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ISN Security Watch September 01, 2006

Cuba vows to bolster 'combat capacity'

Cuba's Raul Castro vows to prepare the military for a potential US invasion, but some experts say the show of force is really intended to ensure a smooth transition at home after Fidel's death.

By Carmen Gentile

Cuban transitional leader Raul Castro has vowed to bolster the nation’s “combat capacity” under his watch by activating thousands of armed militiamen, special troops and reservists in preparation for a possible attack from the US.

Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel and also the country's defense minister, made certain in his first public remarks since assuming the reins of the communist island in late July that the world knew the 47-year-old Castro “revolution” was firmly in tact.

"I decided to substantially raise our combative capacity and readiness," Raul said in the pages of the official government newspaper Granma, where he made his first public comments since his brother stepped down reportedly due to a gastro-intestinal illness.

So far, observers and residents have reportedly noticed little change in the day-to-day politics in Cuba, other than the increased presence of additional troops and police on the streets of the capital Havana and throughout the country.

The 75-year-old Raul, who helped his 80-year-old brother lead the Cuban revolution in 1959, said it was “not my intention to exaggerate the danger,” though stressed that his administration would not be cowered by Washington's “interventionist policy,” referring to the recent US government report detailing the Bush administration's plan for assisting Cuba in the event of a future democratic transition.

Just how deep Raul’s commitment goes to repelling a possible US invasion is a matter of speculation among Cuba experts and exiles. While the White House maintains it is not interested in using military force to promote change in Cuba, officials in Havana maintain they are prepared for the event - just in case.

Some analysts stand by the theory that Raul has the full backing of the military due to his long tenure as defense minister, though others surmise there could be a power struggle once Fidel dies and Raul is forced to stand alone.

Brian Latell, a former national intelligence officer for Latin America from 1990-1994 and author of a Raul Castro biography, surmised that the real reason behind Raul's decision to ensure that Cuba was combat-ready was to make sure a transition would go unchallenged at home.

“Those additional troops aren’t out there to prevent against a US invasion. They’re there to make sure that the transition holds,” Latell told ISN Security Watch.

“They don’t want any disturbances on the streets,” he said, speculating that Raul also likely increased the number of undercover police and intelligence agents in the field.

Just exactly what moves the interim Cuban leader has remained clouded in mystery. Officials at the Pentagon would not speculate on the record about Cuba’s military preparedness since Raul took over, though noted that relations between US forces in Guantanamo and the Cuban army stationed nearby have continued to be “cordial and professional” since Fidel stepped down.

What is known about Cuba’s current combat readiness is that its forces are far fewer than they were during the heyday of the Soviet Union, when their ranks numbered an estimated 200,000 and were active in overseas operations like the war in Angola in 1975.

Today, without significant foreign subsidies, Cuba’s troop strength is believed to be somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London and others.

“Cuba went through a terrible shock after the Soviet Union collapsed,” said Latell.

The Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Revolucionario) is comprised primarily of armor and artillery units that military analysts note lack significant training and are not capable of mounting effective operations above the battalion level.

As for the country’s militia, it remains a part-time force that is equipped with light arms issued only for specific occasions. Analysts at Globalsecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia, note that the militia is not “capable of sustained combat” though they are “effective for controlling or coercing the general public,” echoing Latell's sentiments.

The country’s navy is said to be comprised of nearly two dozen ships in the Osa-I and II and Komar class, with a range of 800 nautical miles and armed with Styx missiles that have a range of 18 miles (28.8 kilometers) and carry a 1,100 lb warhead. Cuba is believed to have three submarines once capable of operating within the Caribbean basin, though are thought to be inoperable now.

As for its air force, the country is said to have less than two dozen operational MiG fighter jets and little in the way of fighter pilot training, leaving the country particularly vulnerable to air assaults.

“I suspect that some of the equipment [in the Cuban military] is outdated and acquiring replacement parts is probably a problem,” Mark Falcoff, a resident scholar on the Americas at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, told ISN Security Watch.

“The Cuban army no longer has the economic resources to be a world-class army” capable of repelling a foreign invasion, particularly one from the US,” said Falcoff.

Other analysts like Globalsecurity.org Director John E Pike said that with what limited economic resources Cuba currently has it may now be in the market for new arms for its additional militiamen, though its old stockpiles should be sufficient to arm its much smaller force compared to the army it manned prior to the Soviet collapse.

“I think they were reasonably equipped 20 years ago,” said Pike. “They haven’t put a lot of wear and tear on their weapons” in the last two decades.”

Meanwhile, the AEI scholar noted that Raul might in some ways secretly welcome a limited US invasion, as it would “rally support for the regime” among those that might still be on the fence about his ability to govern as well as his brother.

“Ideally, Cuba wants to be seen as sufficiently dangerous so that we don’t invade, but not so dangerous so that we will invade,” he added.

Though the Cuban military may lack the might it once boasted, it has taken on additional domestic duties since the early 1990s and now controls large portions of the country’s economy.

The Cuban military runs many of the country’s most important sectors such as tourism, portions of the agriculture industry like sugar, areas of mining, as well as parts of its retail industry. The military is said to control about 90 percent of the country’s exports, making Cuba’s generals also the country’s most prominent business leaders.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was forced to fend for itself following decades of subsidies totaling US$19 billion annually. It was then that the military started taking over certain sectors of the economy.

In Cuba, “the military’s job is to make money,” Frank Mora, a professor at the National College in Washington, told The Miami Herald in a recent article.

“Power in Cuba is not just who holds the guns, although that helps. More important is who controls what is profitable.”

Carmen Gentile is a senior international correspondent for ISN Security Watch. He has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan and Bolivia for ISN Security Watch, and Haiti, Venezuela and elsewhere for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, The Washington Times and others.

Copyright 2006, ISN, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH ZUrich, Switzerland