Although Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25, 2016, the influence of the intelligence services that he created lives on. Castro, who ruled Cuba with an iron fist for five decades, created a spy apparatus whose outsized impact has extended far from the shores of the Caribbean country.
Cuba did not have a professional foreign intelligence service before Castro seized power in 1959. Under Soviet auspices, it created one in 1961. Initially called the Direccion General de Inteligencia (DGI), and later renamed the Direccion de Inteligencia (DI), Cuba’s most important intelligence agency began training its officers in Moscow in 1962. KGB tutelage proved of enormous value, both to the Castro regime and to the USSR.
The DGI quickly developed into an elite service. Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst, noted in his 2012 book Castro’s Secrets, “Many retired CIA officials stand in awe of how Cuba, a small island nation, could have built up such exceptional clandestine capabilities and run so many successful operations against American targets.” In Latell’s opinion, “Cuban intelligence…ran circles around both” the CIA and the FBI.
William Rosenau and Ralph Espach, both senior analysts at the Virginia-based think tank CNA concurred with Latell’s conclusion. Writing in The National Interest, both offered the judgment: “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 (“Cuba’s Spies Still Punch Above Their Weight,” Sept. 29, 2013).”
The basis for this claim seems sound.
Cuban intelligence successfully penetrated U.S. national security agencies both during the Cold War and in the years since. Following his 1987 defection to the U.S., Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, a top official in Castro’s intelligence agencies, exposed dozens of Cuban double agents who had infiltrated various segments of American society, from the government to non-profit organizations. Many of the spies had been living in the U.S. for years.
In retaliation, Castro ordered at least two-failed assassination attempts on Aspillaga—both of them, Latell pointed out, involving people the former Cuban spy knew.
Another of the DI’s successful plants, Ana Belen Montes, spied on behalf of Cuba for sixteen years. Montes, an analyst with the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), was sentenced to a 25-year prison term in October 2002.
The damage caused by Montes was extensive. Scott Carmichael, the U.S. counterintelligence officer who helped bring Montes down, stated in his 2007 book True Believer that, among other actions, Montes divulged the existence of a secret U.S. Army base in El Salvador, resulting in an attack by Castro-friendly forces and the death of an American Green Beret. Additionally, Montes revealed U.S. assets in Cuba and, in the opinion of former U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, may have offered significant contributions to a 1998 intelligence report that minimized the danger Cuba poses to the U.S.
As a 2007 article by The Washington Times noted, Carmichael said, “I believe that the Cuban Intelligence Service has penetrated the United States government to the same extent that the old East German intelligence service, the Stasi, once penetrated the West German government during the Cold War (“DIA official warns about Cuban spies,” March 14). Indeed, according to an 2004 indictment that was unsealed in 2013, Montes herself was recruited—perhaps even before she joined the DIA—by Marta Rita Velazquez, then a U.S. State Department employee (“Charge in Cuban spy case unsealed,” Associated Press, April 23, 2013).
Cuba’s top-notch spy craft has ramifications that extend beyond U.S.-Cuban relations. According to Carmichael, Havana’s intelligence services share information with U.S. opponents and strategic competitors, including China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, among others.
The DI is a global player, having worked to support Castro’s active and expansive conception of foreign policy priorities. Cuba’s spies played an important role in Soviet efforts to revive Peronism in Argentina, the ascent of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and in Ethiopia where, as the British analyst Kyle Orton has noted, “17,000 Cuban troops and a stream of Soviet cash and direction provided the lifeline for the murderous [dictator] Mengistu Haile Mariam.”
More recently, Havana has worked to shore up the anti-American Chavez-Maduro regime in Venezuela and provided Iranian scientists and technicians with the technical know-how for developing and manufacturing large quantities of biological weapons. In July 2013, a North Korean cargo vessel was seized in Panama with Cuban military equipment aboard.
Internally, Cuban intelligence has been crucial to Castro’s grip on power; assisting in the stifling of freedom of speech and religion, political expression and the imposition of a catastrophic economic system.
Despite his death, Fidel Castro’s repressive regime remains in place. And the spy force he created remains one of its most capable executors.
The writer is a Washington D.C.-based foreign affairs analyst. His views are his own.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.