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Expert ponders role of Cuba's FAR in post-Castro transition
CubaNews / March 2003

By Larry Luxner

Cuba’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), the most powerful institution in the country, plays a far greater role in Cuba than most people realize, and understanding the FAR will be essential for policymakers hoping to influence events once Fidel Castro passes from the scene.

That’s the theme of a new report by Brian Latell, professor of international relations at Washington’s Georgetown University.

Latell discussed his study, The Cuban Military and Transition Dynamics, at a recent seminar on Cuban transition issues.

“Top generals in the FAR will play crucial roles in all conceivable succession scenarios,” Latell said. “The FAR is the most influential, respected and best-managed institution on the island. Historically, it has been the closest to a true meritocracy, the least susceptible to corruption, and the most representative of the racial diversity of the Cuban population.”

Unlike the case with most Latin militaries, “there’s a seamless merging of civilian and military missions in Cuba, and that’s been true since the earliest years of the revolution. There have been no coup attempts, no significant organized disruption and no plotting against the regime.”

Under Raúl Castro’s leadership, the FAR today has 500,000 to 600,000 uniformed soldiers, which is more than twice the size of the armed forces of Guatemala — a nation with roughly the same population as Cuba.

During 1990 and 1991, said Latell, Raúl was traumatized by the actions of Eastern European militaries “which sat on their hands and allowed the Communist regimes to collapse, except in Romania, where the military actually helped overthrow the regime.” For that reason, he said, Raúl persuaded his older brother Fidel to get the FAR more involved in the economy — especially to help aging officers who would be destitute if they didn’t have a chance to earn hard currency.

“Most of these officers involved in enterprise management since the 1990s are Raúl’s cronies,” said Latell. “They now control the lion’s share of the economy, including the Gaviota hotel chain and the entire sugar sector. He knew this would make them prone to corruption, but it was a risk he had to take, to assure the loyalty of the armed forces, and he didn’t want civilians doing it.”

But that’s caused problems of its own.

For one thing, explained Latell, the FAR has fidelista generals (those loyal to Fidel) and raúlista generals (those loyal to Raúl).

“The three regional commanders are fidelistas, the staffers are raúlistas, and it’s the raúlistas who have the access to dollars,” said Latell. “The troop commanders are probably the least corrupt. Julio Casas, the head of these enterprises, is rumored to be highly corrupt, but he’s so close to Raúl that he’s immune.”

Furthermore, said Latell, “career military men are totally unqualified to run Western-style enterprises, despite the training some of them have received overseas, because they’re still so steeped in the biases and rigidities of their military culture. It’s all they’ve known since they were teenagers.”

What will happen if rioting breaks out in the streets of Havana following an official announcement that Fidel has died?

“If that happens, senior officers will have to make decisions on whether they’ll fire live ammunition on civilians,” he said. “The FAR has never done that, to my knowledge. Some officers will say no, and there’ll be fighting among themselves.”

What if Raúl dies first?

“If that happens, the three most critical lines of succession are all thrown open,” said Latell. “Fidel must pick a new defense chief, and there’s no obvious successor. The two lines of succession in the Communist Party and the state will also be thrown open. Fidel will face some of the toughest decisions he’s ever faced. The impact on the FAR could be extremely disruptive, especially if it occurs in a year or two or three, when Fidel’s physical competence is further diminished.”

Latell recommends three specific types of military reform when Cuba’s democratic transition finally does occur.

The first is a drastic downsizing of the FAR. Under a democracy, he says, “Cuba won’t need a military, has nothing to fear, and won’t need the hundreds of thousands of additional personnel in auxiliary forces.”

The second is for the FAR to submit immediately to civilian control, with intense pressure applied to the Cuban government “to open all facilities that might be places of biological weapons research.”

Latell’s third recommendation is to boost exchanges between the FAR and the armed forces of the United States and other nations, given that “Cuba’s military is one of the most isolated militaries anywhere in the world.”

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