Cuba's Spies Still Punch Above Their Weight

From the United States to Venezuela, the island nation's biggest export is espionage.

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. 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 to step down in 2018—Cuba’s most significant political transition since the 1959 revolution. The government is also promoting major economic reforms 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 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 report, 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. 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, 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