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1989-99 - Organizational Changes

At the close of the 1990s, Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias-FAR) was a shadow of its former self. The decline of the Cuban military institution during the 1990s was in stark contrast to the FAR's position in the mid-1980s, when it was one of the largest and most formidable militaries in the Latin American region, if not in the entire developing world.

The pre-1990 development of the military institution owed much to Soviet aid, a benefit from the Cuban leadership's close ties with the former Soviet Union that dated to the early years of the Revolution. These ties made possible not only the FAR's intensive professionalization, which was deepened in the early 1970s, but also the extension several years later of Cuban military involvement to other developing world nations. By the time that Cuba's military "internationalism" in Africa ended in 1991, 300,000 FAR personnel had served as trainers, advisers, and combatants. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the most promising young Cuban officers were trained at the Soviet Union's top military schools; foreign assistance worth millions of dollars was channeled each year to help support the Cuban institution; and the FAR's inventory was replete with many of the Soviet Union's most sophisticated, state-of the-art weapons and equipment.

Toward the end of the 1980s, the political and economic changes already taking place at home and abroad had begun to place strains on the Cuban military institution. The withdrawal of troops from Angola, Ethiopia, and elsewhere marked the beginning of the end for the FAR's "internationalist" mission and obliged the institution's leadership to seriously consider what the future might hold for the armed forces. At the same time, the military's domestic economic role and interest in economic involvement were also beginning to change, largely as a result of decisions implemented following the 1986 Third Party Congress, when several select FAR enterprises were authorized to initiate experiments in allowing plant managers greater autonomy in decision-making as a means to spur efficiency and productivity. Only two years later, with the collapse of the eastern bloc regimes already imminent, the leadership announced its decision, with seeming abruptness, to commit Cuban military troops, including many returning combat veterans, to agricultural production in order to help ensure the country's continuing food supply during the difficult times it saw ahead.

The decade of the 1990s brought important political and economic changes for the FAR that were associated with the end of the armed forces' "internationalist" mission and the break-up of the Soviet Union and its East European bloc. These changes presented formidable challenges for the Cuban military, perhaps the most critical of which was simply continuing to maintain the FAR as a professional military institution despite a serious lack of resources. During the course of the decade, the FAR leadership's responses to the continuing challenges led the military to become more involved in national life and to assume a more prominent role as a domestic economic actor. This shift appeared to be driven both by the FAR's financial need, given the institution's efforts to become "self financing" as its share of the national budget was pared, and by the regime's prevailing concern about being able to maintain domestic order should a security crisis develop.

Well before Fidel Castro's September 1990 declaration of the "special period in peacetime" (periodo especial en tiempo de paz; hereafter Special Period), the FAR had already begun efforts to cut spending and otherwise help minimize the impact of what it saw as an impending crisis. Troops returning from "internationalist" service were sent to work in agriculture in order to help boost the national food supply; still others were discharged from active duty, often placed on inactive reserve and left to fend for themselves, despite the promise that they would have jobs to return to after completing their foreign military duty. Within the FAR, meetings were routinely convened among service personnel in order to brainstorm on ways to conserve fuel and make do with fewer expenditures. Paramount among the military leadership's planning efforts at that time was the formulation of contingency plans for what was known as the "zero option," which was to be implemented if all foreign aid and supplies were cut off.

By the early 1990s, the erosion of the FAR's image as one of the premier military institutions of the developing world was already underway. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the deepening of the island's economic crisis, the Cuban military found itself confronted with some of the most serious challenges in the history of the institution. By 1989, with the demise of the East European bloc imminent, the Cuban military leadership was already making plans to "go it alone" without the help they had long received. As the era of Cuba's military "internationalism" drew to a close, the combat troops once deployed abroad and hailed as heroes returned home only to be tasked to menial agricultural labor. In the difficult years that followed, the size of the armed forces was halved, the term of military service shortened, and the defense budget reduced sharply. On top of these cuts, much of the FAR's equipment-from its supersonic jet fighters to its aging main battle tanks-was put into storage because of the continuing shortages of fuel and spare parts.

By the mid-1990s, there were signs that the FAR was successfully defining a new course. The post-Cold War thaw made possible the establishment of closer ties with fellow military officers in Latin America and Europe, which helped somewhat to mitigate the institution's isolation. Even more significant were the reforms introduced on the island that provided an opening for the FAR to assume a more prominent role in the economy. This provided the military the opportunity to serve as an exemplary model for the rest of the nation, as suggested by the "experiments" with the System for Managerial Improvement (Sistema de Perfeccionamiento Empresarial-SPE) that were first conducted within the FAR's production enterprises. Of no small import, this economic involvement was also motivated by the FAR's interest in economic survival, which was facilitated by the expansion of the military-linked Gaviota Tourism Group, S.A., in the burgeoning tourism industry. Toward the close of the decade, although a United States Department of Defense study affirmed that the weakened FAR no longer posed a serious threat, it appeared equally unlikely that the military institution, still professional and staunchly supportive of the regime, might wither away.

The latter half of the 1990s heralded a period of new and different security-related concerns for the Cuban leadership. These concerns-stimulated, in part, by the dynamic set underway by the economic reforms carried out only years before led to a higher profile for the police forces of the Ministry of Interior. In an effort to stem the growth of common crime, the regular police found themselves the beneficiaries of increased budgets, new equipment, and training programs, occasionally carried out with modest assistance from European police authorities. At the same time, the political police-as the members of the Ministry of Interior's Department of State Security are often called-were tasked to monitor and do what was necessary to rein in the increasingly bold activities of dissidents and members of the nascent independent press. One serious crackdown, which began in earnest in late 1998, brought changes in the Penal Code that codified new offenses and established harsher sentences for many crimes already on the books. The crackdown included the issuance of harsher sentences for what foreign observers might recognize as offenses that were political in nature, as well as the more frequent application of the death penalty.

Cuba's security environment of the 1990s thus appeared quite different from what it did in the 1980s. In some respects, it resembled more the difficult years of the 1960s than either of the two succeeding decades. With the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the Cuban government's focus was redirected from ambitious military efforts to bolster socialist allies abroad to efforts simply to maintain domestic order and the regime's own socialist foundation. Despite continuing economic problems in the final years of the decade, the FAR appeared to be adapting to its new position and economic role. As well, the deterrent measures aimed at halting the surge in common crime appeared to be achieving some success. At the same time, however, there were few indications that the regime's harsher treatment for political offenders had led dissidents and independent journalists to cease efforts to press for changes.

At the close of the twentieth century, various aspects of Cuban internal security had clearly been challenged, whether directly or indirectly, as a result of the crisis of the past decade. Yet despite the frequent forecasts of impending collapse that were heard throughout the 1990s, the Cuban regime maintained its stability. This was made possible in part by the continuing loyalty and support of the security forces under the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Ministerio de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias - MINFAR). Moreover, the regime appeared ready to take on the new security challenges that were sure to arise in the coming years.

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