HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), which preceded the bearded rebels Fidel Castro led to power in 1959, have become economic and political pillars that will remain crucial for the government following the ex-leader’s death.
During the golden age of Soviet support, the Cuban military was one of the world’s most capable: with nearly 300,000 men, it projected Cuban power into Africa, notably Angola where it contended successfully with the formidable South African army.
The implosion of the Soviet bloc at the end of the 1980s and the 1989 execution of Cuba’s most celebrated military commander, Arnaldo Ochoa, allegedly for drug trafficking, saw the army prove its resilience.
Led from 1959 to 2008 by Fidel Castro’s brother Raul, the FAR retreated from the battlefield and assumed a purely defensive posture, while quietly moving first into the island’s political and then economic spheres.
With active duty-troops in the tens of thousands, the FAR can also count on a million-member “territorial militia” and 3.5 million members enrolled in the country’s “production and defense brigades.”
All are organized under a defensive doctrine of “total popular war,” which would involve mobilizing the entire country in the event of a US invasion.
Equipped by the Soviet Union until 1989, the army, navy, and air force today make do with weapons considered obsolete but kept going through an extraordinary domestic training, repair, and modernization effort.
Even as the military arm has weakened, the armed forces have gained political influence.
As the FAR’s boss for nearly half a century, President Raul Castro relied on associates from the military to run the country since he replaced Fidel in July, 2006 after the latter fell ill. Raul Castro officially assumed the presidency in February, 2008.
Succeeding his brother in April, 2011, at the head of the all-powerful Cuban Communist Party, Raul later named six generals to the 15-member Politburo, which also includes retired military officers and veterans of the guerrilla war.
But today, the army’s weight is felt most heavily in the economic realm.After becoming president, Raul named General Julio Casas Regueiro minister of defense, putting him in charge of all the army’s commercial enterprises. He died in 2011.
The army’s arrival as a force in the Cuban economy dates to the early 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet bloc plunged Cuba into an unprecedented crisis and the army was used to bring discipline and effectiveness to the economy.
The military is active in many sectors: Communications, transportation, industry, mines. Tens of thousands of young military recruits are employed in agriculture.
The sensitive tourism sector – with its contacts with foreigners and direct access to foreign currency – is one of the army’s favorite domains.
Today the military manages the Cubanacan and Gaviota tourism conglomerates, which include an airline, hotels, restaurants, marinas, stores and car rental agencies.