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September 2013
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Cuba’s Spies Still Punch Above Their Weight

Cuba’s Spies Still Punch Above Their Weight
William Rosenau [2], Ralph Espach [3]
September 29, 2013

Despite a withered economic base, few exports of any value, and a
repressive state bureaucracy, Cuba and the Castro regime have an
outsized international presence. Recently, Havana appeared to be the
international diplomatic broker for former U.S. intelligence analyst
Edward Snowden’s asylum applications to various Latin American countries
with a history of poor relations—and no extradition treaties—with the
United States.

This July, Panamanian authorities seized a North Korean cargo vessel
loaded with aging Cuban military equipment [4]. Hidden under tons of
Cuban sugar, the equipment was reportedly on its way to North Korea for
refurbishment. This bizarre episode—an uncharacteristic misstep by the
Cuban government—led to United Nations sanctions inspections and drew
new attention to Cuba’s ongoing security relationships with pariah
states like North Korea.

What explains the fact that, time and again for decades, the small, poor
island nation manages to position itself at the fulcrum of superpower
relations, especially within the Americas? At least part of the answer
relates to a Cuban core competence: its aptitude for espionage. Cuban
intelligence services are widely regarded as among the best in the
world—a significant accomplishment, given the country’s meager financial
and technological resources.

Earlier this year, Cuban leader Raul Castro announced his intention [5]
to step down in 2018—Cuba’s most significant political transition since
the 1959 revolution. The government is also promoting major economic
reforms [6] aimed at spurring growth, attracting more foreign
investment, and moving most of the labor force off of the government’s
books and into Cuba’s fledgling private sector. Rumors abound [7] that
Havana and Washington are quietly discussing a path toward the lifting
of the U.S. trade embargo. What would such liberalization mean for
Cuba’s world-class spy agency?

The DI’s rich history

The Directorate of Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia,orDI, also
known as G-2 and, earlier, as the Dirección General de Inteligencia, or
DGI) is Cuba’s most important intelligence agency. It took shape under
the tutelage of the Soviet KGB: Beginning in 1962, Cuban officers were
trained in Moscow, and from 1970 onward, KGB advisors worked intimately
with Cuban intelligence officials in Havana. By 1968, according to a
declassified CIA repor [8]t, the DGI had been “molded into a highly
professional intelligence organization along classic Soviet lines.”

The relationship was symbiotic. For Cuba’s leadership, the U.S.-led Bay
of Pigs invasion of 1961, coupled with numerous CIA plots to assassinate
Fidel Castro, cemented America’s position as the revolution’s deadliest
enemy. The Soviet Union’s intelligence services—paramount in the
communist world—were an obvious and welcome ally in the struggle against
the United States and the West more generally.

The Soviet Union’s high confidence in its Cuban protégés was evident by
the early 1970s, when the KGB delegated Western European
intelligence-collection responsibilities to the Cubans following the
mass expulsion of Soviet spies from London in 1971 [9]. Beginning in the
mid-1970s, Cuban and Soviet services began the joint cultivation of
targets in the U.S. Defense Department, the intelligence community, and
U.S. military facilities in Spain and Latin America.

During the 1980s, Cuban intelligence had a substantial presence in El
Salvador and Guatemala, where U.S.-backed regimes were fighting
insurgencies. In Nicaragua, U.S.-supported Contra rebels were battling
the leftist Sandinista government. Cuba’s intelligence presence in
Western Europe was also substantial. The DI reportedly had 150 officers
in Spain—considerably more than any NATO country had in the Spanish
capital at the time. In addition to spying on NATO military forces, the
DI was responsible for acquiring American technology denied to Cuba
under the U.S. embargo.

The Cuban-Soviet espionage partnership was also evident at the massive
electronic eavesdropping installation in Lourdes [10], near Havana.
Construction began in the summer before the Cuban Missile Crisis in
1962. At its peak of operations, some 1,500 Soviet personnel worked
there. Signals intelligence specialists intercepted U.S. telephone
calls, computer data, and other communications throughout the 1960s and
into the 1990s.

Portions of the intelligence “take” involving U.S. capabilities and
intentions regarding Cuba were no doubt shared with the Castro
government. The Russians shuttered Lourdes in December 2001—a casualty
of fiber optics, the digital revolution, and Moscow’s unwillingness to
continue making annual rent payments of $200 million to Cuba to keep the
listening post open.

