Castro, 88, and Raúl Castro, 83, pass from the scene, the party may too. Cuba’s legislature, the National Assembly of People’s Power, is a rubber stamp appendage of the party and likewise held in low popular esteem. Civilian agencies have proven inept and sclerotic in managing government programs. The powerful Ministry of Interior is widely feared as the blunt instrument of oppression, but it too is likely to be swept aside eventually by the tide of change. And more than a half-century of authoritarian single-party rule has stunted civil society and held the Catholic Church in check.

 

This leaves the FAR. Under Raúl Castro’s leadership from 1959 until he succeeded brother Fidel as president in 2006, the now 60,000-strong military has been widely considered to be Cuba’s best managed and stablest official entity. Furthermore, it has never been called upon to fire on or suppress Cuban citizens, even during the so-called Maleconazo protests in 1994, and most observers believe the FAR would refuse any orders to do so.

 

For years our discussions with the FAR have focused on cooperating on practical matters: avoiding tensions along Guantánamo Naval Base’s 17-mile perimeter, collaborating on firefighting and working out arrangements for the return of Cuban citizens who were picked up at sea while trying to escape their country. In contrast with our stiff exchanges with the North Koreans at Panmunjom, these monthly encounters tend to be productive, constructive and amiable.

 

Now they could be historic. And for the FAR, profitable. Indeed, Americans flocking to Cuba in years ahead will likely be shoring up the Cuban military’s bottom line. Today, senior FAR officers are in charge of sugar production, tourism, import-export, information technology and communications, civil aviation and cigar production. It is estimated that at least 60 percent of Cuba’s economy and 40 percent of foreign exchange revenues are in the hands of the military and that 20 percent of workers are employed by the FAR’s holding company, GAESA. Tourists sipping a mojito at Varadero beach, flying by commuter to lush resorts in the Cuban keys, visiting historic attractions, enjoying the cuisine at a five-star hotel or lighting up a Cohiba after one of those meals are unconsciously contributing to the coffers of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias and the communist government to the tune of several billion dollars a year. Some of this hard-currency infusion has fed corruption within the FAR. Nonetheless, when the U.S. embargo is eventually lifted, American companies interested in investing in Cuba will need to partner with enterprises under the control of the Cuban military. It follows, therefore, that the U.S. government will need to broadly engage with the FAR on economic and trade as well as political and military matters. Former CIA Cuba analyst Brian Latell believes the pragmatic-oriented FAR will be easier to deal with than the old-guard civilian leaders.

 

The FAR is the most demographically representative Cuban institution as well, traditionally a vehicle for rural poor and black young men and women to advance themselves. During my time on “the Line,” the Afro-Cuban colonel commanding the Border Defense Brigade (the spearhead of Col. Jessup’s perceived nemesis) was one such soldier. Though difficult to gauge, the FAR appear generally to be held in respect by Cubans. No other institution will be able to force through policies that a unified and disciplined military command will not support. The Cuban military therefore is the 800-pound gorilla in Havana, an institution Washington will need to work with well past the Castro era. “The generals will either dominate a praetorian successor regime after Fidel Castro dies or is incapacitated, or, like the militaries in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, be the willing accomplices in the demise of Marxism,” according to Latell.

 

Cuba’s falling-out with Moscow following the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of that country’s subsidies impelled then-defense minister Raúl Castro to replace the FAR’s Soviet-style centralized planning and command system with Western-style management and accounting methods. He sent some of the FAR’s brightest officers to Europe and Latin America for training in capitalist business practices, creating a new cadre of “technocrat soldiers” to manage the FAR’s growing military production enterprises. After assuming the presidency in 2006, Raúl further expanded the military’s role in both the political and economic spheres. The Council of Ministers executive committee is dominated by military men, while eight of the government’s 27 ministries are led by active duty or retired FAR officers. Half of the Communist Party’s Politburo comprises individuals with military background.

 

The end of Soviet subsidies also led the FAR to expand into non-military-related economic activities in order to help pay for defense outlays as well as to fund the civilian side of government. It has focused its efforts on three key sectors: agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. Many high-ranking active and retired FAR officers subsequently have turned into “entrepreneur soldiers,” i.e., olive-drab businessmen in charge of large, hard-currency-earning industries, all controlled by GAESA, headed by Raúl’s son-in-law, Luis Alberto Rodríguez, an Army brigadier who speaks English with an impeccable upper-class British accent.

