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Relations with Other Armed Forces

By mid-1991, less than a year after Cuba's formal declaration of its economic crisis, the Soviet commitment to the island under President Mikhail Gorbachev had already clearly weakened. However, even in the face of the Castro regime's adamant refusal to implement any Soviet-style reforms, the longstanding ties between the FAR and the conservative-leaning Soviet Armed Forces might have suggested some slight hope for continuing close military-to-military relations, despite tensions between the two countries' political leaders. There appeared some basis for this hope: United States Department of State estimates of Soviet military assistance to Cuba, although said by some scholars to be inflated amounts, had reached US$1.5 billion in 1990, which turned out to be the final year of Soviet aid to the island. In addition, in early 1990, the first six of what was expected to be a squadron of thirty-six state-of-the art MiG-29 jet fighters had arrived on the island.

The failed coup attempt against President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 and Cuba's resounding silence after the fact marked an irreversible shift in relations between the two countries. In September Gorbachev announced plans to withdraw the Soviet military's "special training brigade," which had been based on the island since the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to Fidel Castro, this decision was announced without the courtesy of informing him beforehand. The Soviet training brigade, more formally known as an independent motorized infantry brigade, numbered only 2,800 troops in 1991, but it had once had an estimated 20,000 troops.

Despite a drawdown in personnel that had already taken place, the brigade was considered in Cuba, as well as abroad, as one of the enduring symbols of the Soviet Union's commitment to the regime. The announcement of its formal withdrawal appeared to confirm that it would not be possible for the FAR's ties with their Soviet counterparts to remain close. In September 1992, months after the formation of the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Cubans reluctantly agreed to the Russians' schedule for the departure of the brigade's last troops. In 1993, as the Cuban economy bottomed out, the final brigade members departed the island.

Following the departure of the last Russian troops in 1993, the SIGINT facility at Lourdes remained one of the only practical vestiges (apart from the extensive Soviet-origin materiel in the FAR's inventory) of the once-close security relationship between Cuba and the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it provided a reason for continuing regular interaction between the leaders of the two countries on issues related to security concerns through the remainder of the 1990s. During this period, the Lourdes facility was maintained and staffed by Russian intelligence personnel of the Federal Security Service (Federal'naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti - FSB), a successor entity to the Soviet-era Committee for State Security (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopastnosti - KGB). An estimated 810 Russian military personnel were in Cuba in 1999.

Under the first bilateral agreement pertaining to Lourdes that was reached in 1993, it was agreed that the facility would remain in operation and that "rent" would be paid in the form of spare parts for the FAR. At that time, the Russians agreed to pay Cuba for the next twenty years for both the Lourdes operation and for a since-closed submarine support facility at Cienfuegos on the southern Cuban coast, but the amount of the rent was not set. In March 1995, the agreement finalizing the terms for remuneration for Lourdes was signed in Moscow by FAR First Vice Minister Division General Julio Casas Regueiro. It provided for an annual rent in the range of US$200 million, much of which would be in the form of bartered military materials. Although the Russians, owing to their own domestic problems, had difficulties in providing the Cubans with the bartered goods during the first years that followed the agreement's signing, the supply problems were thought to have been resolved by the end of the 1990s.

According to the Russians, the "listening post" is used to monitor compliance with international arms-control agreements. Yet notwithstanding its likely utility in this regard, the Lourdes facility also is capable of intercepting and monitoring communications along the eastern coast of the United States as well as the circum-Caribbean region. Although the Cubans do not have access to the "raw" intelligence data obtained by the Russians, they are routinely provided intelligence summaries on issues that are thought to affect their interests.

The onset of the economic crisis, the end of military "internationalism," and the loss of Soviet support appeared to bring about a heightened awareness within the Cuban armed forces with respect to the institution's potential isolation. As a result, the Cuban military's efforts to build contacts with foreign militaries were stepped up during the 1990s. In terms of other countries' receptivity, the Cuban military's efforts were aided by the end of the Cold War and Fidel Castro's 1992 declaration that Cuba would no longer support revolutionary movements abroad.

The Cuban military has long maintained contacts with the armed forces of developing world nations that are considered nonaligned or, at least, not ideologically hostile toward the Castro regime. The changed situation of the 1990s, however, helped open the way for broader international contacts. The Cuban interest in reducing the FAR's ideological isolation in the post-Cold War era spurred its efforts to increase cooperation and regular contacts with other militaries in the Latin American region. By mid-decade, these efforts appeared to have been somewhat successful. In 1996 Cuba served as host of the biennial meeting of Ibero-American Military Academies, a gathering whose participants included military officials from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

In this new environment, the Cuban military has also sought to build ties and expand cooperation with militaries in Canada and Western Europe. Among the latter group of countries with whose militaries the Cubans have been most publicly engaged are Britain, France, and, most significantly, Spain, which in 1996 announced its decision to become the first European Union (EU) nation to assign a permanent military attache to Havana. The contacts with these European countries have included hosting visits of students from their military schools as well as conducting discussions on mutual concerns and exploring areas of possible future cooperation.

Despite the importance of Cuba's renewed military ties with Latin America and Europe, perhaps the most important tie with a foreign military service to develop since the Soviet Union's demise has been the FAR's relationship with the Chinese Popular Liberation Army (PLA). On various occasions during the 1990s, FAR leaders have traveled to the People's Republic of China (PRC) to meet with military officials; and those officials, in turn, have reciprocated in visiting the island. In February 1999, the Chinese defense minister and a delegation of military officials paid a three-day visit to Cuba. The FAR's interest in these contacts is believed to stem from the desire to have a powerful ally.

In addition, the MINFAR leadership's view-and, in particular, Minister Raul Castro's view that elements of the Chinese model of economic reform may be relevant for Cuba also likely contributed to the interest in broadening ties with their military colleagues, who during the 1990s had a prominent role in the Chinese economy. The PLA, at the same time, may be recognized to have a geostrategic interest with respect to its Cuban ally in the Caribbean, an interest that has raised some concerns in the United States. In late 1999, for example, Cuban officials were obliged to deny a report published by a Miami newspaper that the PRC had established a military communications facility on the island.

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