López Cuba commanded the tank battalion of the Cuban army at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. In the 1970s he carried out internationalist missions in Syria and Angola, and he headed the Cuban military mission in Nicaragua in the 1980s. He is currently responsible for political education in the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) of Cuba.
The following interview with López Cuba was conducted in Havana, Cuba, on October 20, 1997, by Jack Barnes, Mary- Alice Waters, and Martín Koppel. Barnes and Waters were in Havana to participate in the October 21-23 international workshop on "Socialism as the 21st Century Approaches," sponsored by the Communist Party of Cuba, and to cover that conference for the Militant and the Spanish-language monthly magazine Perspectiva Mundial. Barnes is national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, and Waters is editor of the Marxist magazine New International. Koppel is editor of Perspectiva Mundial.
In coming issues, the Militant will publish interviews they conducted with two other veteran revolutionaries and high-ranking officers of the FAR, Div. Gen. Enrique Carreras and Brig. Gen. José Ramón Fernández.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted with permission.
Waters: We would like to begin by asking you about the book Secretos de generales (Secrets of Generals) published here in Cuba earlier this year.(1) How did this book come about, and how are you using it?
The experience of the Rebel Army and the formation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces - their place in the history and political course of the Cuban revolution -are very important to young workers, students, and soldiers in the United States today who are trying to figure out how to fight effectively against imperialism. Among the young people being won to the communist movement, the fighters of the Rebel Army are heroes. They know about men and women like Vaquerito,(2) and draw inspiration from such examples. "We want to be the same type of revolutionaries," they say.
So the interviews in this book are important to us in the United States, and we'd like to get your comments on it.
López Cuba: Since the first years after the revolution's triumph, our leaders, the commander in chief [Fidel Castro] and the minister [of the armed forces, Raúl Castro], have said that we were capable of making history but not of writing it.
Writing was quite difficult for those of us in the Rebel Army, since almost all of us were peasants and workers, with a low cultural level. Even if we had wanted to devote ourselves to writing history during the first years of the revolution, I believe it would have been impossible, given our lack of skills.
What's more, since the very first days of the revolution we faced constant threats. We had to remain by our tanks, by our artillery, training and preparing ourselves. Because we knew an attack was imminent. That's another very powerful reason.
During those early years, Che wrote a little about the guerrilla, about the experience of the guerrillas. He wrote Socialism and Man in Cuba. Some diaries, such as those by Almeida and Che and Raúl, had been filed away somewhere and not released publicly; they began to be published sometime after the twentieth anniversary, and around the thirtieth anniversary of the Granma landing.(3)
The first years were difficult. We had no arms. We tried to get them from capitalist countries, but they sabotaged our efforts to do so. Later, at the end of 1960, arms began to arrive from the Soviet Union and the socialist camp. We continued the difficult task of training ourselves, of preparing ourselves, because everything pointed to an imminent attack.
In April 1961 the first invasion took place.(4) Of course, there had been acts of sabotage even before that, in 1959 and 1960. Our sugar mills and plantations had been bombed. The freighter La Coubre was blown up, with its shipment of arms we had purchased from Belgium at enormous effort, collecting funds from the people for antiaircraft weapons.(5)
All this, I believe, made it impossible for the protagonists of that early chapter in the struggle of the Rebel Army to write things down.
Later our country began to strengthen itself defensively. The relations we had with the socialist camp were a big help in improving our economy a bit. We were training ourselves, studying, raising our skill level. We now faced a different situation.
Our internationalist missions began, and they were very complex during the first years. Beginning in 1963 we aided Algeria, and then came our support to some of the liberation movements in Africa. The missions became a little more massive in Syria in 1973, in Angola in 1975, in Ethiopia in 1977.(6)
Through the international assistance we were providing other nations, we were accumulating many years of military training, of schooling. We were raising our cultural level and, of course, our combat experience. And that's leaving aside our own guerrilla experience of 1957 and 1958.
Our Rebel Army had by now become a more modern armed force - more capable, better trained, with an educated cadre.
Beginning many years ago the journalist Luis Báez - who has had some experience in doing interviews in Los que se quedaron [Those who stayed](7) - started insisting that something had to be written about our armed forces. There were years of attempts, but no results. So that's where the idea came from. Báez raised this with Almeida in 1994 and Almeida consulted Raúl. Raúl liked the idea, because he had always thought we should write down our experiences.
Previously there had been no interviews with generals except about particular historical dates and events. Then the anniversary of Girón came around, and there were interviews about the individual experiences each of us had at Girón. And that's when the book was authorized - to collect together interviews with a group of generals.
Preparing this book was not an easy task, of course. Because when you read it, if you have read it, you'll see that the book contains things our people themselves didn't know about, and that were completely new for the rest of the world. It contains things that had been kept on a need-to- know basis, held in the strictest secrecy.
The minister was asked whether the interviews could be completely open. Would we be able to tell all? And he said yes, there would be no restrictions. Some interviews are a little longer than others, more extensive, but they were all cut down a little. This is how Secretos de generales came about.
The book, of course, does not include all the generals; we have ninety or a hundred generals, and there are interviews with only forty-one of us in the book. In addition, there is a group of combatants who were commanders of the Rebel Army, heads of columns in the Sierra.(8) An effort is now being made to collect together interviews with them, so that none of their experiences are lost. Many of these compañeros are now retired, but they have rich experiences to tell about, since they played a decisive role in the fight against the Batista tyranny.
This is the origin of Secretos de generales. And that is why it has had such an impact on the population. Because there are things in the book that I and other compañeros tell about that not even our families, not even our wives or children, knew beforehand. This has been very valuable for the Cuban people, as well as for our friends abroad, who have found out many things from the book for the first time. That is what makes Secretos de generales so interesting, I believe.
October 1962 `missile crisis'
Barnes: As you know, the way the history of the 1962 October Crisis is written in the United States, [U.S. president John] Kennedy and [Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev saved the world from nuclear holocaust. But we have always told people that the truth lies elsewhere. It was the Cuban people and the Revolutionary Armed Forces that saved the world.(9)
Kennedy fully intended to mount an invasion of Cuba in October 1962, as he had been planning to do for more than a year. Previously classified documents released in the past few years, however, show that his hand was stayed when the Pentagon informed him that he could expect an estimated 18,000 U.S. troop casualties just during the first ten days of an invasion. The Cuban people were armed and mobilized on a massive scale, Kennedy was told by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And the Cuban army was large for a small country, and, together with the militias, very combat-ready.
