When Raul Castro became president of Cuba in his own right in 2008, he replaced most of his brother Fidel's cabinet with ministers of his own choosing. In March 2009, he announced a sweeping reorganization of the government bureaucracy, replacing nine veteran ministers and firing Fidel's proteges, Carlos Lage, the de facto prime minister, and Felipe Perez-Roque, the foreign minister. By 2012, across 26 ministries, only three of Fidel's appointees were still in office. Raul's new ministers came from the ranks of experienced professionals, a number of them from the armed forces.
Today, eight ministries are led by career military officers, three of whom are still on active duty. Of the 10 vice-presidents of the Council of Ministers, five are active-duty or former career military officers, not counting Raul himself. Of the 13 members of the Political Bureau of the Cuban Communist Party, four are active-duty generals and another is retired military, again not counting Raul.
, the prominence of so many senior officers in civilian posts has prompted speculation about a military "takeover" of the Cuban government. But to regard this circulation of elites as breaching some clear divide between civilian and military roles is to misunderstand the nature of civil-military relations in Cuba.
In fact, the civil-military boundary in Cuba has always been permeable. With the collapse of the old regime in 1959, state administration fell largely on the shoulders of the rebel army
. Local commanders implemented the new government's policies, and much of the new bureaucracy grew out of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, staffed by the army. During the 1960s, senior leaders circulated freely, moving among top posts in the armed forces, party and government as circumstances required.
During the 1970s, civilian and military roles were gradually differentiated as the army became more professional, developing a reputation as the country's best-organized and most efficient institution. Raul Castro's success in creating a well-trained, effective leadership team, however, meant that senior military officers were frequently called on to run civilian ministries when the civilians made a mess of things—a phenomenon dating back to the late 1960s when the civilian bureaucracy proved unable to manage the epic struggle to produce 10 million tons of sugar in 1970.
Thus, the prominence today of career military leaders in government is nothing new, and it should come as no surprise that Raul has promoted people he knows and trusts from his 47 years as minister of the armed forces.
Neither is there any hint of civil-military conflict. There have been no major disagreements between the Cuban armed forces and the senior civilian leadership since 1959, nor have there been any major cleavages within the armed forces—not even in 1989, when a number of senior officers, including “Hero of the Revolution” Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, were convicted
of drug trafficking and imprisoned or executed.
The armed forces accepts the authority of the Communist Party, while at the same time having a major say in the party and government’s direction through its substantial representation in decision-making bodies. Raul Castro himself has repeatedly emphasized
the leading role of the party, not the army, and the need to strengthen the party as an institution in order to ensure the sustainability of the revolution.
And, when necessary, the army has adapted. One way in which the role of the armed forces has changed dramatically in recent years is its contribution to the economy. The army's economic role began modestly in the late 1960s when troops were deployed to prepare for and bring in the 10 million-ton sugar harvest. In 1973, the armed forces created the Army of Working Youth to separate its agricultural labor force from regular combat units.
Then, in the 1980s, as Soviet assistance began to decline, Cuba built its own military industries, known collectively as the Defense Industry Group, to provide basic supplies. These enterprises were run by the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces itself. But the lack of experienced managers led Raul Castro to launch a training program for military cadres, sending hundreds abroad to study management in Western Europe and Asia. This corps of military managers made possible the subsequent growth of the military's economic might.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, throwing the Cuban economy into deep recession, the armed forces took on greater economic responsibility, first by focusing on food production to feed its own troops and to augment civilian supplies. The military also became a major player in Cuba's expanding tourism industry, converting the infrastructure of rest and recreation facilities for now-departed Soviet advisers into modern tourist facilities. With foreign investors and partners providing the capital, the military's Gaviota enterprise
became one of the largest tourist enterprises on the island and remains so today.
As Hal Klepak describes
, Gaviota's success led to the military taking on a larger role in managing
other enterprises in telecommunications, import-export and some retail operations, all of which are gathered under the umbrella of a holding company, the Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A. (GAESA).
The military managers trained abroad in the 1980s and their success building Gaviota and GAESA provided the model for the radical economic reforms
currently underway in the civilian state sector. The process of “perfeccionamiento empresarial
” (business improvement) at the heart of today's economic reforms originated in the Defense Industry Group in the 1980s.
In short, the Cuban armed forces are making a major contribution to, and have a major stake in, the Cuban economy—and in seeing the current process of economic transformation succeed.
The military has always been a critically important institution in Cuba, second only to the Communist Party. It has always had a major voice in policy through its representation in the highest councils of both party and government. Its key role in the Cuban economy assures that its institutional influence will not diminish anytime soon. But it is also a military that is loyal—to its commander, to the revolution and to “la patria.”
William M. LeoGrande is professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.”