The US is on the verge of reversing one of the cornerstones of it foreign policy in the Americas. Cuba released Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development arrested in 2009, as well as an unnamed US intelligence asset currently imprisoned in Cuba.
In return, the Castro regime secured the release of three spies held in the United States as well as the possibility of “normalized” relations with the US.
The Cuban spies’ case encapsulated much of what made the American embargo policy so hard to reverse. Part of the reason the freeze in political and economic relations with the island has survived five decades and ten US presidents is Cuban intelligence’s operations against the US-based exile community — Cubans whose families fled during the Castro regime’s violent seizure of the island in 1959.
The Cuban spies released today were involved in Havana’s attempts at undermining perceived enemies in the United States. Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramon Labanino were arrested in the United States in 1998 on suspicion of attempting to infiltrate US government facilities and Cuban exile groups in Florida. In a subsequent trial, the men admitted that they were Cuban intelligence agents but claimed that they had not compromised US national security.
A description of the trial in The Economist in February of 2001 suggests that the spy ring had survived for over a decade and had remarkable operational sophistication. “Witnesses in the trial have described telephone taps which recorded conversations in high-speed morse-code, and micro-dots embedded with messages,” The Economist reported. The men had fabricated passports and identities convincing enough to allow them to obtain drivers licenses and even Social Security cards.
In an interview with NBC published earlier this month, Hernandez claimed that the so-called “Wasp Ring” was only working in the United States to foil attacks against Cuba plotted by anti-Castro exile groups — a legitimate concern, considering that one such group pulled a hotel bombing in Havana in 1997.
But the Economist notes that one of the accused spies was “an active member of Brothers to the Rescue and the Democracy Movement, two of the most prominent exile organisations.” The most serious accusation against the spies is that they had knowledge of — or were perhaps even complicit in — the shoot-down of two planes from Brothers to the Rescue that were distributing anti-Castro literature over Cuba in 1996.
“According to court documents,” the Economist notes, two members of the ring “were warned not to fly with the Brothers around the time when those two aircraft were shot down, suggesting that the attack on them was planned well in advance.”
Even in recent decades Cuba has maintained intelligence capabilities far exceeding the country’s relatively small size and poverty. The Wasp Ring’s survival was part of a long string of Cuban intelligence successes on US soil.
“Cuban intelligence for decades has frankly run rings around its yanqui adversaries,” the scholar and former NSA officer John Schindler wrote in April of 2013, recalling the “bad day in the Intelligence Community in 1987 when the most senior intelligence defector to ever leave Havana confirmed that every single source run by the CIA in Cuba since the 1959 revolution had actually been a double agent under Cuban control.”
Schindler noted Havana’s success in planting agents provocateur in Cuban exile groups in the US, as well as the ability of “Fidel’s spies … [to] stok[e] paranoia and dissent” within anti-Castro groups. But the Castro regime had also cultivated high-value assets within the US government. These included the accomplished diplomat Kendall Myers, who was arrested in 2009 for spying for the Cuba for the previous 30 years, and Ala Belen Montes, an American intelligence analyst who became influential in formulating US policy towards Cuba in the 1990s.
Schindler places Cuba in the “big four” of US counterintelligence targets, up there with the espionage heavyweights of Russia, China, and Israel.
Of course, the US-Cuba spy war went in both directions — the CIA repeatedly attempted to overthrow Castro in the 1960s, and USAID was recently caught attempting to set up online social networks that would undermine the island’s communist government.
Less acrimonious relations between the US and Cuba would take away much of the sides’ motives for spying on the other; the upcoming negotiations over a new dispensation between the countries could also include understandings on intelligence activities.
But the spies released today, and the recent history of Cuban activities in the US, are a reminder of just how long mistrust and even outright hostility has simmered between Havana and Washington — and of the weighty issues the two sides must resolve as they work towards eventual normalization.
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