Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 16 August 2016 — Recently, during my brief stay in Miami to participate in an academic meeting on legal issues, I was surprised to hear from a Cuban emigrant – fairly old in age – about his wish that, in a future democratic Cuba, a law of compulsory military service would be maintained. His proposal was based on the assumption that military life imposes discipline and maturity in young people. Virtues – his opinion – which are practically extinct on the island.
Very frequently and with minimal variations, I’ve heard this phrase in different scenarios for Cubans of the most dissimilar political ideas or with no political ideas at all. The common denominator is the age of those who think this way: usually adults over 55 or 60.
It would seem that the experience of the failed Republic, where so many presidents came from military life, and the nearly six decades of this calamitous revolution, led and directed ad infinitum by the military, there are some that just don’t get the damage inflicted by this entrenched militarist tradition in our history.
There are still those who think that certain “misguided” young people can “become men” after being forced to complete their military service, preferably in so-called combat units. “The boys have to go through hard work and get to know what hunger and hard life are in order to have discipline,” state many venerable septuagenarians. However, if such a principle were true, we Cubans who have been born and raised under the Castro regime would be among the most disciplined people on the planet.
The strange thing is that the same principle has been valid for both Tyrians and Trojans. Suffice it to recall that supporters of Fulgencio Batista were convinced that the country’s leadership should be in the hands of a “strong man,” even if it meant the violation of constitutional order, a perception that made the March 1952 coup possible, which opened a new door to military violence.
Just a few years later, another “strong man” was beating popularity records among Cubans, when he took power by force of arms, overthrew the earlier “strong one” and imposed the longest military dictatorship that this hemisphere has known.
That same militaristic thought made possible the existence of the notorious Military Units to Aid Production, created with the aim of amending and “making men,” through the rigor and discipline of military life, out of homosexuals, religious, “softies,” petty bourgeois and other elements whose tendencies and attitudes did not seem worthy enough to the “macho” olive green power elite.
And, on behalf of that bellicose national spirit, invoked from Law 75 (or the National Defense Act), thousands and thousands of young Cubans have been called to the military ranks. Castro-type military testosterone planted in several countries of South America and Africa in the form of guerrillas has not just been exported from Cuba, but hundreds of young Cuban recruits who completed the Compulsory Military Service were sacrificed uselessly in the war in Angola. Those who returned alive still carry the trauma of war to the present day, although there has never been a single patient officially reported with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Young people who refused to go to war, meanwhile, suffered military prison for “treason.”
The chimeric moral superiority of military training in men is directly correlated to the machista Cuban culture and is reflected even in familiar popular phrases. Who has not heard of “if you do not like it, go lead an uprising in the Sierra”; or “don’t act so brave, you have never fired a shot,” because being “one who fires shots” is not only an irrefutable sign of manly courage, but also the source of legitimacy of the force imposed over arguments.
Undoubtedly, those who advocate the supposed virtues of military discipline as a solution to the crisis of Cuban social values forget that over half a century of Compulsory Military Service, far from forming the character of our young people, has been a source of humiliation and deprivation, having only succeeded in enhancing the resentment and frustration of being forcibly subjected to an activity for which they do not feel the slightest vocation. I cannot think of a worse way to “become men.”
Keep in mind that a mechanism for corruption has been promoted from the standpoint of purchasing permanent deferments at recruitment offices by parents of young men subject to the draft, often with forged medical certificates alleging their adolescent children have some sort of handicap and are unable to undergo the rigors of a combat unit. Another way is through bribing the officials in charge of enlisting, who, for a set amount in hard currency, make the candidate’s file disappear, and he is not called to serve.
But the military band of men in Cuba extends beyond the compliance of active duty, since once he is “licensed,” the soldier becomes part of the country’s military reserve and is subject to mobilization whenever the Party-State-Government declares some imaginary threat or craves a show of force.
In so-called combat units, an inaccurate term for referring to the camp and shooting areas, weaponry and exercises, most of the recruits’ time is spent clearing fields and cleaning, or in some activity related to repairing and maintaining the headquarters’ kitchens. At the end of their active duty, many of them may only have “practiced” shooting their weapons once, and some not even that, so they are very far from being trained to carry out a war or to defend the country in case of aggression.
Of note, among other factors in the “training” of young recruits in Cuba, are poor living conditions in the units, poor health, poor diet, lack of drinking water or sanitary services, forced labor, mistreatment by officers, among other hardships that have nothing to do with military training, with preparation for the defense of the country or with the forging of character in discipline and high ethical and moral values which they would have to aspire to.
Compulsory Military Service has not only served the regime as a clamping and blackmail mechanism over Cuban adolescents – restricting the continuance of their studies, travel abroad or holding jobs – but it constitutes one of the most backward obstacles we need to get rid of as soon as possible. In a democratic Cuba the army should not replace the functions of home and civilian schools in forming our youth’s values. In fact, most Cubans who have lived for nearly six decades in this prison of olive-green uniformed guards, who have endured a regime of orders and control as if instead of citizens we are obedient soldiers, wish to be present at the conclusion of the detrimental cult of the epaulets and the philosophy of “people in uniform.”
A simple look at the most emblematic figures of Cuban civic history reveals the primacy of civilian-humanist over militaristic thought in forging the nation. Examples abound, but we quote only emblematic names like Félix Varela, José de la Luz y Caballero and José Martí, champions of virtues very distant from the staunch Hispanic militarism breath that has choked our spirit since 1492 until today.
A separate topic would be the future existence of military academies, where officers with real military vocations would be trained in different specialties, and would lead a well-paid professional army, properly prepared and much smaller in numbers than the substantial hordes of hungry and resentful rookies that are bundled in the armed forces today, who, in an imaginary case of aggression, would only serve as cannon fodder.
It is not reasonable that a small, poor and malnourished country that is not at war or under the threat of an armed conflict has more men lazing about wasting time in an unnecessary army than producing the wealth and food so urgently needed.
However, it remains true that in a future Cuba we will need a formidable army, only not an army of soldiers, but of teachers, professionals from all walks of life, from the labor forces, from our peasant population, our merchants, businessmen, free citizens. They will shoulder a much greater responsibility than a thousand regiments of warriors: the material and moral reconstruction of a nation ruined specifically by the military caste planted in power in the last half century, which has been more pernicious and destructive than the sum of all wars fought in the history of this land.
Translated by Norma Whiting