My Military Service in Cuba

By Jorge Bacallao Guerra (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – I served my military service 25 years ago, at the Combinado del Este, the largest prison in Cuba. I have stories that would make you cry, but I won’t tell you those today. Today, I’ll tell you three stories that I hold dear.

World Record

We studied our intensive training course known as “La Previa” in the school behind the Combinado prison. At the end of those 45 days, we had different fitness tests. We ran the 100 meters race in boots and without a shirt at 2:30 PM on a hot summer’s day, in an asphalt area. Two recruits tripped over and grazed their skin against the hot asphalt. Friction burn, they call it. I felt like I ran well, and I was one of the first to finish, but when I went to get my grade I had a B, and nobody got an A or A*. I asked the professor, who was a man of few words:

“It’s very hard to get an A*, only real soldiers do.”

“But, jefe (boss), what’s the time you need to do it in?”

“Not jefe, suboficial (NCO). You’ve got questions. Don’t ask so much and run more. Let’s see…” he rummaged through some papers. “You need to cut down your time by 9 seconds to get an A*.”

“Uh…, pardon me, suboficial, but the world record for 100 m on flat ground on a racetrack is 9.84 seconds, set by Donovan Bailey.

“That’s enough! Take your place. I’m going to say it out loud so none of you come complaining: if Donovan comes here to do his Previa, and he doesn’t run under 9 seconds, he doesn’t get an A*.”

That’s how I got a B in the 100 m flat race the time I ran the fastest in my life. They killed my hopes.

Next Tuesday

The Previa was at a school named after a hero. That’s where they taught SEPSA guard courses etc. I had quite a good time, especially because I’m someone that adjusts quite well. Until placement day came around. I got Combinado, the furthest prison from my home, despite me telling them that I lived alone with my grandfather and that I had exemplary conduct.

When I saw the politico and wanted to ask him about it, he stopped me and told me, with a smile, that he dealt with these subjects in his office, not in the corridor. Let me point out that we weren’t in a corridor, but in the dining hall. I went to his office the next day, and even though he was playing Spider Solitaire, he told me that Tuesday is the day he sees recruits. The politico was a man close to 60 years old, a plump and friendly man, who spoke slowly and quietly, always with a smile on his face. He was one of those guys it would be impossible to hate.

I went on Tuesday. I asked him why I had been assigned there, as there were other prisons closer to my home. Plus, I reminded him that I had been an exemplary soldier. Come next Tuesday, so I can give you an answer, he told me. I went the next Tuesday. He explained to me that Combinado was the strongest battle front we had, and that the Revolution was assigning the hardest tasks to the most capable soldiers. That my assignment was an incentive, for my merits up until now.

I was expecting something like this, so I asked him about Osiel Gonzalez, the worst soldier, with the worst results and the most undisciplined, who was from Marianao and had been sent to Combinado as punishment. He scratched his head and seemed to have doubts. Come see me next Tuesday, to answer your question.

Giving up, I went the following Tuesday.

“I have your answer. It’s very simple, what’s a punishment for Osiel, is an incentive for you.”

“I understand, thanks. Can you put that in writing for me?”

“Of course. Come next Tuesday.”

“The Previa course ends on Saturday.”

“Ah, damn, what a shame! What bad luck.”

I spent a year at Combinado prison. With Osiel.

The Game Room

I’ve been playing chess ever since I was a kid. I play well. Without any special talent for the exact science of the game, it was what I played in my childhood and teenage years and I managed to get an Elo of nearly 2150. I still play every now and again on the Internet.

That’s why, when we were told on the first day of our Previa course that there was a game room and they showed us, my world lit up. A small island in the sea with marches and slogans.

Then I learned that I wouldn’t have a lot of time to play chess, ping pong (yep, they even had brand new ping pong tables), or anything, but I went anyway.

It was closed. It was always closed. Until someone saw it open one day and told us. Three of us stopped eating our lunch to play a couple of games. Well, we tried to, I mean. There were some guys there who told us that we had to figure out what day recruits could go to the game room.

I went to see the politico to find out. You can’t ask the politico anything if you run into him, you have to go to his office. But he was always in a good mood and well-shaved, and he always greeted and smiled at you. He didn’t fix anything for anyone, but he was always smiling, and in a world where everyone is shouting at you, you appreciate it.

The politico found out for me: Sundays. A damn shame, because that was visiting day, it was the week-long spring break there. Well, I left my family for a few minutes on Sunday and went at about 2 PM to see the game room, out of curiosity. I’m not a fortune-teller, but I’m not stupid either. It was closed.

I asked the politico and he said he’d look into it for me. He said to come to his office on Tuesday.

“I have the answer to your query, Bacallao. Look, the game room is open to recruits on Sundays. But a prisoner has to open and close the room. As you know, prisoners rest on Sundays.”



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One thought on “My Military Service in Cuba

  • Well, I don’t know whether this article was factual, or only satire.
    But either way, I do know that it was very well written, with wit and insight, and very much a good illustration of near universal military life, which I am sure has been perfected in Cuba.
    Lastly, this thoroughly enjoyable read, finishes with a very good punch line.
    Catch-22, Cuban-style.

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