March 30, 1998

Pentagon calls Cuban forces weak

March 29, 1998, in the Miami Herald
Herald Staff Writer

Military seen as severely diminished `It starts with the premise that the Cuban military is not a threat to the U.S. The question is how do we institutionalize this? It doesn't mean diplomatic recognition in the near term.'

JOHN SHEEHAN, retired Marine general `Cuba is a threat and will be a threat to the U.S. as long as Fidel Castro and Raul are in power. You have to look at history and what this individual has done and how they have trained their armed forces.'
ERNEIDO OLIVA,retired major general

General urges contacts after tour of island

WASHINGTON—The Pentagon has concluded that Cuba poses no significant threat to U.S. national security, and senior defense officials increasingly favor engaging their island counterparts to reduce existing tensions.

In a classified report to be given to Congress by Tuesday, Secretary of Defense William Cohen plans to portray Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces as a severely diminished military and to downplay the dangers posed by chemical or biological weapons, or by another refugee exodus, according to people briefed on the findings.

At the same time, retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan has just returned from a weeklong tour of the island—the highest-ranking U.S. officer to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution—and is urging the Clinton administration to "regularize contacts'' between Cuban and American military chiefs.

Sheehan, who spent several days in the company of Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro and dined with Fidel Castro, said he "starts with the premise that the Cuban military is not a threat to the U.S. The question is how do we institutionalize this? It doesn't mean diplomatic recognition in the near term.''

The dovish assessment expected from the Defense Department has already drawn cries of dismay from some exile leaders and lawmakers, including the three Cuban-American members of Congress.

Advocates of maintaining a more guarded position on Cuba cite a historical record that includes Castro's recommendation that the Soviet Union launch a nuclear strike against the United States during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuban defectors' accounts in the last decade that Havana's contingency bombing targets included a South Florida nuclear reactor, and the 1996 downing of two exile planes over international waters.

"We are appalled by current attempts to downplay the Castro threat,'' the Cuban-American lawmakers and six House colleagues wrote in a March 19 letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"There is a pathologically unstable tyrant in the final years of his dictatorship just 90 miles from our shores. His four-decade record of brutality, rabid hostility toward the Cuban exile community, anti-Americanism, support for international terrorism, and proximity to the United States is an ominous combination.''

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, said in an interview that the Pentagon report is part of a broader administration strategy to normalize relations with Cuba. The report, mandated last year in an amendment introduced by Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, emerges just days after President Clinton restored direct flights and exile remittances to Cuba and vowed to get more medical and food aid to the island.

"These Pentagon types are very politicized,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. "They get their instructions very directly from the White House.''

But interviews with current and former Pentagon officials counter that it is the politicians who have misrepresented the security threat posed by Cuba, particularly since the Castro government lost its Soviet patron in the early 1990s. Exile leaders are determined to maintain maximum U.S. pressure on Castro, even after he has been revealed as a toothless tiger, they say.

No `rational dialogue'

"We really don't have much of a rational dialogue on this,'' said Alberto R. Coll, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Bush administration, who echoed Sheehan's views. "Anybody who admits there's a problem with existing policy is branded a pro-Castro apologist.''

A senior Pentagon official appointed by President Reagan who considers himself an "anti-communist hard-liner'' said the context of relations has changed so completely that it is time to engage Cubans at all levels, even trade with them.

"It's very difficult for exile groups,'' said the official, who asked not to be named for fear of offending friends. "They're always the last ones to dismount from the horses they're riding.''

In recent years, a chasm has grown between exile leaders and important political allies such as Sen. Graham and Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., and U.S. officials charged with assessing the risks posed by Cuba.

The staunchest Castro foes accept as a given that Cuba is a haven for drug traffickers and abets and trains anti-American terrorists. Administration officials maintain they have no evidence of such activity.

Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm, chief of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami with responsibility for Cuba, provided important input for Cohen's report.

In a recent interview with The Herald, Wilhelm described "dramatically'' weakened Cuban armed forces, cut in half from a peak of 130,000 active personnel a decade ago. He also noted that much of Cuba's military equipment is unusable, particularly tactical aircraft like Soviet MiGs.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had one of Latin America's most disciplined, best-armed forces, which became an important tool of Castro's efforts to expand Marxism in South America, Angola, Central America and the Caribbean.

Times have changed

Today, Wilhelm said, "that armed force has no capability whatsoever to project itself beyond the borders of Cuba, so it's really no threat to anyone around it. As much as 70 percent of the armed forces' effort is involved in their own self-sustainment, in things like agricultural pursuits. . . . It doesn't even begin to resemble the Cuban armed forces that we contemplated in the '80s.''

But Erneido Oliva—a Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veteran who rose to become a major general in the U.S. Army Reserve before his retirement in 1993 -- argues that the United States should not measure Castro's threat in conventional terms.

