Will spy wars between Cuba and the U.S. end with restored relations?

Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald AP

Though the United States has restored relations with Cuba, and President Barack Obama is planning to visit the island later this month, it’s unclear if the two countries have declared a truce in the spy wars they have waged for more than 50 years.

Lawmakers in Congress have warned the Obama administration that allowing Cuba to operate an embassy in Washington and consulates throughout the country will only make it easier for Havana to deploy spies and agents in the United States.

“We are all too familiar with the Castro regime’s efforts to utilize their diplomats as intelligence agents tasked with the goal of committing espionage against the host countries,’’ according to a letter sent in 2015 to the U.S. Department of State by five Cuban-American lawmakers including Miami Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, as well as presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J.

Since Fidel Castro seized power in January 1959, and over the next five decades, Havana built one of the world’s most active intelligence services — one that dispatched spies and agents to penetrate the highest levels of the American government and some of the leading Cuban exile organizations.

In fact, some of the biggest crises in U.S.-Cuba relations can be traced to the involvement of Cuban spies and agents — from the downing of two Brothers to the Rescue planes to the theft of U.S. military secrets at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the spying of U.S. military facilities in South Florida and infiltration of leading Cuban exile organizations in Miami by members of the now-defunct Wasp Network.

I believe the main reason that Cuban intelligence was so exceptionally successful, for so many years, is because the supreme Cuban spy master was Fidel Castro himself

Brian Latell, former CIA official

“I believe the main reason that Cuban intelligence was so exceptionally successful, for so many years, is because the supreme Cuban spy master was Fidel Castro himself,” said Brian Latell, a former CIA official who in 2012 published the landmark book Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, which provides an authoritative history of Cuban espionage against the United States. “Intelligence operations were always among his highest priorities.”

While some Cuban spies have become well known — such as the five illegal intelligence officers caught, tried and convicted for belonging to the Wasp Network that spied on military facilities in South Florida and infiltrated the ranks of exile groups — other agents have operated in obscurity. Still others have only been suspected — but never confirmed — as Cuban agents, including Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.

Oswald is perhaps a good place to start. If it’s true he was a Cuban agent, then Oswald was one of the first to operate clandestinely in the United States.

There’s never been any concrete evidence that Oswald was controlled by Cuban intelligence, but Latell’s authoritative book offers tantalizing information indicating that the American assassin had been in contact with Cuban officials well before his well-documented bus trip to Mexico City, two months before the Dallas assassination, where he visited the Cuban consulate seeking a visa to Havana and yelled that he would kill Kennedy after he was denied travel papers.

Latell’s book quotes from testimony before the Warren Commission that investigated the 1963 assassination that sometime in 1959, the year Castro seized power in Havana, Oswald contacted Cuban officials — possibly in Los Angeles — and remained in touch while he was stationed at the former U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in southern California.

Nelson Delgado, a Puerto Rican Marine who became a friend of Oswald’s, recalled in testimony that Oswald himself told him he was in contact with Cuban diplomats and that he was receiving mail from them.

Delgado also told the Warren Commission that once he saw an envelope stamped with a Cuban government seal in Oswald’s quarters and that Oswald regularly received an unknown civilian visitor at the base.

More significantly, Latell says in his book, Cuban officials — perhaps even Castro himself — knew in advance that something was going to happen in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 because they ordered a young intelligence communications officer to stop tracking CIA signals that day and instead focus on broadcasts from Texas.

The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone, and the House Select Committee on Assassinatuons in 1976 said the Cuban government was not involved in the Kennedy assassination. Oswald was killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby soon after the assassin’s arrest.

Incidentally, the communications officer ordered to track Texas broadcasts was Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, one of the most important Cuban intelligence defectors ever to have fled to the United States. He defected in 1987 and was targeted for assassination in 1997 by suspected members of the Miami-based Wasp Network, according to Latell’s book.

Almost every decade, U.S. authorities have uncovered Cuban espionage or terrorist plots within the United States.

One of the first confirmed espionage and sabotage attempts took place in 1962 — just after the Cuban missile crisis ended.

FBI agents thwarted the alleged Castro plot that involved setting off explosives at various department stores in New York City as well as oil refineries in New Jersey, according to a New York Times article published on Nov. 19, 1962.

Three of the suspects — Roberto Santiesteban Casanova, José Gómez Abad and his wife Elisa Montero de Gómez Abad — were attached to the Cuban mission to the United Nations. Though Cuba denied the diplomats’ involvement in the plot, a year later Santiesteban was freed and allowed to return to Cuba as part of an exchange for Americans held on the island. The Abads had been freed and kicked out by the State Department soon after their arrest.

In the 1970s, U.S. intelligence officials suspected that Cuban spies helped finance the activities of U.S. anti-government militant groups such as the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army.

