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Raúl Castro and Cuba: A Military Story by Hal Klepak (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 588-589 | 10.1353/tam.2014.0024

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Fidel Castro has always been a very public man. The opposite is true of his brother Raúl. Hal Klepak offers a useful perspective on the present leader of the Cuba state, but goes to great pains to tell us it is not a biography. Aside from the fact that Raúl Castro is the longest-serving commander of an armed services establishment in modern history, the biographer has little to draw upon. The Cuban leader was long unwilling, before he succeeded his brother Fidel as head of state, to grant substantive interviews or make significant statements about Cuba’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), in whose trajectory he was indispensable. Instead, we are asked to rely on completely laudatory opinions by his senior commanders as testimony to his open personality and his skill and professionalism. Still, Klepak is well positioned to write this book. As a faculty member of the Royal Military College of Canada he was granted unique access to the FAR in the late 1990s when it was still struggling through Cuba’s “Special Period,” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With little substantive material to work from regarding Raúl’s personal or professional life, Klepak chooses wisely to frame this study in the context of the FAR’s central role in the Cuban Revolution. Nevertheless, the image of Raúl Castro is still opaque.

Most of all, Klepak presents Raúl Castro as a soldier whose disciplined and at times harsh character was forged as a young man in his early twenties in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. He contrasts Castro with the vast majority of Latin America’s senior military men who have not seen combat but have rather spent most of their careers in classrooms, in endless professional meetings, or on budget-restricted maneuvers. Raúl was an imaginative commander from his very early days in combat. When facing possible annihilation by Fulgencio Batista’s air force in June 1958, his guerrilla band kidnapped nearly 50 U.S. Marines and businessmen to force Washington to pressure Batista to call off the air assault.

Castro’s most significant contribution to the Cuban Revolution was to construct and head Latin America’s most professional and combat-ready military establishment, starting from its ragtag beginnings as an insurgency in the Sierra Maestra. The FAR’s primary mission was, of course, to defend Cuba. But Cuban soldiers went well beyond defense, to fight first in Algeria in 1961 and then in other nations throughout Africa. Klepak states that 300,000 Cuban soldiers fought in Africa in the 1970s and that 2,000 died. This casualty rate seems far too low given the massive front-line involvement in most of these military theaters in Africa. Unfortunately, we learn little of Raúl Castro’s role in this massive military intervention. Fidel is said to have explained that the African ventures were a moral payback for the brutality of African slavery in Cuba. But what about the payback to the Soviet Union, which was the principal funding source for the Cuban armed forces and most of the Cuban economy?

What makes this all so very interesting is the seeming contradiction inherent in Raúl Castro’s legacy. He fashioned the most professional and proficient military in all of Latin America history, all the while depending on young men (and women, for the Cuban militias), who did not like the idea of military service. Klepak points out that this is the reason, in part, that military service was recently reduced from three to two years. The economy was another compelling reason. Yet, when Cuba faced the crises of the Special Period, military personnel did a good deal of the work of the private sector: driving taxis, flying commercial aircraft, and in the early years of the Revolution, harvesting sugarcane during the abortive Ten Million Ton Harvest.

Now that Raúl Castro is a more public man, we may hope to get more than a glimpse of his character and his primary motivations. Klepak’s study helps us begin that process, but there is much more to be revealed.

Copyright © 2014 Academy of American Franciscan History
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