"Cuba is a threat and will be a threat to the U.S. as long as Fidel Castro and Raul are in power,'' said Oliva, who now heads the Cuban-American Military Council. "You have to look at history and at what this individual [Fidel Castro] has done, and how they have trained their armed forces.''

Oliva ticked off a list of risky behaviors he ascribed to the Castro brothers, including allowing a Russian eavesdropping base at Lourdes, just outside Havana; assisting drug traffickers; cooperating with other U.S.-designated terrorist nations like Iraq and Iran; cultivating anthrax and other biological weapons; and trying to complete the construction of an "unsafe'' nuclear plant at Juragua.

Current and former Pentagon officials largely downplay such concerns, though they offer little specific information, claiming a need to protect U.S. intelligence.

They say they have no evidence of high-level Cuban complicity in drug-running to the United States. They do not think Cuba has "weaponized'' biological agents against the United States.

And they say the best way to ensure that the Juragua plant is safe—if Cuba ever obtains financing to complete it—is to provide cooperation and scrutiny under the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was reported last month that Russia had extended a $350 million line of credit for investors to complete Juragua. But construction has not resumed, according to sources monitoring the plant closely.

Cuban listening post

Even the Russian-staffed electronic listening post at Lourdes, which officials say is capable of intercepting U.S. commercial and military transmissions across the eastern United States, merits a collective shrug. Officials say the Russians run the facility independently of Havana, and add that Washington has entered a post-Cold War modus vivendi with Moscow in which the Russians have not demanded the dismantling of U.S. posts in Japan or Turkey.

This arrangement has some strong critics, who point to the Lourdes facility as a menace.

"During the Gulf War, the Lourdes facility intercepted the details of our battle plan. [The Soviets] were going to give it to the Iraqis, except for the personal intervention of [Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev,'' said Bob Filippone, Sen. Graham's aide on national security affairs.

But exclusively in terms of U.S.-Cuban relations, a Pentagon consensus is emerging:

Castro is viewed as a rational player who does not want to provoke the United States, because he knows it would invite his own annihilation. U.S. contingency plans do allow for a "Goetterdaemmerung scenario,'' in which the dictator, under siege at home, lashes out at the United States. But military planners say U.S. defenses would be on a high state of alert in such circumstances and could effectively repel any Cuban attack on South Florida or elsewhere.

"I can tell you Fidel Castro is not a madman,'' said Coll, the Bush appointee. "He wants to stay in power. . . . If out of the blue tomorrow, he decided to attack our reactors at Turkey Point, that would be the end of him. He knows that he has to behave very well. It's one thing to repress your people at home. But it's another to engage in international adventurism.''

The most immediate risk to U.S. interests is posed by unchecked emigration from Cuba, say Pentagon officials who point to the rafter exodus of 1994, in which tens of thousands of balseros set out across the Florida Straits.

Despite recent spates of new rafters, U.S.-Cuban migration accords signed in 1994 and 1995 have somewhat checked a new tide of refugees.

Sheehan, who spoke with Castro at length about the issue, said the Cuban leader is determined to protect the accords, which call for the repatriation of Cubans intercepted by U.S. vessels at sea and allow for the orderly migration of at least 20,000 Cubans a year to the United States.

"He went to great lengths to say, `I don't want to do anything to embarrass President Clinton,' '' Sheehan said of Castro. "He holds him in high regard.''

The Defense Department has no stomach for being drawn into a Cuban civil war or an eventual occupation of the island. For that reason, U.S. military officials are reflexively uncomfortable with a U.S. policy that some say is predicated on provoking a popular uprising or an economic ruin.

"I believe the U.S. military is concerned that were the situation in Cuba to deteriorate, and widespread unrest were to break out, there would be considerable pressure on the U.S. to intervene militarily,'' said Ed Gonzalez, a Cuba expert at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank with Pentagon contracts.

"In that event, they probably would fear becoming involved in a terrible mess on the island and becoming a virtual army of occupation.''

Contacts advocated

Partly as a hedge against such an outcome, Sheehan advocates lifting the ban on U.S. food and medical sales to Cuba and urges professional contacts among senior military officers of both countries.

Sheehan, a much-decorated veteran of Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, traveled to eastern Cuba with Raul Castro during his visit. Contrary to some accounts that the younger Castro brother inspires little loyalty among the troops, Sheehan said, "There clearly is an affection for him. . . . You can see the admiration in the young kids' eyes.''

Sheehan said both Castro brothers appear to be in good health, "clearly are more comfortable talking to a military officer than they are to some politicians,'' and preside over a military with a wholly "defensive'' mission.

He said Cuba is plainly in transition and it behooves the United States to ensure that it remains peaceful.

"There is a consensus being developed on both sides of the aisle saying, `Wait a minute, we're working in a different world. How are we going to move toward conflict control?' '' he said. "You're never going to solve the ideological problem.''

Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald


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