In fact, one of the best known black militants from that era, Assata Shakur or JoAnne Chesimard fled to Cuba in 1984 after escaping from prison. Chesimard is still in Cuba.

In 1978, Walter Kendall Myers, then a young State Department contract employee, visited Cuba and was recruited as agent 202. His wife Gwendolyn became agent 123. Eventually, Myers climbed in the ranks of the State Department to become a State Department intelligence analyst. For three decades, the couple relayed secret information to their Cuban control officers via shortwave radio and encrypted electronic messages. Gwendolyn was in charge of transmitting the secrets to Cuba.

Cuban espionage against the United States intensified in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan stepped up rhetoric against Cuba at the height of the Cold War.

It was then that Cuban intelligence recruited Ana Belen Montes, daughter of a Puerto Rican family who in 1985 joined the ranks of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). By the time Montes was arrested in 2001, she had already become a senior DIA analyst and had passed a considerable amount of American secrets to Cuba. Montes pleaded guilty in 2002 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Also in 2002, U.S. investigators learned that Montes had been recruited as a Cuban agent by a fellow student, Marta Rita Velazquez, at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, who later worked for the State Department. Velazquez has since been indicted but not prosecuted because she lives in Sweden, which does not allow extradition for spying.

In the 1990s, Cuban espionage within the United States intensified further after exiles began a series of anti-Castro raids and sabotage missions against the island in the belief that the fall of Communism in eastern Europe would hasten the downfall of the Castro regime.

It was then that Cuba sent intelligence officers to South Florida who gradually built the Wasp Network of spies, one of the most elaborate foreign espionage systems ever discovered in the United States.

Wasp Network members ultimately managed to infiltrate Brothers to the Rescue, Alpha 66 and other exile groups and also spied on U.S. military facilities in South Florida. While the group was discovered in 1998, its members had been active for years. For example, the network’s information helped the Cuban government down two small planes belonging to Brothers to the Rescue in which four Cuban exiles were killed in 1996.

The victims of the shootdown that involved two Cuban MiGs, were Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., Mario de la Peñma and Pablo Morales.

“One of the most painful moments was to hear the tape of the pilots seeking orders to shoot down the small planes and how they rejoiced when they announced that they had shot them down,” said Maggie Alejandre Khuly, sister of Armando Alejandre. “I went to the trial every day and in order to bear the pain I wrote a lot. That way I was able to distance myself from what was happening, the lies and the surprises, the horrors which until that moment had been unexpected.”

Alejandre Khuly said the victims’ families felt vindicated when the sentences were announced against the spies.

“Of course, everything changed on December 17, 2014, and we don’t know exactly how we are going to continue fighting, but we will. We will not forget Carlos, Armando, Mario and Pablo.”

The families now hope that eventually the MiG pilots — twin brothers Lorenzo Alberto Perez Perez and Francisco Perez Perez — and then Cuban air force chief Gen. Ruben Martinez Puente — will be brought to trial in the United States. A U.S. grand jury in Miami indicted the pilots and Gen. Martinez Puente in 2003 for the shootdown.

Though more than two dozen people worked in the Wasp network, in the end only five leaders were prosecuted and convicted in Miami: Antonio Guerrero, René González, Fernando González, Gerardo Hernández and Ramón Labañino.

René González was released from prison in 2011 and allowed to return to Cuba in 2013. Fernando González was released on Feb. 27, 2014 and the remaining three were freed and returned to Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014 — the day President Obama ordered the restoration of relations with Cuba.

While U.S. authorities succeeded in dismantling the Wasp Network, Cuban espionage continued.

In 2002, four Cuban diplomats were expelled for activities deemed harmful to the United States. One of them was Gustavo Machín Gómez who joined the Cuban negotiation team on restoration of relations and was received at the State Department in February 2015, according to the letter released by the U.S. lawmakers.

In 2003, 14 more Cuban diplomats were kicked out including José Anselmo López Perera, husband of Josefina Vidal, who headed the Cuban team that brought about restoration of relations.

In 2003, 14 Cuban diplomats were kicked out including José Anselmo López Perera, husband of Josefina Vidal, who headed the Cuban team that brought about restoration of relations.

In 2006, Florida International University professors Carlos and Elsa Alvarez were arrested and later pleaded guilty in connection with a Cuban espionage case. In 2007, Carlos was sentenced to five years in prison, and Elsa to three years.

The last big case emerged in 2009, when agents announced the discovery of the Myers espionage couple. In 2010, Walter — then 73 — was sentenced to life in prison and his wife, then 72, to 81 months.

Relations with Cuba probably does not mark the end of the spy wars. Several suspected Cuban agents have not been prosecuted and others have not been identified, though they may still be operating within the U.S. government and exile groups.

Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @AlfonsoChardy