By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
Nearly a year after floating the idea, the Obama administration instructed the State Department to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The delisting will have minimal impact on U.S. policy as the embargo of the island nation remains in place. In most instances, inclusion on the State Departments State Sponsor of Terrorism list comes with economic and political consequences, but for Cuba the delisting was certainly important, though mostly symbolic.
Naturally, some members of Congress representing both parties and many opposed to the Castro regime were not pleased with the delisting because Cuba didn’t make any concessions in return. Generally speaking, the attempts at rapprochement with Cuba does appear to haphazard, but truth be told the restoration of diplomatic ties does seem likely to happen. With the restoration of diplomatic ties, how the mission of Cuban intelligence will change, if at all, should be a more pressing issue; however it appears to be an issue widely overlooked in lieu of other matters such as the embargo and human rights on the island. Cuba and the U.S. have held a mutual antipathy towards one another over the last half century and the respective intelligence agencies of both nations have fought a battle in the shadows during that same time frame. Though there are likely to be some shifts in the focus of Cuban intelligence operations, much will remain the same out of necessity.
Cuba is a small nation of 11 million people and its intelligence apparatus is estimated to employ around 20,000. Given its small size, it may come as a surprise that the Directorate General of Intelligence (DGI) and the Military Counterintelligence Department are amongst the best in the world. Cuba has managed to infiltrate U.S. intelligence agencies recruiting insiders that are ideologically sympathetic to the Cuban regime, recruit spies in Florida to monitor the Cuban ex-pat population, and the small nation currently has the third largest mission to the UN in New York City with half of those employed at the mission belonging to the DGI. Havana still views Washington as its main foe and the investment of intelligence assets in the U.S. easily demonstrates this. Perhaps equally concerning is Cuba’s penchant for allowing its elites to operate akin to organized crime through everything from money laundering to drug running, and its long history of supporting revolutionary and terrorist groups. That being said, Cuba may be distancing itself from such support because of the changing landscape in South America. In fact, in 2013, the last time the State Department updated their Country Report on Terrorism, it said the following:
“Cuba has long provided safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Reports continued to indicate that Cuba’s ties to ETA have become more distant, and that about eight of the two dozen ETA members in Cuba were relocated with the cooperation of the Spanish government. Throughout 2013, the Government of Cuba supported and hosted negotiations between the FARC and the Government of Colombia aimed at brokering a peace agreement between the two. The Government of Cuba has facilitated the travel of FARC representatives to Cuba to participate in these negotiations, in coordination with representatives of the Governments of Colombia, Venezuela, and Norway, as well as the Red Cross. Therewas no indication that the Cuban Government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.
The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States. The Cuban Government also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.”
It is most likely that this shift is influenced more by reality and less by becoming a responsible state. The Cuban still maintains a relationship with FARC – one that goes beyond ideological compatibility. Cuba has assisted in getting illicit drugs from FARC to the U.S. market by allowing use of its waters and airspace. This allowed Cuba to take a cut off the proceeds and helps FARC raise money. Much of this activity is facilitated by the high ranking officials in the Cuban military, but the relationship is managed by the DGI and the Military Counterintelligence Department. Additionally, Cuba still sells or shares much of the intelligence it collects on the U.S. with other foes of Washington such as North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia. Cuba’s intelligence work is so vital to the functioning of the state its hard to see any transformation taking place should the U.S. and Cuba formally reestablish ties.
With the Cuban economy struggling as it is, and Raul Castro’s reforms merely limping along, the concern over a post-Castro Cuba is weighing on many in Washington. Its also clear that the way the intelligence apparatus is integrated into the dark side of the Cuban economy and the concern that a major power could come to influence the island negatively that Havana simply cannot change course without causing political turmoil.
Many military leaders and political officials make money off black market operations, thus making it difficult to remove this activity as a source of income unless the Cuban companies that are used to mask many of these illicit activities are made to go fully legitimate while maintaining their current leadership structure. Otherwise, such a loss in revenue could cause these leaders to become a threat to the regime. In the not too distant past, the Castro brothers have not been shy about eliminating anything that could challenge their power – the case involving the suspicious death of their former friend and intelligence leader Manuel Piñeiro, aka “Red Beard,” should be seen as a cautionary tale for those who could be slighted in a potential political/economic transformation. That being said, it’s hard to eliminate an entire cadre of officials that have served to state for so long. It’s not impossible, but could easily lead to instability.
Interestingly enough, these very issues may have served as an impetus for the U.S. to try and reengage Cuba while the Castro’s are still in power. With organized crime led by cronyism as the backbone of much of the Cuban political and economic system, the death of the Castro’s could lead to a free for all among the elites to carve up the nations holdings and create a failed state/criminal state on the U.S. doorstep. Washington may be banking on using restored diplomatic relationship as a lever to usher in economic reform by, hopefully, allowing more robust foreign investment. Such investment has long been banned in Cuba until recently, but foreign investment has been so tightly controlled by the government that it has been dissuasive for many foreign companies. Economic reform that allows existing Cuban companies to operate more legitimately – not only on the island itself, but internationally – could help in the political transformation that will ultimately manifest after the Castro’s pass. For the U.S. there are no guarantees that such an approach could work, but options for managing a potential political transition are limited. This is just a theory as to why there is a certain urgency in DC to normalize ties with Cuba.
Other reasons could certainly exist, but rapprochement with Cuba is politically risky and it’s doubtful many politicians involved in this policy transition would risk such capital with an upcoming election in 2016.