A report that Russia will reopen a Havana base that eavesdropped on U.S. communications from Key West to Washington has triggered fresh warnings of Moscow’s expansionism and predictions of a continued freeze in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Until its closure in 2002, the Lourdes base was Moscow’s largest intelligence facility abroad, with up to 1,500 KGB and GRU military intelligence officers manning an array of antennas and computers in the super-secret 28-square-mile base.
“If the report is true, there’s no question Washington will put Cuba engagement on the back burner,” said Andy Gomez, a retired Cuba specialist at the University of Miami and now senior policy advisor for the Washington law firm Poblete Tamargo.
Alvaro Alba, a Miami expert on Russia, said reopening Lourdes would underscore President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions and cast a pall on U.S.-Cuba relations as dark as that caused by Havana’s imprisonment of U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross since 2009.
Asked why Cuban ruler Raúl Castro would do that when he has repeatedly declared that he wants to improve relations with Washington, Alba added, “Cuba hasn’t cared about the United States in more than 50 years.”
Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said he remains skeptical of the Lourdes report. “The Russians also say they want bases in Nicaragua and even in Argentina,” he said. “There’s a difference between bluster and action.”
The Lourdes hubbub was sparked by a report Tuesday in the respected Kommersant newspaper that, during his Havana visit last week, Putin had agreed “in principle” to reopen the base. The report cited unidentified sources in the Russian military and parliament.
The real impact of a new Lourdes base in Cuba was not immediately clear, and not only because of advances in technology since it was closed.
Cuba already runs one of the world’s largest and most efficient electronic eavesdropping programs with main bases in Bejucal, south of Havana, and Santiago de Cuba, to the east, according to Chris Simmons, a retired Cuba analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Havana also regularly “traffics” the U.S. information it gathers and has provided third-party countries with advance intelligence on U.S. military invasions from Grenada in 1983 to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Simmons has said.
A nearly bankrupt Moscow closed Lourdes and its Cam Ranh naval base in Vietnam to clear the way for obtaining U.S. loans and to save the $200 million a year it had paid Havana for rent since 1992. The base became the campus for the University of Computer Sciences.
In 1993, Castro, at the time minister of defense, declared publicly that Lourdes antennas provided 75 percent of all the signals intelligence received by Moscow on the United States.
Built starting in 1964 on the grounds of a former boys’ reformatory, the base was home to hundreds of technicians and analysts from the Soviet KGB and GRU and Cuba’s own Directorate of Intelligence.
They monitored U.S. satellite communications, telephone and computer connections, financial information, U.S. Navy ships and rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center, according to the Intelligence Resource Center of the Federation of American Scientists.
Now, well within the range of a reopened Lourdes: the Central and Special Operations Commands in Tampa, responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan; the Southern Command in Miami; and Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, home base for B-52 bombers.
Cuba was clearly angry when Lourdes was closed, and in 2004 the Moscow newspaper Izvestia reported Havana was refusing to allow some of the sophisticated equipment from the base to be shipped back to Russia — claiming that Moscow owed it money.
Kommersant reported that Moscow and Havana started negotiating a reopening some time back but the talks intensified earlier this year and an agreement had been reached by the time Putin landed in Havana on a trip that also took him to Argentina and Brazil.
Alejandro Castro, son of Raúl Castro and his chief intelligence adviser, made a little-noticed visit to Moscow in May. News reports said only that he had met with members of Russia’s defense establishment. Lt. Gen. Alexander V. Shlyakhturov, at the time head of the GRU, visited Cuba in 2009.
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki declined comment Wednesday on the Kommersant report, saying that neither Moscow nor Cuba had confirmed it. “I would … naturally have nothing to add on alleged Russian intelligence facilities,” she said.
Two of the Florida Cuban-American members of the U.S. Congress quickly made it clear, however, that they would view a reopening of the Lourdes base as a significant problem for U.S. relations with both Moscow and Havana.
The Kommersant report is “yet another indication of Vladimir Putin’s desire to deepen ties with a state sponsor of terrorism like Cuba and poses a national security threat to the homeland,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wrote in an op-ed column that news reports in recent months have made him feel “as if we’ve opened a time capsule from the Cold War — when Soviet Union aggression was the norm along with its determination to prop up U.S. adversaries in the Western Hemisphere, most notably the Castro regime in Cuba.”