By the Blouin News World staff

Cuba’s military maneuvers come amid potential regional shift

by in Americas.

Cuban President Raul Castro laughs during a meeting with East Timor's President, Taur Matan Ruak (out of frame), on September 27, 2013 during a meeting at Revolution Palace in Havana. Matan Ruak is in Cuba in an official visit.

Cuban President Raul Castro laughs. ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/AFP/Getty Images

The Bastion 2013 military exercises in Cuba took place from November 19 to 24. While the exercises themselves were not remarkable in scale or scope — the Cuban armed forces are not a global military power — they do provide a glimpse into the status and security concerns of the Cuban government and its national-security apparatus. It is interesting, as well, to note that they occurred hard on the heels of an important speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the future of U.S.-Latin America and U.S.-Cuba relations.

Not much is known about Bastion 2013. This was the sixth iteration of the Bastion training operations. They were first carried out in 1980 and subsequently in 1983, 1986, 2004 and 2009. The 2013 version had originally been scheduled to take place in 2012, but it had to be delayed due to Hurricane Sandy.  The Cuban government has been tight-lipped on specific details about units and ordnance. But there was plenty of nationalist rhetoric around the event. The website Cubadebate stated that “The exercise, which . . . includes tactical drills by Cuban regular troops made up of young men and women, who honor their [commitment to] the defense of their homeland.” State-run media outlets, such as Juventud Rebelde and Granma, praised Bastion 2013 and highlighted the role of Cuban civic society, particularly university students, played during the last stages of the exercises. The website CubaDefensa has analyses and photographs of Cuban students as they drilled with rifles and gas masks.

The hypothetical scenario portrayed during the exercise was an attempted invasion by an unidentified country (it shouldn’t be difficult to guess whom the Cuban government was imagining as the invader). Its aim was to prepare Cuba for a so-called “people’s war.” An article in Juventud Rebelde described how an “enemy ship” reached the beach line of the Ciego de Avila province, where it was destroyed by the local militia. It is unclear if live ammo was utilized and if the actual vessel was destroyed during the exercises, but Juventud Rebelde report stated that “minutes later [after the ambush] the [enemy] vessel blew up in the air . . . The homeland had been defended.”

The presence of U.S. military elements may have been imaginary, but the presence of Venezuelan military personnel is an open question. A November 21 article from the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias mentions that senior Venezuelan officers (General Vladimir Padrino López and Major General Alexis López Ramirez) led a delegation of military personnel to the Caribbean island. Cuban media outlets maintained silence on the subject, but a Venezuelan involvement would make sense. Especially in light of growing Cuba’s military presence in Venezuela, as reported by the Venezuelan daily El Nacional this past July and by the Spanish daily ABC in September.

That all this took place after Kerry gave his speech at the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) is noteworthy, as well. The November 18 speech has been widely publicized; in it, Kerry declared that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over” — i.e., he seemingly repudiated the assumption, which stems from President James Monroe’s notion that European powers must not interfere in the affairs of Western-Hemisphere states, that only the U.S. can influence continental affairs, which is also the cornerstone of the belief that Latin America and the Caribbean are Washington’s “backyard.” (The full text of Kerry’s speech can be found here). Kerry also took the time to discuss U.S.-Cuba relations, both praising cooperation initiatives between Washington and Havana as well as reminding the audience about “the authoritarian reality of life for ordinary Cubans.”

The Obama administration has brought a momentum to improve U.S.-Cuba relations. While President Obama has not kept some of his campaign promises, such as closing down the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, his government has carried out negotiations with the Cuban government in recent months on issues like migration and restoring postal service between the two countries. Not even a bizarre incident last July involving a vessel that was stopped in Panama apparently carrying obsolete Cuban weapons to North Korea seems to have prevented these bilateral initiatives.

The timing of the Bastion 2013 exercises, which occurred right after Kerry’s optimistic-speech seems to have been a sad coincidence, but nothing more than that as they were originally scheduled for 2012. Nevertheless, it is clear that time is running out if the world wants to see a major breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations, as the next heads of state (the U.S. will have elections in 2016 and Cuba’s Raul Castro has stated that he will retire in 2018), may not be interested in a (historical) rapprochement. If the Cuban media is to be believed, the Cuban armed forces (and population) are ready for anything.