Cuba's Spies Still Punch Above Their Weight

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

Venezuela’s critics (including a few former high-level officials 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 describing a 2006 U.S. State Department cable 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 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. According to published reports, 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.