When he was jailed, Anyer Blanco was an 18-year-old student of music. Six years later, when he was leaving the prison, he was a dissident. He was put behind the bars for having deserted from the Active Military Service and he served the entire sentence, not a month less, as a result of showing sympathies for the opposition during his confinement. Perhaps his experience may help us gain a greater understanding of the way how the military service in Cuba works, an issue people don’t really talk about.
- You were put to jail because you refused to do the compulsory military service. Such cases are not very common in Cuba. Do you think it’s because young Cubans truly believe, as some government websites and Juventud Rebelde say, that “the Active Military Service in Cuba is both a legal obligation and a duty taken on with integrity and pride”?
It’s not a secret that young Cubans growing up in Cuba are forced to pass through this stage of their youth. The Active Military Service (El Servicio Militar Activo – SMA), which used to be called the Mandatory Military Service, is governed by a law requiring every Cuban, when he turns 18, to serve for two years in the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias – FAR). Though the official press manipulates the information offered to the public, many young people don’t even want to learn the truth. Young recruits (that’s what the young men sent to the SMA are called) are treated as slaves, getting a monthly pay of 15 Cuban pesos (about 0.6 convertible pesos – CUC). But that’s not everything. They are also subjected to insults, humiliation, unjust punishment and even to starvation. I don’t think that any young Cuban would feel “proud” under such circumstances, as the Juventud Rebelde newspaper maintains.
- Why did you refuse to do the military service?
I graduated as a music teacher with specialization on Cuban music. In the first year of school they told us that we would not be recruited to the SMA but that we would do some kind of social service instead – it was supposed to be for 5 years and we were to serve in a place designated by the Ministry of Culture. However, before they assigned the place for me, I was forced to join the military service. And that’s when all the humiliation, harassment, forced labour, and 15 Cuban pesos a month started. That wasn’t the career I had chosen to pursue.
- So they failed to give you the opportunity they promised, to do that alternative social service? On the website of the Ministry of Defence, the government declares that “Each male citizen must spend two years in the Active Military Service. The Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces may decide that the service in the Army be substituted by alternative forms of service, provided that adequate military training of the man is guaranteed.” This seems to suggest that one can choose between doing the military service or doing it…
Precisely. I wasn’t given the choice I had been promised. I don’t agree that any country should have obligatory military service. In my opinion there are fair alternatives, such that give one freedom to join the Army or not. Moreover, in case of Cuba, the issue has a very perverse undertone because the government justifies the obligatoriness of the military service on the grounds that there are economic reasons and that the country needs to defend the Revolution (indeed, the same justification is given to almost any wrongdoing in Cuba). As you said, they are trying to present it not as an obligation but as a matter of pride.
- What exactly were you accused of? How long did you stay in prison and why?
I decided to run away from the military because I was sick of so much rottenness. Unfortunately, or perhaps rather due to my lack of experience and desperation, I took the AKM-47 rifle I was given when on guard duty. I was sentenced to 6 years in prison on charges of desertion and other military offences.
- Did the fact that you were imprisoned have anything to do with your joining the opposition?
Yes. Behind the bars I met some prisoners of conscience from the Group of 75. One of them, Luis Enrique Ferrer Garcia, was the one who opened my eyes and made me see the reality of my country. I have already said on several occasions that he was the first teacher to give me lessons on freedom, democracy and human rights. He also put me in touch with his family, in particular with his brother Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, and with other members of the opposition we founded the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).
- What did the imprisonment mean for you?
For me it was a time of inner growth. I dedicated the 6 years in prison to reading books, to overcoming my inner fears, strengthening my brave spirit, nurturing the desire to overcome all the obstacles and, most of all, I had time to think about my future. Let’s say it was an acid test for me – my university of life.
- Do you know any other young man who had problems for refusing to do military service as you did?
I know many. Some try to feign pathological conditions, they injure themselves or seek any possible excuse to avoid the SMA. Others, when they are already in the military units of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, commit some kind of misconduct, they make protests or simply cause some damage in order to be discharged as unfit. The problem is that many of them end up in military prisons. Moreover, they sometimes have problems to find work or continue their studies after they finish the military service.
- Do you think that there is any possibility that the military service could soon cease to be mandatory in Cuba?
I don’t think the current regime will cancel the Active Military Service, because, as I have already told you, it’s part of the regime’s paraphernalia. Besides, it’s a cheap source of labour for the government. On the other hand, I do believe in a change in Cuba, a change that will give rise to a democratic country where human rights are respected, including the right to refuse to do military service. It may take a long time, longer than we thought, but there are many of us who believe in such a change.