Cuba’s niche: human intelligence in the United States

The closure of the Lourdes facility made collection by other
means—particularly through human sources—all the more critical. Cuba had
long maintained spy networks inside the United States [11] to infiltrate
and monitor anti-Castro exile groups. From 1992 until the FBI arrested
its members in 1998, the so-called Wasp Network (La Red Avispa)
[12]surveilled South Florida exile groups like Alpha 66, targeted the
offices of Cuban-American politicians, and sought jobs at the U.S.
military’s Southern Command headquarters in Doral, Florida.

Cuba launched other ambitious espionage operations. Cuban-born
husband-and-wife spy team Carlos and Elsa Alvarez [13], employees of
Florida International University, received coded instructions via
shortwave radio and gathered information on Miami-area notables that the
DI used to build “intelligence files on individuals of interest to it
[14],” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The couple, arrested
in 2006, pled guilty and received relatively stiff sentences (even after
cooperating with prosecutors). In 2010, another husband-and-wife spy
team, Kendall and [15]Gwendolyn Myers [15], pled guilty to espionage
charges after thirty years of spying for Cuba. As a senior analyst at
the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Kendall
Myers had access to some of the intelligence community’s most secret and
sensitive information. He received a life sentence.

By all accounts, these cases were relatively minor compared to the
espionage committed by Ana Montes [16], a senior Defense Intelligence
Agency analyst and a top U.S. government expert on Cuba. Arrested in
2001, Montes had spent the previous sixteen years passing highly
classified information to her DI handlers—including the names of U.S.
agents in Cuba. Cuban intelligence recruited Montes after allegedly
being “talent-spotted” by Marta Rita Velazquez [17], who at the time was
serving with the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Last April,
U.S. officials unsealed [18] an espionage indictment against Velazquez,
who now reportedly lives in Sweden.)

Like the Myers and Alvarez couples, Montes received instructions by
encrypted messages sent by shortwave radio, a relatively simple but
secure form of communication and a testament to the Cuban service’s
tried-and-true spy tradecraft. Like the Myerses, Montes was an
ideological traitor motivated by a fervent commitment to the Cuban
revolution. Montes is now serving a twenty-five year term in federal prison.

Havana’s deep reach into Caracas

The DI has played an important part in the relationship between Cuba and
Venezuela, the Castro government’s closest ally. President Hugo Chávez
was ideologically (and personally) mesmerized by the charismatic Fidel
Castro and his revolution. Little wonder, then, that when Chávez felt
himself surrounded by conspirators and traps in his first years in
office—especially after the 2002 coup attempt (with the clumsy
endorsement of the Bush administration [19])—he turned to Havana for help.

Venezuela proudly touts its close relations with Cuba. In 2007, Chávez
announced that more than twenty thousand Cuban doctors, nurses, and
technicians [20] were providing health services in the country. In 2005,
sources estimated [21] that the total number of Cubans working in
Venezuela was approximately forty thousand, though several thousand were
reported later to have fled abroad. According to the Venezuelan
government, Cubans provide a range of expertise including medical care,
sports training, infrastructural engineering, telecommunications, and
the organization and training of “Bolivarian” community militias
prepared to stave off a U.S. invasion. Cuba’s advisory presence has also
included large numbers of DI officers.

Venezuela’s critics [22] (including a few former high-level officials
[23] in the Chávez government) allege that Cuba’s influence is far
greater and particularly strong within the government’s intelligence
agencies. According to press reports [24] describing a 2006 U.S. State
Department cable [25] obtained by WikiLeaks, Cuban intelligence advisors
had direct access to Chávez and ultimate oversight over some of the
intelligence he received. According to the cable, Venezuela’s
intelligence agency displayed the requisite revolutionary élan in its
anti-Americanism, but lacked the expertise of its Cuban partners. The DI
went on to restructure and retrain the Bolivarian Intelligence Agency in
Cuban methods, particularly the penetration, monitoring and exploitation
of political opposition groups.

Documents have also described high-level political machinations by
senior DI officers in Caracas—notably, that the service appeared to have
orchestrated various turnovers within Chávez’s cabinet, as the DI
officials sought to promote more ideologically rigid party loyalists
over military officers. The Venezuelan military is the only state
institution that resisted the government’s deepening and widening
reliance on Cuban advisors; such resistance weakened over time as
outspoken critics were purged from the armed forces.