Kennedy feared the domestic political consequences as a flood of body bags began coming home. So that's when he started probing Khrushchev for a deal.
Just two nights ago, Mary-Alice and I spoke at a public meeting in Chicago that was a send-off for this trip to Cuba. There were over a hundred workers and youth in attendance, and we told them that among other things we would be interviewing several generals of the FAR while we were here. And we promised we would pass along to you our conviction, as revolutionists who work and fight in the United States, that the Cuban people and their armed forces saved the world, because you were ready to fight.
So we'd like to ask you about where you were during the October Crisis and your memory of the response by workers and farmers, in an out of uniform, during those days.
López Cuba: It's very true, as you say, that the armed forces, and the people of Cuba above all, played a decisive role in preventing a nuclear holocaust. Because it was understood in Washington that the people would fight and the invasion would be costly. This has been the attitude of our people from the triumph of the revolution until today, I believe. Had this consciousness not existed, they would have invaded us.
At the time of Girón, there is no question that [former U.S. president Dwight] Eisenhower had bequeathed the mercenary brigades to Kennedy, and Kennedy had to support them in the invasion. The one decision Kennedy made on his own was not to land the U.S. Marines behind the mercenaries. Had Eisenhower been in power, we believe, things would have been different; they would have sent in the marines. But Kennedy had just become president, and I think this made him stop and think a bit.
The North Americans have presented their version of the October Crisis. The Russians have told theirs. Cuba has issued important statements and published documents, above all during the conference held in Havana on the thirtieth anniversary of the crisis, attended by Fidel and McNamara,(10) but we have not yet said the final word.
I believe that much remains to be told about the events of the October Crisis, about the role played by Fidel, the leadership of the revolution, our people, and the armed forces.
Of course, the fact that many documents have now been declassified in the United States and Russia adds new elements that make our position much clearer.
In any case, leaving aside the decisions taken by both the U.S. and Soviet governments - both of them nuclear powers - I believe the stance and position of the Cuban people and its armed forces in defending Cuba during the crisis played a decisive role. That factor carried a lot of weight in the decisions made by both governments, especially the United States government.
At military academy in Russia
Now, let me turn to your question about what I was doing during the October Crisis. After Girón I went to the Soviet Union to take my first study course as a tank operator. That's where I was when the October Crisis hit. So I was not one of the protagonists in those events.
Barnes: Perhaps you can tell us what the atmosphere was like among the Cubans who were in Russia during the crisis? And among those in the Russian military who were training you?
López Cuba: Well, information began to arrive immediately. Those of us at the military academy were told that the instructions from Cuba were for us to remain calm, that there were sufficient forces there to solve the problem.
But we planned to hijack a plane from the Moscow airport and return to Cuba. This coincided with a visit by Che to Africa, so our leaders sent him to Moscow to meet with us and calm us down, since they knew we were prepared to return to Cuba at all costs. We were ready to head to the airport and seize a plane by force, militarily. We were going to steal the guns from the storerooms at the school. But we had it all planned, because we knew we were not going to be allowed to leave otherwise.
That was the situation. But there was something else. We had already spent eight months at the academy, and were well liked by the teachers and personnel, who were also closely following the situation in Cuba. So we had volunteers to come join us in the expedition!
I didn't include this anecdote in Secretos de generales, but that's what happened. We came up with a plot to figure out how we were going to return to Cuba, no matter what.
The Soviet people - our teachers, the common people - showed a great deal of solidarity with us. They knew about the unilateral decisions taken by the Khrushchev government and were against them. They also knew about Fidel's declaration that the moral missiles we possessed in Cuba were more powerful than the nuclear missiles. All these speeches reached the Soviet people.
Protests in the United States
Waters: That's very useful to learn about. During those same days in October 1962, we were organizing demonstrations in the United States. Jack and I were both university students at that time, in different cities.
López Cuba: You were organizing support activities?
Waters: Yes. To demand "U.S. Hands Off Cuba!" "U.S. Out of Guantánamo!" "Stop the Invasion!"
Barnes: Communists in the United States had had no contact with revolutionists in Cuba when the crisis began, of course. But we supported the Cuban revolution, wholeheartedly. Some revolutionary-minded young people in the U.S., including myself, were actually won to communism in Cuba. I spent several months here in Cuba in the summer of 1960. I recall asking a Cuban compañero I had come to trust whether he thought I should stay in Cuba or go back to the United States. I wanted to stay, because we all knew the invasion was coming.
"Go back to the United States," he told me, "and make a revolution there."
I decided he was right. And I've never gone back on that agreement.
During the October Crisis there were a few older socialists in the United States who had been worn down by the retreat of the labor movement and the McCarthyite witch- hunt during the 1950s; they held the view that there was nothing much anyone could do. "Either the Russians and the Americans will go to war or they won't," they said. "It's too late to demonstrate; too late to go onto the streets."
We responded, "Well, all we can do is fight. Washington has to know they will pay a price if they go to war against Cuba."
The big majority in the communist movement in the U.S. - young or old - responded as we did. We knew the Cuban people were ready to fight, and we were determined to fight alongside them. Understanding that facing those who are ready to fight like in Cuba is what holds off the imperialists is the most important lesson for young revolutionists to learn. Otherwise they start believing that all of history is negotiated deals by big governments.
López Cuba: What you say is very important because popular pressure in the United States is what forced the U.S. government to pull its troops out of Vietnam.
The Cuban revolution today remains on a firm footing. At the same time, the U.S. government knows that the progressive people of the United States, the working people, will take to the streets to stop an attack on Cuba, as they did during Vietnam. There is solidarity with Cuba around the world, as well, and this too has acted as a brake on Washington.
Of course, we continue to be under blockade. During the October Crisis it was a military blockade, but the economic blockade is just as cruel and violent. We will overcome this one too.
Revolution in Nicaragua
Waters: In Secretos de generales you talk about your experiences in Nicaragua as head of Cuba's military advisors to the Sandinista government. You explain there that it takes a high level of leadership to be able to advise and provide aid, even when not everything is being done the way you would do it. That it is harder to act ...
López Cuba: ... as an adviser than to be a combatant. Yes, that is the hardest task.
Barnes: I have been asked by some of our youngest and most fiery comrades: "Why didn't the FAR make them act like the FAR in Nicaragua?" And I tell them that a very important political question was at stake here: Either the Nicaraguan revolution will be made by Nicaraguans, or it will not be made. Another day will come, and the Nicaraguans must look at Cuba as people who always treated them with utter respect and dignity, under the most difficult circumstances.
