Cuba’s return to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in January 2021 is bound to trigger congressional debates. Given what’s at stake, these should be serious foreign-policy and national-security discussions, not partisan, political scrimmages.
President Biden is reportedly planning to engage the Castro regime to seek a possible opening on the island. Before he does so, it would be wise to review what happened when the Obama administration removed Cuba from the terrorist list, restored diplomatic relations, and eased U.S. restrictions on travel, remittances, trade, banking, and investments. At the time, those largely unilateral concessions were intended to encourage the progressive liberalization of Cuba. In practice, however, they only emboldened the island’s rulers to tighten their grip on the population and strengthen their alliances with hostile powers.
Detentions and violence against peaceful dissidents actually rose in 2016, the year Obama visited Cuba, with nearly 10,000 documented cases. New government licenses for the rapidly growing self-employed microenterprises (cuentapropistas), including in-home restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, were abruptly suspended in 2017 for nearly a year — then reinstated with new restrictions.
Today, due in part to the sanctions imposed over the last four years and the economic crisis convulsing Cuba, the Castro regime has started to introduce several overdue reforms. It has scrapped the dual-currency system, devalued the peso, and announced a “major” expansion of the private sector. However, the government maintains control of all large industries and wholesale shops, and continues to monopolize health care, education, communications, and professional services. And all cuentapropistas are still barred from incorporating their businesses.
If the Biden administration is truly serious about human rights in Cuba, it should not give in to a police state that just two months ago quashed a dialogue proposed by artists and young activists of the Movimiento San Isidro seeking to rescind two government decrees that were designed to strangle artistic freedom and silence independent media on the island. Repression has intensified in recent days against peaceful San Isidro protesters and against leaders of the major Cuban dissident organization (UNPACU), who had to go on an extended hunger strike to obtain the lifting of a police barricade.
There are also real national-security concerns. When Cuba was removed from the terrorist list, the Castro regime “provided assurances that it [would] not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” Yet it continues to harbor dozens of American fugitives, including convicted murderers on the FBI Most Wanted List, and provides an operational base to ten leaders of Colombia’s National Liberation Army — a designated foreign terrorist organization.
Moreover, in 2016 and 2017, several dozen U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers (and a number of Canadian officials) stationed in Cuba suffered severe headaches, nausea, dizziness, and loss of hearing and memory. Similar symptoms also afflicted American officials in China, Russia, and other countries in 2018–19. After several years of investigations, experts indicated that the most probable cause of the brain damage was “radiofrequency energy” — a type of radiation likely spurred by high-intensity microwave beams. Strong evidence points to “malicious, directed, and pulsed attacks.” The suspected perpetrator seems to be Russia, which has done significant research on pulsed-radiofrequency technology. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly warned in 1976 that Soviet research on microwaves showed great promise for “disrupting the behavior patterns of military or diplomatic personnel.” Regarding Cuba now, there seems to be an additional Russian objective: weakening U.S. and Canadian intelligence on the island by forcing the evacuation of afflicted spies and diplomatic personnel. And the accomplice: the Castro regime. Accountability is a matter of urgency and should precede any new détente with Cuba. History tells us that impunity, if allowed to stand, is an invitation to more aggression.
Russia’s strategic involvement in Cuba since the Cold War is not new. It was manifest in February 2014, when the Russian spy ship Victor Leonov docked in Havana just before the invasion of Crimea. The Victor Leonov has since returned to Cuba several times. In September 2015, another Russian ship, Yantar, equipped with two submersible craft, targeted a major undersea cable near the U.S. base of Guantanamo, which carries vital global Internet communications. And in November 2018, Moscow reportedly gave the green light to installing a Russian global satellite navigation system in Cuba for possible dual use — commercial and military.
China is also keen on cyber-technology on the island. For years it has been using Cuba’s spy base in Bejucal, near Havana, to intercept U.S. electronic communications. According to The Diplomat magazine, Beijing may have been involved in a new powerful signals-intelligence installation adjacent to Bejucal.
The current Havana–Moscow axis also encompasses Venezuela, where Cuba and Russia have been propping up the Maduro dictatorship. Thousands of Castro spies, repression agents, and military personnel have been spreading terror with Venezuela’s militias (colectivos), and have spearheaded Maduro’s Special Forces (FAES), responsible for torture and thousands of extra-judicial killings. In a U.S. Senate hearing in July 2017, the current secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said that “there are currently about fifteen thousand Cubans [including intelligence agents, presidential bodyguards, and military personnel] in Venezuela. . . . It’s like an occupation army from Cuba.”
Given the Castro regime’s continued oppression in Cuba and looming threats to the U.S. and the region — in collusion with Russia, China, Venezuela, and terrorist organizations — the Biden administration would do well to maintain Cuba’s designation as a terrorist state and other sanctions. That is, unless the regime stops repressing peaceful dissidents and supporting international terrorism, withdraws its spies and military personnel from Venezuela, and pursues a true democratic opening in Cuba.