14ymedio, Juan Izquierdo, Havana, 9 November 2023 — Adrián González will never erase from his memory the suicide attempt in 1983 by one of his colleagues in the military service. Both were recruits in the military unit of La Cabaña, in Casablanca, on the other side of Havana Bay, when their friend climbed to the top of Christ, the colossal work of Jilma Madera, and jumped into the abyss shouting “I am Superman!” The fall was 20 meters (65 feet).
The young man survived, but was left one-armed and had to remain hospitalized for months. “He wanted to appear crazy and thus get out of the service,” says González, who today lives in New York, and whose memories of military unit 3074, located in La Cabaña, still keep him awake at night. “Until I left there, in 1986, there were at least three ’successful’ suicides. They all jumped off the Christ,” he tells 14ymedio.
At that time, he adds, the access to Christ, inaugurated a week before Batista’s escape, on December 24, 1958, was prohibited – “Fidel Castro did not like people going to pray there” – and he had it guarded, a single recruit, shotgun in hand. For many, the guard duty was a break from the oppressive environment of the unit, but many ended up overthinking and descending into depression, he says.
Another young man stole a rifle from the arsenal and shot himself in the head. His desperation had reached a point of no return and he no longer cared about getting out, but rather about killing himself. “The officers told us then that he had problems with his father, but we all knew what had happened: the boy was never able to adapt to the service,” González says.
“I told them that I wanted to kill myself. They didn’t believe me. Then they tried to put me in prison for repeated absences, because I was from El Vedado and I ran away every night”
Unable to physically harm himself, González also starred in an episode of “madness” to try to leave the unit sooner. “They took me to the psychiatrist at the Naval Hospital after I faked severe depression. I told them that I wanted to take my life. They didn’t believe me. Then they tried to put me in prison for repeated absences, because I was from El Vedado and I ran away every night.”
He ended up being evaluated by a team of doctors in Mazorra – the gloomy asylum in Havana – and after the diagnosis “they recognized that I had depression, but it was not enough to discharge me. In the end I completed my service, I spent three years and three months in that unit, but at least I got out of prison,” he says. His assessment, four decades later, is similar to that of any Cuban who has been at the mercy of the Armed Forces: “I am miraculously alive.”
A recent study by the organization Archivo Cuba (Cuba Archive) described Cuban military service as “human trafficking with a lethal cost” that has cost the lives of at least 54 young people — that were able to be documented — since its establishment by Law No. 1,129, of 26 November 1963. Only the Island and North Korea force minors under 18 years of age to train in Armed Forces facilities, with a program with strong ideological overtones that underlines the need for blind obedience to the regime.
The causes of death recorded by the Cuba Archive are several: suicides, negligence by superior officers, medical neglect, imprudent orders – such as the young recruits who died at the Matanzas Supertanker Base — and disappearances and deaths in unclear conditions.
“My son said he would rather die under Ukrainian bombs than from hunger and sadness here”
In 2021, the number of young people in Cuba of military age – between 15 and 29 years old – was 1,033,123, according to official data. They are “a large captive reserve,” the report assessed, “submerged in poverty and hopelessness,” which is why they looked for any opportunity, including military means, to leave the country.
The clear – and most serious – example is the presence of young Cubans in the Russian Army, participating in the invasion of Ukraine. Their motivation, many admitted, was economic. With 26,000 euros a year, the salary promised to some of the Cuban mercenaries, they intended to help their families and later manage to take them to Russia.
The report, signed by María Werlau, documents how the presence of Cubans in the Russian ranks was known and consented to by the leadership of both countries, whose military and political rapprochement has been consolidated in the last year. Werlau highlights the case of the two young people from the Island who reported having been “deceived” and “mistreated.” According to a video released by several media, they had signed a contract that did not stipulate their direct presence on the front, and yet they had been forced to participate directly in the war.
“My son said he would rather die under Ukrainian bombs than from hunger and sadness here,” the mother of one of the recruits had revealed, according to the document.
“Medical care is scarce and food is very poor and people even go hungry, which affects minors who are still growing the most.”
The report also dedicates a section to the most traumatic antecedent of the struggle of young Cubans on foreign battle fronts: Angola. “According to official figures, Cuba’s participation involved 377,033 soldiers and 50,000 civilian collaborators,” for whom the African country paid up to $1,000 for each member, it points out.
For Werlau, the conditions of military service in Cuba could not be more deplorable. “Many of the recruits are sent to remote units far from their families,” she says. “Medical care is scarce and food is very poor and people even go hungry, which affects minors who are still growing the most.” In addition, young people are prohibited from leaving the country.
The “ordeal of sorrow” that military service entails leaves a psychological – and often physical – toll that lasts a lifetime. González knows this well, having met his friend again years after his “jump” from the Cristo. When González congratulated him for having “earned” his exit, the other showed him his hands, still broken from the impact: “Your luck was better,” he said, “I regret it. Look how I turned out.”
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