As Cuba cuts back, security appears to grow

A brutal economic crisis is forcing the Cuban government to lay off half a million workers, slash imports and subsidized food sales, and even trim its keystone health services.

Yet the government has given no sign it will reduce its domestic or national security agencies — the Ministries of Interior (MININT) and Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR) — and appears instead to be expanding them.

A Communist Party document issued in mid-September laying out the timetable for the layoffs in 26 ministries and state-owned enterprises made no mention of MINFAR or MININT.

Canadian Hal Klepak and Cuban-American Armando Mastrapa, both academic experts on the Cuban military, said they have seen no hint that the military-security sector would be cut.

Regina Coyula, a Havana blogger who worked in MININT’s counterintelligence section, said employees there have been privately assured that the cuts will not affect them.

And Vladimiro Roca, a dissident and former air force MiG pilot, said there’s been not even rumors of cuts at MINFAR or MININT.

“They are set on maintaining the repression at a very high level,” Roca said. Like Coyula, he spoke to El Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana.

The criminal and traffic police have meanwhile launched unusually public recruitment drives, Cuba’s defense and security budget has been rising and the government has bought riot-control and light military equipment abroad.

The new gear, said Mastrapa, could be designed to “put down . . . rioting in the event the Raúl Castro government’s experiment in economic liberalization goes awry.”

Klepak said he did not expect the military-security sector “will bear any significant (job) cuts” because it shrank notably after Soviet subsidies ended in the early 1990s “and could not take much more and still be viable.”

The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies reported in October that Cuba’s military stood at 49,000 active personnel in 2009 — 38,000 in the army, 3,000 in the navy and 8,000 in its air forces. That compares to 60,000 a decade before.

MINFAR has been cannibalizing its equipment and faces some shortages of fuel and training, said Klepak, who teaches history at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Yet Cuba’s defense spending remains relatively high, with the CIA’s World Factbook putting it at 3.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2006 — 29th highest in the world. The United States ranked 25th.

A report this year by Cuba’s National Statistic Office showed the budget for “defense and internal order” rising steadily from 2004 to 2009, from 1.3 to 2.08 billion pesos. In comparison, it reported the government budgeted 3.7 billion pesos for education in 2009. The report did not include the 2010 budget.

Klepak noted that it’s not clear whether the security budget’s figures include the income from the scores of MINFAR-run enterprises such as tourism hotels.

MINFAR, which considers repelling a possible U.S. attack to be its main duty, includes the army and navy as well as air and air defense forces, Territorial Militia Troops, Civil Defense and the Youth Labor Army, which is largely involved in agricultural tasks.

MININT includes the police and fire departments; the paramilitary Special Troops; the General Directorate for State Security in charge of domestic security; the Intelligence Directorate in charge of foreign spying and the Counterintelligence Directorate.

MININT’s workforce is unknown but was estimated at 100,000 — in an island of 12 million people — in a 1994 book by defector Juan Antonio Rodríguez Menier.

News media reports show Cuba has been buying some foreign-made equipment for MINFAR and MININT in recent years.

Ukraine reportedly sold light- to- medium military equipment to Cuba in 2004, China sold it light-skinned vehicles and Spain exported riot equipment to Havana in 2008.

A surprisingly well-equipped riot squad was first seen in public in September, facing down Pakistani medical students who were complaining about the quality of their training and limited access to the Internet.

Cuba also launched three patrol boats for counter-drug and illegal immigration missions.

And on Oct. 8, Armed Forces Minister Gen. Julio Casas announced the creation of special units in civilian work places that will be under the control of the Territorial Militia Troops.

“The special formations are designed to carry out security missions in combat, logistical and technical operations, as well as carrying out civil defense measures,” Casas announced.

Coyula said the absence of word about any job cuts in MINFAR and MININT was “precisely why I was intrigued” by the recent police recruiting efforts.

The recruiters offered starting salaries of 540 pesos a month — well above the national average of 420 pesos, or $20 — and low requirements: a 10th grade education and only so-so school grades.

The criminal police, known as the Technical Department of Investigations, broadcast its pitch recently on Radio Reloj, an all-news station popular in Cuba, Coyula said.

A traffic police official made his pitch during a visit to her son’s high school, she added. Coyula wrote about the recruitment efforts in her blog, Mala Letra, or Bad Handwriting.

At a time when 500,000 Cubans “are one step away from being fired, the Interior Ministry is not only not cutting its payroll … but launches attractive pitches to recruit personnel,” she wrote

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