August 15, 2006

Cuban army called key in any post-Castro scenario

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's armed forces, a one-time
guerrilla outfit that became the communist country's most
efficient and business-savvy institution, will play a crucial
role whatever happens after Fidel Castro, experts on Cuba say.

With their commander, Defense Minister Raul Castro, now
taking over at least temporarily from his brother Fidel Castro
as president, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) are
virtually running the country, they said.

"We have the head of the armed forces as the head of
state," said Hal Klepak, a professor of history at the Royal
Military College of Canada and author of a book on the FAR.

"The message is very clear -- there will not be disorder
because it won't be permitted."

Fidel Castro on Sunday spent his 80th birthday in a
hospital bed after surgery to stop intestinal bleeding around
two weeks earlier. Cuba on Monday evening issued video footage
of him being visited by his main leftist ally, Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez, putting paid to speculation that he
might in fact have died. But Castro looked frail.

Klepak said it was the armed forces and not the Communist
Party that wielded real power in Cuba today, especially with
Castro momentarily sidelined.

Born of the rag-tag force that the Castro brothers
assembled in the Sierra Maestra mountains to oust dictator
Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 revolution, the FAR is seen as
one of the best-trained armies in Latin America.

Its ranks have shrunk to 60,000 regular troops, one fifth
of the force that existed before the collapse of the Soviet
Union plunged Cuba into dire straits in 1991, Klepak said.

But it has reserves of 30,000 soldiers, a disciplined force
of 70,000 young Cuban recruits who work on its farms and a
territorial militia of some 700,000 people capable of firing
AK-47 semi-automatic rifles.

Bloodied and hardened by wars fought in Africa, the FAR has
been trained primarily to resist a U.S. invasion.

Its most critical role, however, in a Cuba without Fidel
Castro will not be to resist attack or enforce internal order,
but to manage the state, Cuba experts say.

"Without doubt, the FAR is the most efficient, best-trained
and most cohesive institution in Cuba," a European diplomat
said. "Take MINFAR (Armed Forces Ministry) out of the equation
and you don't have a state."

ARMY AS ENTREPRENEUR

The armed forces were the first institution to introduce
capitalist business practices in Cuba when fuel was so scarce
in the 1990s that MiG fighters had to be hauled into parking
slots by horses. Now MINFAR's business operations generate
billions of dollars in annual revenues.

The FAR controls industries, technology and computing
firms, vast farms and citrus plantations, beach resort hotels,
car rentals, an airline and a fleet of buses. It also owns one
of the largest retail chains in the country.

Generals runs Cuba's sugar industry, administer the ports
and direct the lucrative cigar industry.

Its core of trained managers may also prove useful to Raul
Castro if he decides to open up Cuba's economy along Chinese
lines, as some analysts expect.

"He is probably the only person in Cuba capable of
convincing the hard-liners to open up the economy," the
European diplomat said.

The FAR is also popular, unlike most Latin American
militaries. It is an article of faith that the army cannot fire
on the people, Klepak said.

"Tiananmen Square is the greatest nightmare the armed
forces have. When Cuban military officers saw Chinese armor
moving against civilians they said 'No way'," he said.

The other nightmare for Cuba's leadership is that East
European armies were "not willing to risk a fingernail" in the
defense of communism when the Soviet Union fell apart, he said.
The Cuban authorities expect otherwise from the FAR.