A few weeks ago, this 19FortyFive reporter had the honor and privilege of attending an event at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s (VOC) Museum titled “Totalitarianism: History, Legacy, and Lessons.” During the first panel, titled “What is Totalitarianism,” moderated by David Satter, former Moscow Bureau Chief for the Financial Times, one of the panelists, Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, PhD, Spokesperson for the Cuban Democratic Directorate, made a rather stunning announcement that made the audience members’ ears perk up: earlier weeks back, the Cuban government signed an agreement with its counterparts in Belarus to send special forces troops to the latter country, apparently as a show of solidarity with one of Vladimir Putin’s key allies in his so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The first thought that came to this reporter’s mind – and which I brought up during the Q&A segment – was “Why the hell isn’t this getting more coverage from the Western mainstream media?” followed by thoughts of the old Fidel Castro-Nikita Khrushchev alliance.
I decided this was a story that merited further research.
The Devil Is In the Details
Unable to find anything in the American press, we instead turn to the Euro ES Euro website, specifically a 19 May 2023 article with the straightforward title of “Cuban soldiers will receive training in Belarus.” To quote directly from the article:
“According to the official Belta agency, last Thursday the head of the Department of International Military Cooperation and Deputy Defense Minister for International Military Cooperation, Valery Revenko, met with the military, naval and air attaché at the Cuban Embassy in Russia and Belarus, Colonel Mónica Milian Gómez… The parties discussed the strengthening of mutually beneficial partnership relations between the Defense Ministries of Belarus and Cuba’…This is the first announcement of this type after last March the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, will visit Cuba and meet with the heads of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), as well as with Miguel Díaz-Canel and Raúl Castro…This kind of meeting made it clear that the collaboration between Moscow and Havana, and now with Minsk, plus the one that has existed for a long time with China, is openly aimed at the repressive sphere.”
In other words, an unholy alliance just grew its membership rolls. Swell, just swell.
Cuban Armed Forces Current Capabilities
The above-cited report is as noteworthy for what it did not say as for what it did say. The report didn’t specify the number of troops that Cuba would send, whether conventional forces and/or special forces would be involved, or which specific branch(es) of the Cuban Armed Forces would participate. And of course, the Cuban and Belarusian officials conveniently omitted any mention about whether either country’s forces would directly (and belatedly) join Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
That said, this is as good a time as any to see what the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias; FAR) could potentially bring to the metaphorical table should they actually get directly involved in the conflict.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the FAR has an estimated 50,000 active-duty personnel, divided up into 40,000 troops in the Army, 3,000 Navy, and 8,000 Air Force. By a 2020 estimate, Havana spends 4.2% of its GDP on its military. The Army has aging Soviet-era equipment such as the T-62 main battle tank and the BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). Their Air Force’s combat aircraft inventory is only slightly less outdated, with three 4th Generation MiG-29 Fulcrums in addition to twenty-four MiG-23 “Floggers” and eleven Vietnam War-vintage MiG-21 “Fishbeds.”
As for their special forces, little is known about them. Formally known as the Mobile Brigade of Special Troops (La Brigada Móvil de Tropas Especiales; BMTE) or Military Unit 4895, they are nicknamed Las Avispas Negras (“The Black Wasps”). They were officially established on 22 November 1974. Their exact manpower numbers are not known, but they reportedly conduct ops in sub-groups of five members. (For comparison, U.S. Navy SEALs typically work in 7-man teams.)
Cuban Wartime Performance History in Brief
To assess the last time that Cuba’s armed forces participated in a cross-continental foreign war, one has to go back to 1991, the final year of their involvement in the Angolan Civil War, which ran concurrent with the Soviet Union’s participation in that same conflict. Over that 16-year span, “The Beard,” i.e. Fidel Castro sent roughly 380,000 troops, along with 1,000 tanks, 600 armored vehicles, and 1,600 artillery pieces, intervening on behalf of the indigenous communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA; Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola). The combined communist forces fought against the decidedly anticommunist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) – led by the iconic Jonas Savimbi – in tandem with the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA; Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola) and the armed forces of South Africa’s then-apartheid government.
Though the MPLA did eventually win that war in 2002, it would be disingenuous to label Cuba as a co-victor, as Castro’s forces had already ended their direct military participation 11 years prior. For their troubles, the Cubans suffered between 2,000 and 5,000 KIA.
Closer to home, and therefore fresher in the minds of Americans old enough to remember the Cold War, there was Operation Urgent Fury, then-POTUS Ronald Reagan’s 1983 anticommunist military intervention in Grenada. Cuban troops fought alongside their Grenadian Marxist-Leninist puppets, the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG), who had overthrown the legitimate Grenadian government four years earlier. This time, the Cubans were definitely on the losing side of the ledger, with 24 of their troops killed, 59 wounded, and 638 taken prisoner.
Should the Cuban troops on their (ahem) “training mission” in Belarus decide to infiltrate Ukraine’s borders, they’ll undoubtedly encounter a less-than-welcome reception from Ukraine’s defenders and find themselves deservedly dying in droves alongside their Russian comrades, and it would be grimly fascinating to see how their death tallies end up comparing to their predecessors in Angola and Grenada.
Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).