 

Fortunately, Washington has been dealing with the FAR for years, transcending Republican and Democratic administrations, albeit confined to certain well-defined functional areas: migration, sea-air rescue, counternarcotics, oil pollution response and the face-to-face meetings at Guantánamo Naval Base’s northeast gate. Just as the latter has opened channels of communications between our two militaries, U.S. Coast Guard involvement with the Cubans has as well. Since Washington posted its first Coast Guard officer to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana in the late ’90s, cooperation has broadened in a range of areas, focusing on migration, counternarcotics and maritime issues. The Coast Guard “drug interdiction specialist,” in fact, has had closer working relations with the Cuban government than any other American official and is frequently invited by his Cuban counterparts on work-related trips outside of Havana while U.S. diplomats are confined to a 25-mile radius of the capital. The Coast Guard representative, furthermore, is often approached by Cuban officials with messages unrelated to his official portfolio.

 

The FAR brigadiers who have conducted the Guantánamo talks likewise have sought on occasion to expand the discussion beyond issues directly related to the base. The reason for the Cuban military’s probing our military via the Coast Guard and at Guantánamo is twofold: to try to end-run Washington’s political leadership and make inroads directly with our uniformed services, soldier-to-soldier—a rather naive approach—and to send a subliminal message to Washington. A former senior U.S. diplomat who served in Havana believes FAR officials have sought closer rapport with their American military counterparts in order to communicate that they “can be dealt with constructively” and “are a force for stability.” In doing so, they are drawing a subtle distinction between Cuba’s career military and the old revolutionary guard of Fidel. If this indeed is valid, it goes without saying that such an approach has President Raúl Castro’s explicit blessing, which would seem contradictory. But Cuba unerringly has proven to be a Rubik’s cube of policy puzzles.

 

The former diplomat also suspects the Cuban military leadership is seeking Washington’s trust so as to obtain assurances that the U.S. “will not pull an Iraq” on them—i.e., encourage the wholesale dismantling of the FAR should the fidelista system come crashing down, as happened with the former communist regimes in Eastern Europe. As in Iraq, such a scenario would invite chaos.

 

A former senior U.S. Coast Guard officer who has had extensive dealings with Cuban officials told me that the FAR is the “center of gravity” for influencing decision-making in Havana, including after the Castros are gone. The big decisions, he adds, “are being made by the Ministry of the FAR (MINFAR) as opposed to the Communist Party.” He observes that “if the U.S. wants to influence decisions in Havana, it needs to start building a relationship with the FAR now.”

 

What is the best way to proceed? Until the Castro brothers depart the scene, political realties on the U.S. side dictate caution. Until the day arrives when a more representative and democratic government is established in Cuba, Washington must not be seen as cozying up to the Castro-imposed apparat. At the same time, however, it must begin the process of establishing connections with those mid-level FAR officers who are likely to be key players in a post-Castro Cuba. MINFAR is “both the center of reform and the opposition to reform,” according to the ex-Coast Guard senior officer. In other words, there is tension behind the scenes between old-guard fidelista officers and younger technocrat/entrepreneur officers. Interestingly, sensitivity to such tension has recently surfaced. Regime-boosting ex-spy-turned-journalist Percy Alvarado blogged from Havana that “now undeniable signals are beginning to appear among Cuba’s enemies to use our armed institutions as a possible subject of change.”

 

The United States could start the process of building contacts by establishing a formal link between the U.S. Southern Command and MINFAR. Southcom's chief operations officer, a Coast Guard rear admiral, should be sent to Havana to open discussions on formalizing U.S.-Cuban collaboration in the following areas: counternarcotics, sea-air rescue, oil pollution response, port security, cruise ship emergency-response measures and other maritime matters. The Guantánamo “gate talks” could also be broadened. Liaison officers on both sides at the O-4 to O-6 ranks (Army/USMC: major-to-colonel; Navy: lieutenant commander-to-captain) should be designated to carry through. The exchange of defense attachés and inviting Cuban officers to study at U.S. war colleges should be deferred until the post-Castro period and the appointment of ambassadors.

 

The United States has a decidedly checkered history of dealing with military-dominated regimes around the world. So it’s vital that Washington proceed with great care and foresight in beginning to build bridges with Cuba’s military if it hopes to be able one day to steer that nation toward democracy and constructive engagement.

 

 

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