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1959-70 - Institutional Consolidation

One of the greatest challenges faced by the revolutionary government when it assumed power in January 1959 was that of organizing a new military. Fidel Castro Ruz, who initially had no formal role in the civilian government, was recognized as the commander in chief of the armed forces. In turn, the troops of the Rebel Army formed the core of the new military, and the Rebel Army's top field commanders became the new institution's leaders. However, the issue remained as to what to do with the remnants of Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar's (president, 1940-44; dictator, 1952-59) old armed forces and with the poorly prepared peasants who had joined the Rebel Army's ranks during the final phases of the struggle in 1958.

Batista had left behind a 40,000-man military consisting of 35,000 members of the army and 5,000 members of the naval and air forces, including several thousand new recruits. The armed forces also had received new equipment from the United States shortly before the cutoff of aid to the regime. With Batista gone, the armed forces fell into complete disarray. Many officers quickly fled the island upon learning of Batista's departure, and members of army units throughout the country refused to continue fighting, with some abandoning their posts. Although the victorious rebels initially professed plans to unite the two armies into a single large force, the difficulties in building a new military organization composed of both guerrillas and their former enemies may have been recognized. In the months that followed the rebels' arrival in Havana, very few of the old military's officers who remained in Cuba were kept on active duty, and thousands were dismissed peremptorily. Hundreds of others were accused of war crimes, court martialed, and publicly executed in fulfillment of what Fidel Castro termed "revolutionary justice."

The MINFAR was created on October 16, 1959, to replace the Batista-era Ministry of Defense. Headed by Raul Castro, the MINFAR quickly became the dominant organization in the new government. At first, the new MINFAR's leaders planned to have a military of15,000 to 25,000 well-trained troops, whose hierarchy would be built around the few hundred individuals who had been the Rebel Army's leaders, were hardened combatants, and were known for their loyalty to Fidel and Raul Castro. This aim was never fully realized, however, because, despite their low level of professionalism, it was seen as politically unwise to dismiss the many who had joined the rebels in the latter days of the revolutionary struggle. Organized in October 1959, the FAR numbered 40,000 troops and officers by early 1961, making it comparable in size to Batista's old military. The FAR was supported by the National Revolutionary Militias (Milicias Nacionales Revolucionarias-MNR), a civilian organization formed in October 1959.

Although maintaining a large force posed a problem, the FAR proved useful in helping the regime counter two threats that developed in the early 1960s. The first was the internal security problem posed by the activities of the counterrevolutionaries, who opposed the new government and Fidel Castro and were roaming the countryside in central Cuba. The Castro government's campaign against the counter-revolutionaries, known as the "fight against bandits" (lucha contra bandidos), began in 1960 and continued until victory was declared five years later. Working together in coordinated operations to defeat the antigovernment rebels were members of at least four organizations-the military, the Ministry of Interior's Department of State Security (Departamento de Seguridad del Estado-DSE), the MNR, and the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (Comite de Defensa de la Revolucion - CDR). By the end of 1964, 500 soldiers had died in the campaign, and a total of 3,500 counterrevolutionaries had been killed or captured.

The United States Government's efforts to bring about the regime's overthrow perhaps posed a more serious threat. On April 17, 1961, the first major United States-sponsored military action against the Castro government was carried out with the landing of an army of Cuban exiles organized by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on Playa Giron in the Bay of Pigs on the south-central Cuban coast. This ostensibly covert invasion, which came only fourteen weeks after Washington had broken off diplomatic relations with Cuba, presented the first real test of the ability of the regime's security forces, including the militia and the FAR's newly organized air force, to repel external aggression.

About 300 of the invaders were killed outright, and 1,179 others were captured and held for twenty-two months. The exile force's ready defeat turned into a propaganda victory for the FAR and the regime. The following year, initiation of the United States-sponsored Operation Mongoose, which was aimed at sparking a popular revolt, obliged the FAR to continue to maintain a high state of readiness. This readiness continued until the declarations of victory in 1965, at which time the Cuban leadership turned its attention to developing the armed forces' professional capabilities.

This effort began with steps taken in early 1963, when the MNR was disbanded. Also at that time, the armed forces' ranks were trimmed, and several professional military schools were opened to improve the training and competency of the senior officer corps as well as of the various service arms. In addition, the universal conscription system known as Obligatory Military Service (Servicio Militar Obligatorio - SMO) was instituted so that draftees completing their three-year term of service might help fill the scaled-down military's manpower requirements. In 1965 the military budget, which had been reduced along with the manpower cuts, was increased. But the truly capping achievement during this period was the delivery of state-of-the-art MiG-21 supersonic fighters, which lent the FAR the prestige of being the first military in Latin America to have such advanced aircraft.

Despite the Soviet contributions to the Cuban arsenal during the first half of the 1960s, tensions in Soviet-Cuban relations persisted over Cuban efforts to "export the Revolution" to other developing countries (at a time when the Soviets were pursuing "peaceful coexistence" with the West). after the capture and execution by Bolivian army troops of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in October 1967, the regime's radical ardor was tempered. One of the Revolution's heroes, Guevara had left Cuba in a vain attempt to fulfill his revolutionary theory by sparking a peasant-led insurgency in that distant nation.

With Cuba's decision to return to the Soviet fold, the FAR's professional development was intensified, a move that set the course that the institution would follow for the next two decades. In mid-1969, in one of the first outward signs that the rapprochement would likely extend to the FAR, a Soviet naval squadron entered Caribbean waters on a flag-showing visit to Cuba. Such visits by the Soviet Navy continued on at least an annual basis well into the 1980s.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2013 19:37:05 ZULU