Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), founded in 1959, have been among the world’s most successful militaries. In the early 1960s, they defended the new revolutionary regime against all adversaries during years when Cuba was invaded at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, faced nuclear Armageddon in 1962, and experienced a civil war that included U.S. support for regime opponents. From 1963 to 1991, the FAR served the worldwide objectives of a small power that sought to behave as if it were a major world power. Cuba deployed combat troops overseas for wars in support of Algeria (1963), Syria (1973), Angola (1975–1991), and Ethiopia (1977–1989). Military advisers and some combat troops served in smaller missions in about two dozen countries the world over. Altogether, nearly 400,000 Cuban troops served overseas. Throughout those years, the FAR also worked significantly to support Cuba’s economy, especially in the 1960s and again since the early 1990s following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Uninterruptedly, officers and troops have been directly engaged in economic planning, management, physical labor, and production. In the mid-1960s, the FAR ran compulsory labor camps that sought to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals and to remedy the alleged socially deviant behavior of these and others, as well. During the Cold War years, the FAR deepened Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union, deterred a U.S. invasion by signaling its cost for U.S. troops, and since the early 1990s developed confidence-building practices collaborating with U.S. military counterparts to prevent an accidental military clash.
Following false starts and experimentation, the FAR settled on a model of joint civilian-military governance that has proved durable: the civic soldier. The FAR and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) are closely interpenetrated at all levels and together endeavored to transform Cuban society, economy, and politics while defending state and regime. Under this hybrid approach, military officers govern large swaths of military and civilian life and are held up as paragons for soldiers and civilians, bearers of revolutionary traditions and ideology. Thoroughly politicized military are well educated as professionals in political, economic, managerial, engineering, and military affairs; in the FAR, officers with party rank and training, not outsider political commissars, run the party-in-the-FAR. Their civilian and military roles were fused, especially during the 1960s, yet they endured into the 21st century. Fused roles make it difficult to think of civilian control over the military or military control over civilians. Consequently, political conflict between “military” and “civilians” has been rare and, when it has arisen (often over the need for, and the extent of, military specialization for combat readiness), it has not pitted civilian against military leaders but rather cleaved the leadership of the FAR, the PCC, and the government. Intertwined leaderships facilitate cadre exchanges between military and nonmilitary sectors. The FAR enter their seventh decade smaller, undersupplied absent the Soviet Union, less capable of waging war effectively, and more at risk of instances of corruption through the activities of some of their market enterprises. Yet the FAR remain both an effective institution in a polity that they have helped to stabilize and proud of their accomplishments the world over.