Clearly, this must have been a very difficult responsibility you shouldered in Nicaragua. There are many young workers and revolutionists in the United States who would like to know: Would you do anything differently if you had it to do over again?
The Nicaraguan and Grenada revolutions were central to the revitalization of our movement in the United States, and they had a similar impact on millions of revolutionary- minded workers and youth in Cuba. So it would be useful for us if you could say a few words about your experiences in Nicaragua, and about the differences between serving as an advisor there and commanding your own forces here in Cuba.
López Cuba: That is a complex question. As you noted, I made an attempt in Secretos de generales to give a little bit of a picture of what Nicaragua was facing.
Let me begin by going back in time to the defeat of the Batista army, which had U.S. government advisors. To understand how we were able to defeat this army, it is important to look at where the rebel forces that fought Batista came from - to look at our origins as a popular army.
The armed forces across the continent, of course, were prepared to back the existing governments. They were ready to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie and the landlords of their respective countries, as well as the U.S. interests in these countries.
But these armed forces were not prepared for one major contingency - that is, they were not prepared to confront an internal struggle, fought by irregular forces with popular support.
Following the triumph of the revolution in 1959, the U.S. government took a series of measures to ensure that Cuba would not be repeated elsewhere on the continent. The approach of the U.S. government, and accordingly of governments in other countries in the region, began to change in order to prepare these armies for whatever contingency might occur.
In Nicaragua, the Sandinista guerrillas had spent many years fighting heroically to defeat [the dictatorship of Anastasio] Somoza and we know how many years the guerrillas fought in El Salvador too. The U.S. imperialists gave the reactionary forces in those countries a great deal of support to prevent the triumph of the revolutionary forces.
Following the Nicaraguan revolution, the guerrilla movement that took up arms against the Sandinista regime was not the same in its composition as the one that had done so against the Cuban regime in the Escambray mountains. In the Escambray, those who took up arms were the interests who wanted to regain their wealth with the support of the United States. They were the ones who joined the invasion force at Girón.
In Nicaragua the situation was unique. It was the poor, the people of humble background - supported and equipped by the U.S. - who were actually engaged in fighting the government. This was a government that had declared itself revolutionary, right in the heart of Central America - in a location the United States considered very dangerous, since the revolution's influence could spread both north and south. The North Americans were willing to spend their last dime in Nicaragua to make sure the Sandinistas failed.
This was the situation we faced. We had supported the Sandinista guerrillas before the triumph in 1979, and we began to advise and to assist the new government immediately. But the Nicaraguans were the ones who would decide - that was always our conception. They were the ones who would defend their revolution. We could not interfere in their decisions, nor take positions that would undermine their authority.
That is how we functioned during the ten, almost eleven years we were in Nicaragua - with a great deal of tact, a great deal of care, a great deal of respect.
The government confronted a very difficult situation. The war was a protracted one. It was taking a cruel toll on the people, and on their children. The external pressures on the Sandinistas were very powerful, and they saw a way out through elections.
We tried to convince them that under those circumstances of war, elections were not the correct way to resolve the problems they faced. We knew that imperialism was going to throw all its economic power into the balance around those elections. Owing to Nicaragua's extreme poverty, it would have been very difficult for the Sandinistas to defeat the opposition, which was supported by reaction and by foreign capital. We foresaw what the outcome was likely to be. But the decision was one the Nicaraguans had to make.
Draft army or volunteers?
The Sandinistas had both Cuban and Soviet military advisers, and we didn't always agree on our advice. The Soviets argued for a large, professional, technically sophisticated, regular army. We, on the other hand, believed Nicaragua needed an army capable of eliminating the irregular forces they confronted internally, and that this could not be accomplished by a regular army. These differences over the conception of the struggle and structure of the army were ones we also faced in Angola and elsewhere in Africa.
An irregular struggle, we pointed out, had to be fought with irregular forces prepared for such a struggle, not with large regular units. It had to be fought by volunteers. That's how we defeated the bandits in the early years of the Cuban revolution.(11)
Under difficult and complex conditions such as those in Nicaragua at the time, it is hard to draft a soldier, put him under discipline, and take him to war. Given the country's poverty, a soldier called up to serve often had to leave his family in hunger. And the war, which had begun barely a year after the Sandinista triumph, dragged on for eight or nine years.
As I said in Secretos de generales, there were brave and excellent soldiers, excellent combatants - on both sides. They were all Nicaraguans, with different ideals, different interests. It was a cruel struggle, one that bled the Nicaraguan people.
That's the situation we found ourselves in the middle of, as we sought to aid the Sandinista government during the more than ten years it existed. All of us are aware of the outcome, but I believe they made a big effort to preserve the revolution.
Today Nicaragua is suffering the consequences of a neoliberal government. During the years of the revolution, Sandinismo registered some gains for the exploited classes, for the peasants and workers, but all this is being dismantled today. The government is taking away the land from the peasants, and nationalized properties are being liquidated. That is the situation in Nicaragua today - a sad one, but the reality.
Waters: Many of us spent time in Nicaragua during the years of the revolution, and the Militant and Perspectiva Mundial maintained a news bureau there for more than a decade, beginning within weeks after the victory in July 1979. We followed the revolution closely. I remember what happened when the Sandinistas decided in 1983 to institute compulsory military service, rather than continuing to build an army based on politically motivated volunteers. The landlord-capitalist opposition and their sponsors in Washington immediately launched a political campaign to turn layers of the toilers against the revolution.
López Cuba: The enemy and other reactionary forces in Nicaragua exploited the issue of the draft, demanding that it be eliminated. I think this was a decisive factor in the outcome.
The conditions existed to create a volunteer army without the need for conscription, since Sandinismo had the support of broad popular forces in Nicaragua. Due to the conception of the need for a large regular army to fight an external enemy, however, they continued applying the military service law in order to achieve such professional military structures.
In fact, the first units of the Sandinista People's Army in the opening years were trained in irregular warfare and composed of volunteers. They could have eliminated the counterrevolution with volunteer forces - without the need for a draft army.
Political education in army
Waters: The young generation here in Cuba does not have opportunities right now to participate in internationalist missions, in the way that your generation and others have. Such missions have provided not only essential military experience but have been a central element of political education as well. Could you talk a little about political education and training within the armed forces today?
