THE Cuban military - once the most formidable in Latin America -
is portrayed by two defecting fighter pilots as demoralized, impoverished, and facing increasing civilian hostility.
``Officers have been told, `When you go to Havana, don't wear your uniform - they'll throw stones at you,' '' said Cuban Air Force Capt. Leonides Basulto Serrano de los Santos, in a press conference in Miami on Tuesday.
On Sept. 23, Captain Basulto broke from a flight formation and landed his Soviet-made MIG-23 fighter at the US base on Cuba's Guantanamo Bay. Just six days earlier, Capt. Enio de la Caridad Ravelo Rodriguez defected to Key West, Fla. in a poorly maintained MIG-21 jet trainer.
Both pilots cited the growing hardship of living on rationed food, fuel, and other necessities as motivating their defections. But Basulto says his defection was ultimately triggered by a message sent to military bases in mid-September by Cuba's chief of staff, Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro. The general implied that soldiers may have to turn their guns on Cuban civilians. ``We fight now with sticks and stones. But we will move on to rifles and tanks,'' Basulto quotes the general as saying.
A civilian or military uprising is not imminent, the pilots agree. But if there is civil unrest, neither believes Cuban officers would fire on the Cuban population.
Although Basulto was one of three pilots out of 100 trusted to fly unescorted, his defection doesn't surprise Southern Illinois University professor Richard Millett, a Latin American military analyst.
``These guys come right out of the perestroika generation,'' he notes, referring to the political restructuring introduced to the Communist bloc by then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
In a paper just published by the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, Mr. Millett explains that these officers are more loyal to the military than to Gen. Fidel Castro Ruz and his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro Ruz. They have no memory of the revolution. And they expected to have careers with significant overseas missions. ``This whole generation is under suspicion because they joined the Cuban military in the 1970s and early 1980s when Soviet influence and Cuban military successes in Africa and Latin America were at their peak,'' writes Millett.
But the collapse of the socialist regimes in the Soviet and East Bloc countries brought an abrupt end to economic and military aid to Cuba. The ongoing US economic blockade coupled with the loss of socialist benefactors has created an economic crisis for Cuba. Fuel shortages have sharply curtailed military training. Spare parts for Soviet tanks and aircraft have not arrived since 1991, according to Defense Minister Castro in an April 1993 interview with the Mexican daily, El Sol.
Increasingly, the government has called on the armed forces to grow their own food, harvest the sugar crop, and do chores such as cleaning out the pipes of the Santiago de Cuba water system.
``The transition from leader of a decorated combat unit in Angola to commander of a tomato-picking or yam-planting battalion has to be difficult,'' Millet writes. The 1991 Gulf war against Iraq also raises questions about the Cuban military's mission. The decimation of the Iraqi Air Force and battalions of Soviet-made tanks makes it clear that if the US were to invade Cuba, ``Their tanks and MIGs wouldn't last 12 hours, and the officers know it,'' he says.
The latest blow to the prestige and morale of the Cuban military was Castro's decision in July to allow Cubans to use dollars and encourage Cuban exiles to visit and send money to the island. The aim is to attract hard currency.
But the reform excludes the military, which has enjoyed, even during this crisis, better pay, food, and clothing. Members of the armed forces are not allowed to use dollars, or receive packages from abroad, or work a second job. Basulto complains that those most loyal to Cuba are becoming second-class citizens.
``How do you explain to your children that the kid across the street has toys but yours can't? And the same with food,'' Basulto said.
The 150,000-man Cuban military is being shrunk, and finding jobs for 50,000 former soldiers remains a problem. And there is still the dilemma of stopping defections. Past defectors say that only married pilots with families are allowed to fly. But that policy hasn't completely worked. The last three Cuban pilots to defect have left behind wives and children.