Néstor T. Carbonell

Author Néstor T. Carbonell Blog


The return of Cuba to the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism under the Trump administration is bound to trigger intense congressional debates. But they should not be partisan, political scrimmages, but rather serious foreign policy-cum-national security discussions.

The Biden administration is reportedly planning to restore parts of the Obama’s deal with the Castro regime, which removed Cuba from the terrorist list, restored diplomatic relations, and unilaterally eased US restrictions on travel, remittances, trade, banking and investments. It behooves us, therefore, to analyze the results or consequences of that largely one-sided détente, which mostly benefited and emboldened the Cuban rulers with few quid pro quos.

From 2015 to 2016, many in Washington thought that the impressive flow of American visitors to the island marked a new beginning in US-Cuba relations, which could achieve the three main objectives listed by Obama’s chief negotiator, Ben Rhodes, in his published memoir.

Sadly, they turned out to be three illusions quashed by the Castro regime, as shown here:

–“Expand the nascent private sector”—It was frozen, not expanded. New government licenses for microbusinesses, including the popular and rapidly growing in-home restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, were abruptly suspended in 2017 for nearly one year. When reinstated, new restrictions were imposed.

–“Allow foreign businesses to hire Cubans directly”— Investors still have to partner with state enterprises (mainly the military) and cannot hire or fire employees or pay them, except through a government agency which collects the hard currency and pays the workers a fraction in local currency.

–“Show more restraint in its treatment of protestors”—Repression actually increased, significantly. Detentions and poundings of peaceful dissidents peaked in 2016, with nearly 10,000 documented cases. Women and minors were not spared. Today, emboldened by the prospects of a new US rapprochement, the Castro regime has intensified human rights violations–this time attacking artists and young activists seeking freedom of expression (San Isidro Movement).

When Cuba was removed from the terrorist list in May 2015, the Castro regime’s acts of international terrorism and aggression were implicitly condoned or disregarded. Among them: the 1996 shoot-down over international waters of two unarmed aircraft of Brothers to the Rescue, which killed three US citizens and one US resident, as well as the 2013 smuggling of 240 metric tons of heavy weapons, in collusion with the terrorist state of North Korea, which  flagrantly violated UN sanctions.

Hoping to turn the page, Obama advised Congress that “Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” Despite that assurance, the Castro regime continued harboring more than 70 US fugitives. They include several convicted murderers who appear on the FBI Most Wanted List, like the notorious killer of a police officer, Joanne Chesimard (Assata Shakur), and the master bomb-maker, Guillermo Morales, responsible for setting off several blasts, leaving 4 dead and more than 50 injured. 

Cuba also continues to serve as a sanctuary and operational base for international terrorists, including 10 leaders of Colombia’s National Liberation Army—a designated foreign terrorist organization that has claimed responsibility for a 2019 bombing in Bogotá that killed 22 people and injured more than 87.

In late 2016, still under Obama’s presidency, an ominous development started to unfold in Cuba and continued through 2017. Several dozen US diplomats and intelligence officers stationed on the island suffered a mysterious, debilitating brain illness. This so-called Havana Syndrome was marked by severe headaches, nausea, dizziness, hearing and memory loss, requiring extensive treatment in the US and, in some cases, permanent retirement. Canadian officials who resided in Cuba experienced similar symptoms and had to be evacuated.

After four years of investigations, experts engaged by the State Department indicated in December 2020 that the most probable cause of the affliction was “radiofrequency energy”—a type of radiation that was likely spurred by high-intensity microwave beams. Strong evidence point to “malicious, directed, and pulsed attacks.” The experts did not have access to classified intelligence information, but in their view the suspected perpetrator seems to be Russia, which has significantly researched and applied pulsed radiofrequency technology.

One thing is certain: these multiple targeted attacks, carried out over more than one year in a police state such as Cuba, could not have taken place without the knowledge and collusion of the Castro regime. It’s time to disclose the CIA findings about these attacks against American officials, which have severely affected their lives and sharply diminished our diplomatic and intelligence effectiveness in Cuba, and to hold the perpetrator and the accomplice accountable.

Russia’s strategic involvement in Cuba should not come as a surprise. In February 2014, Moscow’s spy ship Victor Leonov docked in Cuba just before Russia invaded Crimea. And in January 2015, the same vessel docked in Havana on the eve of a sensitive US-Cuba negotiation. It has since returned to the island several times.

In September 2015, another Russian ship, Yantar, equipped with two self-propelled submersible craft, cruised off the East coast of the US on its way to Cuba. According to Pentagon sources, the ship targeted a major undersea cable near the American naval base of Guantanamo, which carries global internet communications. And in November 2018, Moscow reportedly gave green light to the long-planned installation in Cuba of a Russian Global Satellite Navigation System (GLENS) for both commercial and military use. 

Russia is not alone in strategic pursuits on the island. For years, China has been using Cuba’s spy base in Bejucal, near Havana, to intercept electronic communications from the US. Moreover, in June 2018, The Diplomat magazine revealed that adjacent to that base a new signals intelligence installation was recently built with a huge steerable parabolic antenna and its spherical enclosure (radome), apparently to boost cyberwarfare capabilities, including missile tracking and possibly disruption of satellite communications. No comments yet from the Pentagon.

The current Havana-Moscow axis is not limited to Cuba. It encompasses Venezuela, where Cuba and Russia, in unison, have been propping up the Maduro dictatorship—Russia with armaments, officers and mercenaries, and Cuba with thousands of spies, repression agents and military personnel. The Secretary General of the OAS likened the massive deployment of Cuban forces in Venezuela to “an occupation army.”

US intelligence agencies have gathered evidence of the direct involvement of those forces in a Venezuelan paramilitary operation designed to spread terror with trained militias known as “colectivos”. They are also a key factor in Maduro’s Special Forces (FAES), responsible for tortures and extrajudicial killings of thousands of political and military opponents, which were denounced in 2019 and 2020 by the UN Human Rights Commission as crimes against humanity.

In addition, the governments of Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia have shared intelligence with the US, showing how Cuban agents, sometimes posing as doctors, aided and abetted the riots and vandalism that shook those countries in 2019.These menacing developments, which have been largely highlighted, not by conspiracy theorists, but by the current and previous Heads of US Southern Command, Admirals Faller and Tidd, should not be underestimated. The Biden administration would do well to maintain current US sanctions against the Castro regime, including the re-designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism—unless it stops repressing peaceful dissidents and supporting international terrorism, withdraws its spies and military personnel from Venezuela, and pursues a meaningful and sustainable democratic opening in Cuba. 

Also essential and urgent: a comprehensive US strategy for Latin America. That strategy should seek to counter the subversive penetration of the region by Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah in collusion with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, strengthen our alliances under the OAS, spur economic growth and safeguard our national defense. Historians know that the Castro regime has hoodwinked a long line of US Presidents intent on improving relations with the island nation. Let’s hope a Biden presidency doesn’t join the queue.