López Cuba: The political work in the armed forces has a very rich history. It goes back to our war of independence against Spain, and later to the irregular war against Batista. Many cadres and leaders of the revolution received their fundamental political education in the guerrilla in the mountains.
During the period since the triumph of the revolution, it has been the aggressive policy of the United States itself - its unrelenting pressure - that has been the biggest stimulus to political and ideological work among the combatants and the people. To underline this point, I'll remind you that early this year we decided to hold our congress(12) in the midst of the tense, difficult, and complex economic conditions created by the U.S. blockade.
By chance, Che's remains were found in Bolivia(13) just a few months after the party congress had been called. It's incredible what it has meant to bring back Che's remains - as well as those of the compañeros who fell with him in combat - right in the midst of our preparations for the congress, and then the congress itself. And you saw the ceremonies giving posthumous tribute to Che and his compañeros, and laying their remains to rest in Santa Clara. It's incredible to see the effect this has had on the political morale and consciousness of our people.
Ever since the triumph of the revolution, there have been particular events that have strengthened the unity of the people and the leadership of our country. During the early years, for example, there were all the threats we confronted and repelled with our small Rebel Army, reinforced by the volunteer militias. There was the fight against the bandits in the Escambray, Girón, the October Crisis. In 1964 we faced a crisis when the U.S. Navy seized some Cuban fishermen and our government cut off the water supply to the Guantánamo naval base.(14)
Not a year has passed without threats, I believe. And that fact, of course, makes it necessary for the military and political cadres of the revolution to base ourselves on the population. There's no other way to have confronted what we've lived through over the past thirty-eight years. We've had to work hard; we've had to carry out political work with the combatants, with the militias, with the people. And all this has forged greater unity among the people.
There's no question, as you pointed out, that our internationalist missions have been a catalyst for the values that exist among the Cuban people. Being willing to fight for Cuba is one thing. But it's quite another thing to say: let's go to Angola, let's go to Ethiopia, let's go to Nicaragua, let's go to Mozambique, let's go to Syria.
When I was in Syria(15) I was sometimes asked: "How many dollars did they give you to come here?" The same question was sometimes asked when I was in Angola, and in Nicaragua. And I would reply that I received nothing. "We are not mercenaries," I would say. "My salary is given to my family in Cuba, and they are provided with what they need. I don't need anything here."
This is something very difficult for anybody in a capitalist army to understand, of course. But it also gives an insight into the qualities of our people and armed forces.
During the war in Nicaragua we decided to send teachers there, and thirty thousand Cubans volunteered to take part in this internationalist mission. Two of these teachers were killed by the contras, and within a few hours of learning about these deaths one hundred thousand Cubans volunteered to go.
That's the way it is in Cuba. Throughout difficult years, the people have been on the side of the revolution. And this has been the foundation upon which we have organized political and ideological work within the armed forces.
Impact of economic measures
There is no question that the economic measures we've had to take in recent years - the agricultural markets, self- employment, the UBPCs, the decriminalization of the use of hard currency(16) - represent a big challenge for us today. These measures undoubtedly transform consciousness somewhat, particularly in the new generations. Because among those called up to serve in the armed forces today may be the son of a self-employed person, the son of a UBPC member, the son of someone who receives money from relatives living in the United States.
So, we've had to refine and improve our political education work in light of this reality. What is our starting point? We start from the fact that after the triumph of the revolution, right up until 1967, we had self- employed people, we had a farmers' market. In other words, all the things we've now had to reintroduce out of economic necessity have existed before in the history of the revolution. But the sons and daughters from all those social layers took part in internationalist missions.
During the fight against Batista, there were people who sold their photographic equipment or their carpentry shop to raise funds to buy arms for the July 26 Movement. Later on, during the first years of the revolution, people left their jobs or gave up their businesses to go to the Escambray to fight the bandits. Others closed up their shops and went to Girón to repel the invaders - just like that, in an instant! They simply closed their doors and went. Later, after they had returned, we had to mobilize some of these people again - for months at a time, in some cases - and meanwhile their shops remained closed. I'm talking here about people who made their living through those shops.
In other words, our experience shows that all sectors of people can be patriots and fight for the revolution. This is where our great task lies. You can be a self-employed person and also be a communist and a revolutionary. You can receive money from your family in the United States and also be a patriot - that is, also be someone who fights on the side of the revolution.
It's true that a Cuban who gets $25 or $30 sent from the United States has the equivalent of the monthly wage I receive as a general. That's a mathematical fact, if you look at the exchange rate between the dollar and the peso. Our real wage, of course, is not just our paycheck of 500 or 600 pesos. We also receive benefits such as education, health care, social welfare. All sorts of things that would be very expensive in any other country - housing, for example; schools; telephone bills -are very inexpensive in Cuba. We receive all these things as a result of the revolution, but they are not included in our paycheck.
Cubans today who work in a mixed enterprise, or who have jobs related to tourism, receive benefits that the rest of the population does not. This is the challenge we confront today in political and ideological work, I believe. We face it in the armed forces - because we get young people in the FAR who are under all these influences -but also more broadly in Cuba as a whole. During the recent party congress, the commander in chief pointed out that in face of these challenges we must not overlook the kind of political work we have to carry out every day.
The youth is the sector of our society where many of these influences I've been describing are the greatest. So while we don't have any internationalist missions today, we must involve young people in the big effort to pull the economy of our country out of the Special Period. And this, of course, involves a great deal of political and ideological work.
The documents of the recent party congress are now being studied not only by all 770,000 members of the party and half million members of the Union of Young Communists, but also by the combatants in the armed forces and the rest of the population. Nothing about the congress is a secret. Everything will be accessible to the people, so they know what was discussed, how it was discussed, and what they can do to help get out of the difficult situation we still face.
Throughout this thirty-eight-year historic process in Cuba, the armed forces have relied on patriotism and motivation to keep our troops at a high level of combat morale and combat readiness. This is at the heart of our work. In carrying it out, we have the great advantage that despite their age - the commander is 71 and the minister is 66 - Fidel and Raúl have great vitality. They are our best political workers. They have a direct rapport with the troops through their speeches. The minister is constantly visiting the units and talking with individual soldiers, as well as with the leadership of the party and of the Union of Young Communists in the armed forces. The commander works directly through his own intervention, as well as through written instructions.
It's important that we have a minister of the armed forces, Raúl, who is very demanding in the training and political education of our troops. This helps us a great deal in carrying out our responsibilities for political and ideological work in the armed forces.