Under Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, Cuba’s intelligence reach
within Venezuela seems only to have increased. The entourage traveling
with Maduro to New York for this year’s UN General Assembly included
Cuban intelligence officers, according ABC, a Madrid daily. The paper
claimed that Maduro’s plane was forced to return to Caracas after the
United States denied visas to the Cubans on board. The leak of a
recorded phone conversation [26] between Mario Silva, a senior socialist
party loyalist and TV personality, and a DI officer caused a major
scandal. In the phone call, the loyal chavista laments to the Cuban
about the corruption, incompetence, and infighting among the Maduro
government’s top officials. The Venezuelan media have also called
attention to the Maduro government’s contract with a Cuban state-owned
company to administer Venezuela’s database of its residents and their
foreign travel, and to produce national identification cards that will
include biometric information [27]. According to published reports [28],
Argentina and Bolivia have also invited Cuba’s services to help create
new national databases and identification cards.

Havana has several salient interests in an intelligence presence and
outreach capability in Venezuela. Keeping tabs on the political
intrigues and dynamics within Venezuela’s political leadership is
clearly a top intelligence priority for Cuba, considering that it
depends on subsidized oil from Venezuela—ostensibly in payment for the
presence of Cuban doctors, technicians, and advisors.

The DI’s ability to understand and manipulate Venezuelan politics may
determine whether such beneficence will continue. Unfettered DI mobility
in Venezuela allows the Cuban service ready access to countries like
Colombia and Brazil, and also to international financial systems and
technology it has trouble accessing from Havana. From Venezuela, the DI
can also channel resources from a pool far greater than Cuba’s to
ideological partners across the world such as Colombia’s FARC
insurgents, Russia, and Nicaragua.

Post-Castro intelligence

Cuba’s talent for espionage provides the country with obvious tactical
and strategic advantages. It can be expected to contribute to regime
security—as long as the Communist Party of Cuba (Partido Comunista de
Cuba, or PCC) retains its grip on power, the Cuban leadership will
likely continue to view the United States as its main adversary.
According to the long-standing PCC narrative, the United States is the
principal threat to the revolution, and so U.S.-related intelligence
collection is likely to remain a Cuban imperative. And as long as
below-market value oil flows Havana’s way, Venezuela is a first-tier
intelligence priority.

Intelligence supports other Cuban official interests. U.S. intelligence
specialists have long assumed that Cuba provides other countries in the
anti-U.S. firmament—such as Iran, China, and North Korea—with
information, including commercial and technical data, collected by its
U.S.-based spies. No country (including the United States) shares
intelligence for nothing. “Intelligence liaison,” as it is known, is a
transactional relationship, and the Cubans can reasonably expect to
receive information, money and commodities in return.

Cuba will probably try to expand its market for intelligence about the
United States. But deeper ties with countries like Iran and North Korea
bring their own risks. While the Castro regime has many external
critics, its international position is relatively normal compared to the
outlaw status of countries like Iran and North Korea. Enhanced
intelligence ties with such pariahs would likely bring unwanted
international attention, and further damage Cuba’s political reputation.

The potential international market for sensitive information will not
necessarily be limited to “hard” intelligence on U.S. security. If Cuba
enters an era of economic liberalization, it is likely to be seen by the
international community as a more “normal” state. The market for its
intelligence may well expand beyond the shrinking circle of radical
governments. Countries engaged in industrial competition with America,
like China, Brazil, and India, may come to value Cuba’s espionage
prowess as an instrument for gathering commercial intelligence about the
United States.

If Cuba’s revolutionary patina dulls significantly over time, the DI may
be forced to change its business model. A post-revolutionary Cuba could
no longer count on ideological commitment to motivate its intelligence
recruits. Instead, Cuba would have to offer substantial amounts of money
and other blandishments—an approach used with great success by spy
services the world over.

Moreover, America’s trade competitors may look to the Cuban services as
a means to acquire difficult-to-obtain U.S. technology. Cuban
intelligence operations in Venezuela and, earlier, in Spain suggest a
precedent. For Cuba, intelligence is likely to remain a competitive
advantage that any post-Castro (or even post-PCC) government is unlikely
to discard.

William Rosenau and Ralph Espach are senior analysts at CNA’s Center for
Strategic Studies in Alexandria, Virginia. The views expressed here are
their own.

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