The Best Way to "Become a Man"? / Cubanet, Miriam Celaya
Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 16 August 2016 — Recently, during my
brief stay in Miami to participate in an academic meeting on legal
issues, I was surprised to hear from a Cuban emigrant – fairly old in
age – about his wish that, in a future democratic Cuba, a law of
compulsory military service would be maintained. His proposal was based
on the assumption that military life imposes discipline and maturity in
young people. Virtues – his opinion – which are practically extinct on
Very frequently and with minimal variations, I've heard this phrase in
different scenarios for Cubans of the most dissimilar political ideas or
with no political ideas at all. The common denominator is the age of
those who think this way: usually adults over 55 or 60.
It would seem that the experience of the failed Republic, where so many
presidents came from military life, and the nearly six decades of this
calamitous revolution, led and directed ad infinitum by the military,
there are some that just don't get the damage inflicted by this
entrenched militarist tradition in our history.
There are still those who think that certain "misguided" young people
can "become men" after being forced to complete their military service,
preferably in so-called combat units. "The boys have to go through hard
work and get to know what hunger and hard life are in order to have
discipline," state many venerable septuagenarians. However, if such a
principle were true, we Cubans who have been born and raised under the
Castro regime would be among the most disciplined people on the planet.
The strange thing is that the same principle has been valid for both
Tyrians and Trojans. Suffice it to recall that supporters of Fulgencio
Batista were convinced that the country's leadership should be in the
hands of a "strong man," even if it meant the violation of
constitutional order, a perception that made the March 1952 coup
possible, which opened a new door to military violence.
Just a few years later, another "strong man" was beating popularity
records among Cubans, when he took power by force of arms, overthrew the
earlier "strong one" and imposed the longest military dictatorship that
this hemisphere has known.
That same militaristic thought made possible the existence of the
notorious Military Units to Aid Production, created with the aim of
amending and "making men," through the rigor and discipline of military
life, out of homosexuals, religious, "softies," petty bourgeois and
other elements whose tendencies and attitudes did not seem worthy enough
to the "macho" olive green power elite.
And, on behalf of that bellicose national spirit, invoked from Law 75
(or the National Defense Act), thousands and thousands of young Cubans
have been called to the military ranks. Castro-type military
testosterone planted in several countries of South America and Africa in
the form of guerrillas has not just been exported from Cuba, but
hundreds of young Cuban recruits who completed the Compulsory Military
Service were sacrificed uselessly in the war in Angola. Those who
returned alive still carry the trauma of war to the present day,
although there has never been a single patient officially reported with
post-traumatic stress syndrome. Young people who refused to go to war,
meanwhile, suffered military prison for "treason."
The chimeric moral superiority of military training in men is directly
correlated to the machista Cuban culture and is reflected even in
familiar popular phrases. Who has not heard of "if you do not like it,
go lead an uprising in the Sierra"; or "don't act so brave, you have
never fired a shot," because being "one who fires shots" is not only an
irrefutable sign of manly courage, but also the source of legitimacy of
the force imposed over arguments.
Undoubtedly, those who advocate the supposed virtues of military
discipline as a solution to the crisis of Cuban social values forget
that over half a century of Compulsory Military Service, far from
forming the character of our young people, has been a source of
humiliation and deprivation, having only succeeded in enhancing the
resentment and frustration of being forcibly subjected to an activity
for which they do not feel the slightest vocation. I cannot think of a
worse way to "become men."
Keep in mind that a mechanism for corruption has been promoted from the
standpoint of purchasing permanent deferments at recruitment offices by
parents of young men subject to the draft, often with forged medical
certificates alleging their adolescent children have some sort of
handicap and are unable to undergo the rigors of a combat unit. Another
way is through bribing the officials in charge of enlisting, who, for a
set amount in hard currency, make the candidate's file disappear, and he
is not called to serve.
But the military band of men in Cuba extends beyond the compliance of
active duty, since once he is "licensed," the soldier becomes part of
the country's military reserve and is subject to mobilization whenever
the Party-State-Government declares some imaginary threat or craves a
show of force.
In so-called combat units, an inaccurate term for referring to the camp
and shooting areas, weaponry and exercises, most of the recruits' time
is spent clearing fields and cleaning, or in some activity related to
repairing and maintaining the headquarters' kitchens. At the end of
their active duty, many of them may only have "practiced" shooting their
weapons once, and some not even that, so they are very far from being
trained to carry out a war or to defend the country in case of aggression.
Of note, among other factors in the "training" of young recruits in
Cuba, are poor living conditions in the units, poor health, poor diet,
lack of drinking water or sanitary services, forced labor, mistreatment
by officers, among other hardships that have nothing to do with military
training, with preparation for the defense of the country or with the
forging of character in discipline and high ethical and moral values
which they would have to aspire to.
Compulsory Military Service has not only served the regime as a clamping
and blackmail mechanism over Cuban adolescents – restricting the
continuance of their studies, travel abroad or holding jobs – but it
constitutes one of the most backward obstacles we need to get rid of as
soon as possible. In a democratic Cuba the army should not replace the
functions of home and civilian schools in forming our youth's values. In
fact, most Cubans who have lived for nearly six decades in this prison
of olive-green uniformed guards, who have endured a regime of orders and
control as if instead of citizens we are obedient soldiers, wish to be
present at the conclusion of the detrimental cult of the epaulets and
the philosophy of "people in uniform."
A simple look at the most emblematic figures of Cuban civic history
reveals the primacy of civilian-humanist over militaristic thought in
forging the nation. Examples abound, but we quote only emblematic names
like Félix Varela, José de la Luz y Caballero and José Martí, champions
of virtues very distant from the staunch Hispanic militarism breath that
has choked our spirit since 1492 until today.
A separate topic would be the future existence of military academies,
where officers with real military vocations would be trained in
different specialties, and would lead a well-paid professional army,
properly prepared and much smaller in numbers than the substantial
hordes of hungry and resentful rookies that are bundled in the armed
forces today, who, in an imaginary case of aggression, would only serve
as cannon fodder.
It is not reasonable that a small, poor and malnourished country that is
not at war or under the threat of an armed conflict has more men lazing
about wasting time in an unnecessary army than producing the wealth and
food so urgently needed.
However, it remains true that in a future Cuba we will need a formidable
army, only not an army of soldiers, but of teachers, professionals from
all walks of life, from the labor forces, from our peasant population,
our merchants, businessmen, free citizens. They will shoulder a much
greater responsibility than a thousand regiments of warriors: the
material and moral reconstruction of a nation ruined specifically by the
military caste planted in power in the last half century, which has been
more pernicious and destructive than the sum of all wars fought in the
history of this land.
Translated by Norma Whiting
Source: The Best Way to "Become a Man"? / Cubanet, Miriam Celaya –
Translating Cuba -