That is what I can tell you. This was a difficult and complicated question, but an interesting one nonetheless, since it's something the enemies of the revolution understand very little about. Isn't that right? Many of them were predicting that we would collapse when the Soviet Union and the socialist camp disappeared, but the truth is that we are not going to disappear.
Raúl and Che
Barnes: What you've just said about Raúl is particularly useful for us, since he has long been a special target of scurrilous propaganda in the United States. Raúl is portrayed as brutal, as a thug.
Those of us who have been able to follow the Cuban revolution from the beginning recognize this deception for what it is. But the U.S. press and politicians keep hammering on this theme, as one of the ways they try to undermine support for the Cuban revolution among new layers of workers and young people. We'd appreciate anything you could say to help us be more effective in telling the truth about Raúl and other Cuban leaders.
López Cuba: Yes, the image they present of Raúl is of an unfeeling person, an authoritarian person. Unfortunately they know little of his virtues: his simplicity, his humanity, his concern for the individual, for his subordinates, for his family, for the people.
This false image is more and more being broken, I believe. But the enemies of the revolution still exploit it.
You will notice that when Fidel refers to Raúl, he doesn't talk about him as "my brother." No, he says Raúl is second secretary of the party because he has earned that responsibility during the years of the revolution.
The world needs to become better acquainted with Raúl's qualities as a leader, as a man, as a human being, as a person of feeling. That's undoubtedly true.
Barnes: It's very difficult to be a commander in a revolutionary army. You must make decisions that affect people's lives, so you have to be objective. Friendship can have nothing to do with it. As you're making those decisions, however, a revolutionary commander cares deeply about every single soldier and his or her family.
López Cuba: That's true.
Barnes: But officers in capitalist armies are not like that, so they don't understand these leadership qualities you've been describing. At the same time, these are qualities that revolutionary-minded fighters in mass work and in the trade unions in the United States deeply admire in the FAR. They look to it as a revolutionary institution that produces the kind of leaders they seek to emulate. That's why what you say about Raúl is important for reasons above and beyond setting the record straight.
Washington lives on the hope there will be a division in the FAR and in the party leadership in Cuba. But they don't understand the FAR. They confuse their hopes with reality.
López Cuba: Yes, that's true. This is an old wish of theirs. When Che left Cuba in 1965, the enemies of the revolution began speculating about disagreements between Che and Fidel. These stories began circulating before Fidel made public Che's farewell letter to him a few months later in 1965, but they've continued ever since. There is no more convincing explanation as to why Che left, however, than that letter to Fidel. It is extremely valuable as a political testament.(17)
Land mines: `Weapon of the poor'
Waters: An interesting interview appeared in Granma International a few weeks ago with Cuban Brigadier General Luis Pérez Róspide, who heads up military industries for the Revolutionary Armed Forces.(18) The interviewer paraphrases Róspide as saying that his department of the FAR has the "basic mission of guaranteeing that each Cuban has a rifle, a land mine, and a grenade to defend the country."
The article continues, noting that when the general was asked about the manufacture and utilization of land mines, which are opposed by some rich countries, Róspide "gave his opinion that no one discussed this issue with the poor or those who are threatened by nuclear weapons and have none of their own. `Land mines are the weapon of the poor,' General Róspide declared."
We'd like to get your opinion on this question, since a very big campaign is under way in the capitalist world, promoted by the governments of Canada and various members of the European Union, to sign an international treaty banning land mines.
López Cuba: Yes, and unfortunately this campaign also has broad backing among persons who are very progressive, very humanitarian, and who have enormous respect in world public opinion. To some extent this is understandable, since this is a very human question.
But one has to ask: What about the two flights by B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How many people were killed? How many victims are still dying from the effects? If a nuclear arsenal exists capable of annihilating the world, why not fight against this?
Because mines are the weapon of the poor. They are the weapon of those who don't have the resources to buy a B-52 bomber or an F-16 fighter jet.
A number of years ago, when the collapse of socialism had already begun, the Soviets gave us a final squadron of MIG-29 fighters. Six were delivered.
Recently, the Russian government proposed to sell the FAR more of these MIG-29s. The minister asked them: "How much do they cost?"
"Twenty million dollars," he was told.
So the minister replied: "We'll sell you the six we already have!"
Actually, we have been making an effort to sell these MIG-29s, and to get authorization from the Russians to collect payment. Because a poor country like Cuba, whose armed forces and budget depend on the our economic possibilities, cannot afford these expensive aircraft. We cannot afford other types of expensive and sophisticated weaponry, nor are they particularly necessary if we take into account the popular character and strictly defensive purpose of our weapons, including the antipersonnel mines we have, which are not for use in another country
So what can we use to resist? Weapons that are the least expensive - rifles, mines, molotov cocktails, antitank grenades. That is why we have to adopt this stance against banning land mines.
How many billions of dollars does the United States sell in arms to Third World governments? It's an incredible figure - and at the cost of hunger, of dire poverty. How many millions are killed by the "bombs" of starvation, lack of electric power, health care, food? And why does this happen? Because of the dependency of these countries on big capital. Because of the exploitation of the people of those countries. That's the truth.
Yet they single out mines to be against - because they are weapons of the poor. If we had our way, we would rather not have mines, or rifles, or any other weapons. Let them respect the sovereignty of the peoples. Let there be justice. But as long as we continue to be under constant threat, we are the ones who are accountable for the security of our people.
That is why we have been very cautious in giving our opinion on this world campaign against mines.
We know all about land mines. The majority of the combatants we lost in internationalist missions were due to mines. The majority of those crippled were due to mines. We know the effects of this weapon. But isn't that true of all weapons? In any case, there are weapons that are much more deadly than mines.
That's the reality. That is the reason for our position.
Barnes: It's when the peoples give up their right to defend themselves that they will be slaughtered.
López Cuba: Yes, that's the truth.
Barnes: People sometimes ask us, "Do you really believe the Americans will use their nuclear weapons someday?" We reply, "They've already used them! Against the peoples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." And it is only the readiness of people around the world to fight that stops the U.S. rulers from using those weapons of mass destruction once again.
López Cuba: Exactly.
Barnes: So that gives us time to fight to take their arms away from them. American workers will come to understand this very well.
Bay of Pigs
Waters: We would be very interested if you would discuss your experiences as a tank commander at Playa Girón.
