Last month, Cuba observed sixty-five years since Fidel Castro’s violent seizure of power in 1959. While a new generation of Americans may not realize how dangerous he was, his brand of tyranny is still all too real to so many Cubans and others who continue to suffer today under a brutal dictatorship. Through espionage, human trafficking, and fomenting instability, the Cuban regime— a designated State Sponsor of Terrorism—is a grave threat to the United States and beyond.
Cuba has an advanced intelligence network, as recently showcased by the recent arrest of former U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha on the charge of acting as an agent of the Cuban regime. Attorney General Merrick Garland described the incident as “one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent.”
However, Rocha is not the first. Former intelligence analyst Ana Belen Montes, former State Department employee Walter Kendall Myers, and the WASP network were all caught spying on Cuba’s behalf against our nation.
China is also seemingly utilizing Cuba to set up a spy base and a military training base for intelligence activities. A recent Department of Commerce filing stated: “The 2020 National Counterintelligence Strategy specifically recognized the Cuban government’s intelligence threat to the United States, noting that, in addition to Russia and the PRC, ‘[o]ther state adversaries such as Cuba, Iran, and North Korea . . . also pose significant threats’ to U.S. counterintelligence efforts.”
Meanwhile, the Cuban dictatorship’s nefarious activities include attempting to meddle in U.S. elections. A declassified report from the National Intelligence Council concluded that in 2023, “Cuba attempted to undermine the electoral prospects of specific U.S. Congressional and gubernatorial politicians.”
Cuba is also exploiting the migration crisis. Havana, along with Nicaragua’s dictator Daniel Ortega in Managua, are benefiting financially by charging fees from those seeking to reach the United States through charter flights that take them to Nicaragua before they cross into Mexico. This level of state-sponsored human trafficking is unprecedented and exacerbates the U.S. border chaos.
The United States Customs and Border Patrol estimates 425,000 encounters with Cubans attempting to immigrate to the United States in fiscal years 2022 and 2023. Approximately another 6,000 Cubans were interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami in 2021. These figures are higher than the 270,000 Cubans from the Freedom Flights of the 1960s and 1970s, the 125,000 from the 1980 Mariel boatlift, and the 35,000 from rafters in 1994. Some Cuban emigres are arriving legally through the Biden administration’s new humanitarian parole program, while others are not.
Predictably, the Cuban regime falsely blames U.S. sanctions for the exodus, but no one should fall for this ruse. While Cubans struggle to find food, medicine, and other essentials, U.S. law specifically allows the export of unlimited quantities of food, agriculture, medicine, and humanitarian goods to Cuba. The repression, harassment, corruption, mismanagement, human rights abuses, and abject poverty—all caused by the Cuban dictatorship—are fueling the unprecedented exodus.
Sadly, this is not the first time Cuba has weaponized its own people. For example, Cuban doctors are sent overseas to reap economic benefits for the regime and foster chaos. But countries are catching on. Bolivia’s interim government deported over 700 Cubans working under the medical doctor guise, and Ecuador followed after allegations surfaced that Cubans were brought into the country to protest against former President Moreno.
In 2019, the State Department said Cuban doctors were facing modern-day slavery, and its 2023 Trafficking in Persons report reaffirmed that Cuba profits “from labor export programs with strong indications of forced labor, particularly in the foreign medical missions’ program.”
Cubans are also fomenting instability in war zones. Reports allege that hundreds of Cubans have been forced or duped to fight for Putin’s Kremlin in its unprovoked war against Ukraine. Belarus is also offering to provide military training for Cubans. These actions are reminiscent of 1975, when Cuba sent thousands of troops to Angola to support the Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
The regime’s relentlessness to endanger U.S. citizens continues, too. More than seventy U.S. fugitives are being harbored in Cuba, including Joanne Chesimard, who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list. Last month, the regime published a list and indicted sixty-one people for so-called terrorism charges, threatening many U.S. citizens. Those on the list now must worry about international travel because Cuba may actively seek extradition.
Steps can be taken to counter Cuba’s attempts to undermine U.S. interests at home and abroad while supporting the Cuban people.
First, reinstate the Cuban Medical Parole Program to provide vetted Cuban doctors an opportunity to escape. This program was successful after being launched in 2006 under the Bush Administration and then USCIS Director Emilio T. Gonzalez. Terminating the program in 2017 was a top priority for President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama during the normalization efforts.
Second, the United States should use its influence to deny the regime more debt relief from the Paris Club and convince the European Union and its Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement to stop undermining democratic efforts by expanding trade and dialogue while human rights conditions continue to deteriorate.
Third, impose more sanctions. While the Treasury Department in 2021 rightfully sanctioned Cuba’s Defense Minister and the Revolutionary National Police after its crackdown against innocent protestors, more can still be done to apply sanctions to individuals and institutions connected to human rights violations and corruption.
Fourth, indict Raul Castro for his role in shooting down the Brothers to the Rescue planes. Just as the United States indicted Manuel Noriega in Panama and, more recently, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, justice and accountability are long overdue for the three U.S. citizens and residents who were murdered when the Cuban Air Force shot down the plane over international waters in 1996.
Fifth, continue supporting Cuban civil society leaders and democracy programs. It is vital to document human rights atrocities, provide a platform for independent journalists, offer objective news through TV and radio, and support families of political prisoners.
In July 2021, the Cuban people hit the streets to advocate for freedom and bravely demonstrated, once again, the deep discontent on the island towards the dictatorship. Nevertheless, the regime’s brutal response was another tragic reminder of the level of suffering and deteriorating conditions for the people of Cuba. More than two years later, 1,000 political prisoners remain unjustly detained. Policymakers should stop being naïve and excusing the dictatorship’s abuses. Instead, they should reaffirm support for the Cuban people’s democratic aspirations by holding the dictatorship in Havana accountable for endangering our national security interests.
Eddy Acevedo was deemed a “traitor” to Nicaragua by dictator Daniel Ortega and was previously sanctioned by the Russian Federation. He is the chief of staff and senior adviser to Ambassador Mark Green, the president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was formerly the National Security Adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development and senior foreign policy advisor for former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). This opinion is solely that of the author and does not represent the views of the Wilson Center.