In Cuba the practice of wasting time is a daily phenomenon. It evaporates in conversations on the street corner, in workplaces, while waiting for buses, resolving bureaucratic problems, reading the newspaper Granma, looking for bargains in the farmers’ markets and “building socialism,” which is like a long road from one form of capitalism to another.
Ninety percent of those questioned on this topic agree that the island’s biggest waste of time and resources has been preparing to confront “Yankee imperialism,” which has been threatening us with invasion for fifty-four years.
Because of this “imminent threat” the Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR) and its General Staff maintains a headquarters with 500 offices housing more than 4,000 officials and civilian workers, an illusory comfort obtained through exorbitant expenditures of energy and fuel.
According to anonymous sources the Sierra Maestra Building, formerly the Havana City Hall or INRA Building, contains three dining halls as well as coffee shops, a gymnasium, stores, a logistical center, a medical clinic and a restaurant-bar reserved for high-ranking officials. At least 400 employees provide service and maintenance, among them an elite battalion in charge of security.
Inside one will find the Universal Hall of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) — a smaller scale replica of a similar room in the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses —which is used for official celebrations. There are also vast areas set aside for parking lots, repair shops, corps of engineers, a firefighting brigade and a sizable fleet of cars and buses used to ferry officials from the General Staff offices to their housing compounds.
It is worth noting that all of the Castro brothers’ highest ranking officers live in mansions that once belonged to Cuba’s former upper-class, all of which are located in affluent residential districts: Nuevo Vedado, Kholy, Miramar and Biltmore. There is even a special brigade in charge of maintaining and remodeling them.
Throughout the length and breadth of the island, MINFAR maintains an endless number of underground military units, clubs, hospitals, weapon repair facilities, hangars, airfields, naval bases, ammunition supplies, spare parts stores, fuel, food and and underground command centers. A high percentage of these rely on obsolete WWII-era equipment, while the rest of the technology dates from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Engineers have had to modify much of the military’s machinery because it is now difficult to get supplies of spare parts from Russia and Ukraine.
Military employees are the island’s least productive workers and paradoxically its best paid. Their pay scales are based on military rank, years of service, awards, security clearance, educational level, scientific knowledge and other factors.
They also also receive free clothing and uniforms, cigarettes, housing, and vacations at holiday resorts reserved exclusively for the FAR. They may also purchase home appliances and other consumer items sold at hard currency stores (known in Cuba by the English word “shoppings”), except that for MINFAR personel Cuba’s dual currency system does not exist. In the fiefdom of Raul Castro the CUC (convertible peso) and CUP (Cuban peso) have the same value.*
To finance the expenditures of this military behemoth, the general-president created the MINFAR Business Administration Group (Grupo Administrativo Empresarial or GAE), a conglomerate that absorbed the state phone monopoly ETECSA, the import-export company CIMEX, the retail chain TRD Caribe, the now-defunct CUBALSE, the hotel chains Gaviota and and Horizontes as well as other state-run corporations.
In his report to the First Communist Party Congress, Fidel Castro acknowledged, “As long as imperialism exists, the party, the state and the people will give the defense services its maximum attention. We will never neglect the revolutionary guard.”
General Raul Castro, however, justified MINFAR’s resistance to change and the economic burdens it imposes when he said at the conclusion of the Bastion-2013 military maneuvers on November 24, 2013, “To avoid rivers of blood, rivers of resources are needed.”
In contrast, 95% of those interviewed believed that, in spite of all the exhortations, political speeches, military exercises and multi-million dollar expenditures, Cuba’s defenses remain vulnerable to an American attack.
They’re coming or they’re not coming
Reinaldo Rodriguez, a 58-year-old electrician, alleges that, when Castro was building up his forces in the Sierra Maestra, he plotted a confrontation with an enemy giant like the United States to parody the legend of David and Goliath and to engineer worldwide anti-imperialist solidarity.
“Castro used us,” says Rodríguez. “I was taking classes at a technological institute in the 1970s and year after year we were required to train for forty-five days as anti-aircraft artillery gunners. The cold, the hunger and the rough times that they put us through in the trenches were pointless. And still our generation had to put up with the same harangues about an invasion that never came.”
Javier, a 40-year-old resident of Vedado and bread store employee said that in 2007 the Military Committee called him up for mobilizations on numerous occasions and even threatened him with arrest if he did not show up.
They were taken to a unit in the vicinity of Artemis, where they were given uniforms and boots. They were left there for fifteen day with nothing to do. He recalls that at the end they were given diplomas while a colonel — drunk as a skunk — gave a speech to conclude their training.
An engineering student at the José Antonio Echeverría Polytechnic Institute (ISPJAE) says, “According to military instructors at ISPJAE, in the event of a confrontation, Cuba would be invaded and occupied by the ’Yumas.’”
“Then the ’war of all the people’ would begin,” he says. “A model of terrorist resistance in which every Cuban would have access to an explosive or any weapon necessary to massacre a Yankee soldier. A quota drawn up by the top leadership of the Communist Party would require one invader a week to be killed in every town for a total of 168 murders a day.”
He and one of his classmates ask themselves, “If MINFAR is not capable of deterring an invasion and we are the ones who are supposed to kill the Yankees, then what devils are they painting?”
Paco Echemendía, a 52-year-old accountant, spent his military service in a mechanized troop unit and participated in several maneuvers at Jejenes in Pinar del Rio province. He noted that, in the years in which he participated, fuel costs were in multi-million dollar figures.
“How is it possible,” asks Paco, that they demand more and more sacrifice in public service ads only to spend all the savings on military exercises? Listen, those amphibious tanks drink gas like crazy.”
Chicho, a 72-year-old retiree from Cerro, says, “At this point and with all things the public needs, it is inconceivable that people are still acting stupid and running around with rifles made of straw… For 54 years MINFAR has been the presidential headquarters of both Fidel and Raul Castro and, as long as they are alive, those fat asses in the army will still be the biggest opportunists on the island.”
Pablo Pascual Méndez Piña
From Diario de Cuba, December 3, 2013
*Translator’s note: Cuba has two currencies: the convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). The CUC is pegged at roughly one-to-one to the US dollar. Most wages in Cuba, however, are paid in CUP, which amounts to an average monthly salary of US $20. By treating CUC prices as though they were CUP prices (in reality 1 CUC equals 26.5 CUP), hard currency stores offer military personnel a huge discount on consumer purchases.