When Cuba opened its Washington D.C. embassy yesterday, the moment wasn’t just historic.
It also felt really ironic.
Historic, of course, because Cuba was raising its flag over the U.S. capital for the first time in 54 years. When the U.S. inaugurates its embassy in Havana on August 14, it will be the crowning moment in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two Cold War enemies.
In 1960, Cuban leader Fidel Castro feared the U.S. mission in Havana was a nest of spies scheming to overthrow his communist revolution. “No [foreign] embassy rules our people!” he told the U.N. then. The U.S. was just as spooked about spies inside the Cuban embassy in Washington – especially their close ties to Russian spies.
A half century later the U.S. and Cuba are finally mending fences. But what ultimately opened the door to normalizing relations?
As President Obama informed us on December 17 when he announced the normalization breakthrough, a U.S.-Cuban spy swap all but sealed the deal.
It was a reminder that espionage is a central feature of U.S.-Cuba relations.
“The United States has always been very concerned about Cuban intelligence and Cuban counterintelligence,” says Frank Mora, who heads the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University and is the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere.
“And for the Cubans, the number one intelligence concern is the United States.”
By the same token, Mora adds, “The principal goal of the new policy is to address all that mistrust that’s built up over 50 years.”
So the question is: Will the new rapprochement finally build bilateral trust – or will opening embassies, as many security analysts fear, simply give the U.S. and Cuba more opportunities to spy on each other?
“It just allows the intelligence services to take their espionage to another level,” says Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at the Stratfor intelligence consulting firm in Austin, Texas, and a former special agent with the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service.
“There’s just a new playground now that has been opened.”
Up to now, the U.S. and Cuba have only had “interests sections” in each other’s countries – small, tightly restricted diplomatic missions. Full-fledged embassies will probably mean a big increase in diplomatic personnel – and a much broader range of diplomatic activity and travel.
For the Cubans, that raises the old fears about gringo operatives spreading counterrevolutionary mischief, including spy activity.
“The role and objective of the U.S. government in Cuba is destabilization,” says Gloria La Riva, a U.S. labor activist in San Francisco who supports the Cuban revolution. La Riva was also coordinator for the National Committee to Release the Cuban Five, the Cuban agents convicted in 2001 in the U.S. for spying – and who were part of last year’s U.S.-Cuba spy swap.
La Riva says it’s understandable that re-establishing diplomatic relations was delayed this year in part because the Cubans insisted on certain rules for U.S. diplomats – such as notifying Cuban officials when they travel around the island.
“The U.S. may want to increase some of its espionage activity, but also the financing for so-called democracy campaigns with the intent of creating a very negative image of Cuba in the world,” La Riva says.
Meanwhile, many politicians in Washington are convinced that a Cuban embassy there is a security risk for the U.S. Their main concern is the ability of Cuban spies to convey intelligence about the U.S. to larger rivals like Russia and China.
Burton of Stratfor says that was underscored earlier this year when a Russian spy ship docked in Havana Harbor.
“There are established liaison channels,” says Burton. “Whatever the Russians may need, they will task out what is called ‘requirements’ to the Cuban liaison service.”
Mora at FIU says another big concern is Cuba’s skill at recruiting U.S. agents to work for them. Perhaps the most glaring example is Ana Belen Montes, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who spied for Cuba for 17 years and is now in a U.S. federal prison.
Still, Mora believes the espionage alarm is exaggerated. If anything, he says, opening embassies should greatly enhance the two countries’ abilities to solve their differences.
“I don’t think re-establishing diplomatic relations means we’re going to see a ramp-up of intelligence activity,” says Mora. “This is not about the spies. This is about what the President believes is the right policy – to engage the island.”
Americans and Cubans alike hope Mora is right – that re-establishing diplomatic relations means this tropical espionage story is ramping down.
We’ll call it "The Spy Who Came In From The Heat."
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.