López Cuba: This is treated quite extensively in Secretos de generales. Not just in my account, but also in those by Fernández and by Carreras.(19)
In my account, I stressed that the propaganda campaign in the United States - both by Cubans living there, as well as by other reactionary forces - created an impression that an invasion of Cuba would have the support of the entire people, who were against the revolution. This would make it easier for the United States to support the mercenary brigades and later, of course, would facilitate the coming to power of a provisional government and the occupation of Cuba.
Instead, from the moment the mercenaries landed, they were met by machine-gun fire that lasted right up until the invasion was crushed seventy-two hours later. So the North Americans discovered very early the truth behind the lie they themselves had been promoting - that the Cuban people dislike the revolution. From that time on, and especially following the mobilization during the October Crisis, they knew the Cuban people were willing to fight.
The top U.S. leadership is well aware of the price of an invasion of Cuba. That is what has saved us from drastic measures by them.
There was a risk they might have become emboldened as a result of the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp. That could have led them to believe that our armed forces might lose their fighting capacity.
That is precisely why we have taken important steps to make sure they know the truth. The truth is that at the time of Girón, half a million people were armed. Today three million people are armed - all the people - and ready to defend the revolution. The entire people.
This is what has prevented U.S. aggression from taking on an armed character, I believe. Instead they have chosen two other routes, track one and track two,(20) that start with economic warfare and then move on to ideological confrontation. These are our two real enemies.
Waters: I was struck by your description in Secretos de generales of the intense period of training shortly before Playa Girón, when your first tank units were being formed. Everything you and other combatants were learning from Soviet instructors in the morning you were teaching to the rest of the unit later that same day.
López Cuba: Yes, we were still basically a guerrilla army when we had to begin confronting U.S. aggression. At the time of Girón, the units of the future armed forces had not yet been formed. The tank operators, artillerymen, and anti-aircraft operators had not yet completed their training courses. Our pilots were still flying the broken-down old planes inherited from Batista's air force. Most of the weapons and equipment we had purchased to outfit the new armed forces had not yet arrived. In short, we faced a situation that was very dangerous for the revolution.
It was the revolutionary enthusiasm of the people that made the difference at Girón. Our brigades were made up not only of troops, but also of volunteers who just showed up. They knew Fidel was there, and the fact that the commander in chief was present throughout the entire battle had an enormous impact. He was very insistent, very hardheaded. When we wouldn't let him get into one of our tanks, he got in a tank in another column coming from the other direction.
We were accustomed to this, since it had been the same in the Sierra. Later, during Hurricane Flora it was the same.(21) During the October Crisis it was the same. Whatever the situation - an assault on the revolution, a natural disaster - the commander in chief was always there.
The same was true August 5.(22) He has always been in the front trench, without fear of the risks. That is one of the reasons the revolution still lives, I believe.
FAR's leadership role
Barnes: Following the crisis in the Revolutionary Armed Forces and Ministry of the Interior in 1989, involving Ochoa and Abrantes and several others,(23) fighters in the United States and elsewhere noticed that the FAR took on even more leadership responsibility throughout Cuba. The breadth of what the armed forces were responsible for seemed to expand. The revolutionary integrity exemplified by the FAR seemed to take on even greater importance. I wondered if you could comment on whether or not this perception is an accurate one? Because those habits and values of revolutionary honor and discipline set a very important example for workers and youth in the United States and elsewhere.
López Cuba: Yes, that's accurate, if one looks at this from the standpoint of moral authority and prestige -without this diminishing in any way the FAR's subordination to the party, to the constitution, and to the authorities democratically elected by our people. And the leadership qualities of Raúl that we were discussing earlier also had a big influence here, I believe.
Since the triumph of the revolution, there has never been an economic battle, there has never been a natural disaster, where the armed forces have not been at the side of the people. Over thirty-eight years of revolution, there has never been a moment when the armed forces have not fought shoulder to shoulder with the people: whether in social efforts, economic tasks, or defense. This gives the FAR a great deal of authority.
Moreover, we have never allowed corruption in the armed forces. We are intransigent: the armed forces must be kept free of all personal interest. This is also an important aspect of the education of the cadres.
In capitalist countries, I believe, it is not unusual for an army officer to engage in business, to have capital, and he often devotes more time to business than to the armed forces. In the FAR no one is going to find any officer involved in activities beyond the revolutionary tasks we have taken on and the principles we have established.
In the 1980s, although the armed forces were very professional and technically proficient, we had some gaps in the areas of administration, finances, and production. So, in 1990 the minister called on the FAR to address these problems.
Raúl has demanded four things from the cadres of the armed forces. First, they must be political cadres, with high political, ideological, and moral qualities. Second, they must be highly skilled military professionals. Third, they must have the basic skills of food production and agriculture. And fourth, they must have a rudimentary knowledge of economic affairs. They don't need to be economists, but they do need to know where each peso we spend comes from, and how to use it effectively.
We have integrated these requirements into the professional training of our cadres - both of older officers such as myself, and of the youngest ones. This is part of the program of study for new officers, and the veteran officers are given regular refresher courses on techniques of leadership, planning, economics, and production.
An army of workers and peasants
All this gives the armed forces in Cuba more authority, more prestige. I think the origins of our Revolutionary Armed Forces and of its cadres has a lot to do with this, as well. It's no secret to anyone that there are not many Colin Powells who can make it to the rank he achieved in the United States. Because generally the officers in capitalist armies are the sons of the bourgeoisie, of generals, of high officials, of better-off families.
In our army we make sure that our officer corps includes farmers, workers, those from the ranks of the humble, from the masses. Without such a policy, the social composition of the officer corps will slowly be transformed, and in the end will have negative results.
We pay conscious attention to the social background of those who go to officers' school - the Camilitos.(24) Fifty percent of the Camilitos must be the children of workers and farmers. The other 50 percent is made up of children of teachers, doctors, officials, and others. But it's a requirement that half must be from families of workers and farmers, so the army does not lose its class origins.
In spite of spending forty years in the struggle, for example, I continue to think like a peasant, like someone who tills the soil. I have not lost sight of my origins.
Barnes: When your brothers tried to grab you at the time of the triumph and take you back to the farm, you didn't know then that thirty-eight years later you'd still be in the revolutionary army. But you are!(25)
On a related subject, in the United States, when officers retire - they're often still quite young - they are immediately hired by big corporations as advisers and board members, and are given bourgeois salaries and stock options. What's the situation of retired officers here in Cuba?
