Cuba's Spies Still Punch Above Their Weight

September 29, 2013 Topic: IntelligenceSecurity Region: CubaCaribbeanVenezuelaAmericas

Cuba's Spies Still Punch Above Their Weight

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

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.

The potential international market for sensitive information will not necessarily be limited to “hard” intelligence on U.S. security. If Cuba enters an era of economic liberalization, it is likely to be seen by the international community as a more “normal” state. The market for its intelligence may well expand beyond the shrinking circle of radical governments. Countries engaged in industrial competition with America, like China, Brazil, and India, may come to value Cuba’s espionage prowess as an instrument for gathering commercial intelligence about the United States.

If Cuba’s revolutionary patina dulls significantly over time, the DI may be forced to change its business model. A post-revolutionary Cuba could no longer count on ideological commitment to motivate its intelligence recruits. Instead, Cuba would have to offer substantial amounts of money and other blandishments—an approach used with great success by spy services the world over.

Moreover, America’s trade competitors may look to the Cuban services as a means to acquire difficult-to-obtain U.S. technology. Cuban intelligence operations in Venezuela and, earlier, in Spain suggest a precedent. For Cuba, intelligence is likely to remain a competitive advantage that any post-Castro (or even post-PCC) government is unlikely to discard.

William Rosenau and Ralph Espach are senior analysts at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies in Alexandria, Virginia. The views expressed here are their own.

Image: Flickr/Anna. CC BY 2.0.