López Cuba: Our officers retire quite a bit older than in the United States, although we've been forced to retire people at a younger age in recent years due to the economic difficulties we've faced. Because of our concern to maintain the reputation of the armed forces and in line with a strict sense of equality, retired officers, along with all other retired citizens, are not allowed to take jobs in the mixed enterprises.
Nonetheless, an officer who is fifty, with thirty or more years of active service behind him, still has fifteen years of working life ahead of him. There is room for improvement in this area, since these are people who are highly disciplined, highly trained, very trustworthy and patriotic. We could take better advantage of these compañeros for the benefit of society; they could be more productive in retirement.
Barnes: When we return home following these interviews, I'm confident we can tell young fighters in the United States - as we have been doing for many years -that when revolutions occur once again anywhere in the world, Cubans will respond to calls for solidarity by organizing internationalist volunteers. The same people who carried out internationalist missions yesterday are leading in the efforts to overcome the difficulties of the Special Period today. And the cadres being trained in the Special Period will be part of the internationalist missions still to come.
López Cuba: By no means have we renounced internationalism. It remains a fundamental ethical principle of the revolution.
The most important internationalist mission we have is right here. That mission is to show the enemies of the revolution that we are capable of developing ourselves, of improving the economy, of bettering the living conditions of the people.
This is the most strategic task we face right now. And all of us who are conscious of its importance need to be a part of accomplishing that task.
1. Secretos de generales, a book written by veteran Cuban journalist Luis Báez, comprises 41 interviews with top officers of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces, including López Cuba. It was released in 1997 by Si-Mar Publishers of Havana.
2. The nickname of Roberto Rodríguez, head of the "Suicide Squad" in the Rebel Army column led by Ernesto Che Guevara. He was killed December 30, 1958, in the battle of Santa Clara. For Guevara's tribute to Rodríguez, see Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, 1956-58, published by Pathfinder, pp. 150-51, 337.
3. Guevara's writings on the revolutionary war are contained in Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, 1956- 58. Socialism and Man in Cuba is available as a pamphlet from Pathfinder. Juan Almeida and Raúl Castro were commanders of the Rebel Army and are central leaders of the revolution today; Castro is minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces; Almeida is a vice president of the Council of State. Several volumes of Almeida's memoirs have been published since the mid-1980s. Excerpts from the diaries of Guevara and Raúl Castro were first published in the late 1980s and have been reissued in La conquista de la esperanza (Havana: Casa Editora Abril, 1996).
The Granma was the yacht used by eighty-two revolutionary fighters, including Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara, and Juan Almeida to sail from Mexico to Cuba to initiate the revolutionary war against the U.S.-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista. The expeditionaries landed in southeast Cuba on December 2, 1956.
4. On April 17, 1961, 1,500 Cuban mercenaries invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast. The mercenaries, organized and financed by Washington, aimed to declare a provisional government to appeal for direct U.S. intervention. The invaders, however, were defeated within seventy-two hours by Cuba's militia and its Revolutionary Armed Forces. On April 19 the last invaders surrendered at Playa Girón (Girón Beach), which is the name Cubans use to designate the battle.
5. La Coubre, a French ship carrying Belgian arms, exploded in Havana harbor on March 4, 1960, under mysterious circumstances, killing eighty-one people.
6. In 1963 Cuban troops went to Algeria, at the request of the revolutionary government of Ahmed Ben Bella, to combat an imperialist-inspired invasion of that country by Morocco. In 1965 Cuban volunteers led by Che Guevara fought alongside forces in the Congo against Belgian- and U.S.- backed mercenaries - one of numerous such operations to aid African liberation movements over the years. Cuban volunteers went to Syria in 1973, to help that country's forces repel aggression by the Israeli regime. In 1975 Cuban forces were sent to Angola, at the request of the newly independent government there, to defend that country against a South African invasion; they remained there until 1991. In late 1977 and early 1978 Cuban troops were sent to Ethiopia, at the request of its government, to help that country's forces beat back a U.S.-supported invasion by Somalia.
7. Báez's book, published by Editora Política in 1993, is a collection of interviews with Cubans already prominent in 1959 who remained in Cuba following the revolutionary victory that year.
8. The Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba served as the base of the Rebel Army during its 1956-58 revolutionary war against the Batista regime.
9. In the face of escalating preparations by Washington for an invasion of Cuba in the spring and summer of 1962, the Cuban government signed a mutual defense agreement with the Soviet Union. In October 1962 President Kennedy demanded removal of Soviet nuclear missiles installed in Cuba following the signing of that pact. Washington ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, stepped up its preparations to invade, and placed U.S. armed forces on nuclear alert. Cuban workers and farmers mobilized in the millions to defend the revolution. Following an exchange of communications between Washington and Moscow, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, without consulting the Cuban government, announced his decision to remove the missiles on October 28.
10. A conference on the October 1962 "missile crisis" was held in Havana on January 9-12, 1992, involving contemporary participants in those events from the Cuban, U.S., and Soviet governments. Major portions of the transcripts of that conference are published in the book, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse, edited by James Blight, Bruce Allyn, and David Welch (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993). Robert McNamara was secretary of defense in the Kennedy administration during the October Crisis.
11. During the early 1960s, bands of counterrevolutionaries, armed and financed by Washington, carried out sabotage and other attacks against the revolution. Centered in the Escambray mountains of central Cuba, these bands were eliminated by the Cuban army and militias by the mid-1960s.
12. The fifth congress of the Communist Party of Cuba opened in Havana on October 8, 1997 - the thirtieth anniversary of Ernesto Che Guevara's capture in Bolivia and murder at the hands of his captors the following day. The call for the congress was issued in April 1997.
13. Che Guevara's remains were found in Bolivia in July 1997, together with those of six other revolutionary combatants from Bolivia, Cuba, and Peru. They were brought back to Cuba, where hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers and youth mobilized to express their determination to continue Guevara's course in advancing the revolution. At the October 17 ceremony in Santa Clara, where the remains were buried, Cuban president Fidel Castro told participants that he viewed "Che and his men as reinforcements, as a detachment of invincible combatants that this time includes not just Cubans. It includes Latin Americans who have come to fight at our side and to write new pages of history and glory."
14. On February 3, 1964, the U.S. navy seized four Cuban fishing boats with thirty-eight crew members. In response, the Cuban government cut off the water supply to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo. The fishermen were released two weeks later.
15. López Cuba headed a volunteer tank squadron in Syria from October 1973 through February 1975. The aim of this internationalist mission was to help Syria defend itself against further aggression by Israel, which had seized the Golan Heights from that country in 1967 as part of the Zionist regime's effort to maintain its dispossession of the Palestinian people.
16. These measures have been adopted since the early 1990s in face of the severe economic squeeze in Cuba - referred to there as the Special Period - precipitated by the abrupt decline in aid and trade on favorable terms with the disintegrating regimes of the Soviet bloc, compounded by the ongoing economic warfare organized by Washington. By 1996 the sharp decline in industrial and agricultural production was bottoming out.
The agricultural markets were opened throughout the country in October 1994 so that individual family farmers, cooperatives, and state farms, after fulfilling delivery quotas to state distribution agencies at fixed prices, could sell surplus agricultural products directly to the population. Most Cubans purchase goods at these markets to supplement what is available, at lower prices, through rationing.
In September 1993 the government legalized self- employment in some 140 occupations, to provide services to the population unavailable from the state. Individuals receive licenses from the government and pay taxes on their income.
The UBPCs are Basic Units of Cooperative Production. These were formed in 1993, reorganizing the majority of state farms into smaller cooperative units. Almost 4,000 UBPCs existed by late 1997, producing sugar cane, food crops, and other agricultural products.
In July 1993, the government made it legal for ordinary Cubans to possess U.S. dollars and other hard currency and opened up a network of stores where imported goods could be purchased for dollars. This measure authorized hundreds of thousands of Cubans to receive remittances from family members working in the United States and other countries.
17. Guevara's 1965 letter to Castro is contained in several books published by Pathfinder, including Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, The Bolivian Diary of Ernesto Che Guevara, and Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, 1956-58.
18. An interview with Brig. Gen. Luis Pérez Róspide, director of the Union of Military Industries, was published in Granma International, September 28, 1997.
19. Brig. Gen. José Ramón Fernández and Div. Gen. Enrique Carreras are included in Secretos de generales. Interviews with them by Barnes, Waters, and Koppel will appear in coming issues of the Militant.
20. These are terms often used to describe provisions of the so-called Cuban Democracy Act, also called the Torricelli law, after New Jersey liberal Democratic congressman Robert Torricelli, enacted by Washington in 1992. "Track one" refers to the tightening of the U.S. economic embargo, while "track two" refers to provisions that - in the guise of promoting the "free flow of ideas" between the United States and Cuba - aim to corrupt and buy off Cuban academics and professionals.
21. Hurricane Flora slammed into Cuba in October 1963, killing more than a thousand people and causing severe economic damage.
22. On August 5, 1994, a group of some twenty Cubans tried to hijack a boat in Havana harbor to go to Florida. There had been four previous boat hijackings that month, including one a day earlier in which hijackers killed a young Cuban police officer.
The August 5 hijacking was repelled by dock workers and the police in Havana. Later that day a crowd of several hundred gathered along the Malecón, Havana's oceanfront boulevard, throwing rocks and bottles at police, hotels, and other targets. Several thousand workers and youth, supporters of the revolution, poured into the streets to respond to the provocation, effectively quelling the riot. They were joined on foot by President Fidel Castro.
Two days later, on August 7, half a million Cubans paid their last respects to the slain police officer and demonstrated their support for the revolution in the streets of Havana. Every year since then, August 5 has been celebrated by mass demonstrations in Havana reaffirming the determination of the Cuban people to defend their revolution.
23. In June-July 1989, General Arnaldo Ochoa and three other high-ranking officers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and Ministry of the Interior were tried, convicted, and executed for hostile acts against a foreign state, drug trafficking, and abuse of office. At the same trial, several other Cuban army and Ministry of the Interior officers were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from ten to thirty years. The following month José Abrantes, Cuba's minister of the interior, was tried and convicted on charges of abuse of authority, negligence in carrying out his duties, and improper use of government funds and resources. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
24. Students at the Camilo Cienfuegos Military School.
25. In Secretos de generales, López Cuba explains that right after the fall of the Batista tyranny in early 1959, his father sent his brothers to the Rebel Army camp where he was stationed to bring him back to the nearby family farm. López Cuba started to go, but his commanding officer stopped him saying, "You can't go now. Things are just beginning."
In Secretos de generales, Néstor López Cuba provides additional details of his four decades within the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Describing the military training that tens of thousands of Cubans underwent in the months and weeks prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he states: "Commander Guillermo García asked me to select the best graduates of the two courses on American tanks we had just completed and organize classes on operating the Soviet tanks. I picked 22 graduates....
"It was a very intense period of training. Everything we learned in the morning from the Soviet instructors we had to teach at night to the rest of the compañeros using whatever tools we had at our disposal."
During the Bay of Pigs invasion, López Cuba led a newly trained tank contingent into battle against the U.S.-backed mercenary forces, in which he was wounded.
In the interview he also describes the military mission Cuban internationalists were part of in Syria between 1973 and 1975. Syrian and Egyptian forces fought a war against the Israeli army in 1973 to try to retake Israeli-occupied territory. López Cuba headed a tank battalion in Syria that later grew to a regiment.
While the Cubans did not participate directly in combat to take back the Golan Heights, seized by the Israeli regime in 1967, he says, "We maintained a unit at the front for a year. It was a tank squadron. There was some exchange of artillery fire. They damaged two of our tanks. We lived in a hole, in a chabola [hut], in conditions of a military campaign."
Shortly after returning to Cuba, López Cuba was part of the first unit of Cuban internationalist volunteers in Angola in late 1975, heading a tank regiment. "I participated in various battles. For most of the time I remained out in the field, with our tank column advancing toward the south, getting very little sleep. In March 1976 I reached the border with Namibia. Our column was the first that made contact with the South Africans at the border."
In the 1980s, López Cuba headed the Cuban military mission in Nicaragua during the U.S.-backed mercenary war against the revolution in that country. "It was an irregular war - you never knew precisely where the enemy was. We had centers of instruction spread throughout the war zone, and our policy was to visit and support these people constantly."
Advising the Nicaraguan army "was another complex task with great political content." He added, "It's much easier to fight than advise."
The Cubans themselves had gone "through the experience
of the Soviet advisors. We couldn't impose our criteria. We
had to be very careful and consistent.... I can say without
any doubt that, during the three years and three months I
spent in Nicaragua, I carried out the most politically
complex mission, and militarily the most difficult and risky
task, I ever had."
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