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Could Russia Be Cashing In Its $32 Billion Dance Card With Cuba?

The University of Miami Institute for Cuba and Cuban-American studies created a little more than a stir this week in US-Cuba policy circles with the release of a report alleging the presence in Syria of a high-ranking Cuban general and Cuban troops. You can read the UM report and our first post about it here.

Frankly most of this, if true, is somewhat surreal. It’s the 21st century. The Cold War, a thing for the history books. Cuban Communists in Syria, really? If true, these are not the actions of a bankrupt Caribbean nation in the midst of many political and economic crises. Cuba Communist Party hardliners are either politically myopic or just plain dense. Then again, it may just be Russia cashing in.

In July 2014, Putin announced the Kremlin would forgive a $32 billion debt that its former satellite owed mother Russia. What did Russia secure in return from Cuba? I doubt it was bartered for sugar or Cuban doctors. Russia has plenty of both. At the time of the announcement, several Cuba experts speculated that the Russia-Cuba debt deal involved the re-opening of the of the old signals spy station in Lourdes, Cuba.

(FILES) This December, 2001, file photo shows the Lourdes Russian military spy post in Havana, which was home to 1,500 Russian technicians and military personnel and their families before it closed in 2001. Cuba is working to retool the station into a top-flight computer science academy for the developing and marketing of hardware and software, university sources said 22 August, 2002. "It's going to be the country's most modern university, and it is going to have 2,000 resident students who will study and learn to create computer programs and systems which will then be marketed," said one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The new computer science campus includes the entire former military base, a constant source of tension between Washington and Moscow after the collapse of the former Soviet bloc, from which Moscow used to glean some 75 percent of its strategic information on the west. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto ROQUE/FILES
“This December, 2001, file photo shows the Lourdes Russian military spy post in Havana, which was home to 1,500 Russian technicians and military personnel and their families before it closed in 2001. Cuba is working to retool the station into a top-flight computer science academy for the developing and marketing of hardware and software, university sources said 22 August, 2002. “It’s going to be the country’s most modern university, and it is going to have 2,000 resident students who will study and learn to create computer programs and systems which will then be marketed,” said one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The new computer science campus includes the entire former military base, a constant source of tension between Washington and Moscow after the collapse of the former Soviet bloc, from which Moscow used to glean some 75 percent of its strategic information on the west,” Source: AFP/Adalberto Roque

A few more Lourdes stories surfaced earlier this year.  In addition to the Russian SIGINT outpost in the Americas, there have also been a series of stories about Russian spy ships docking in Cuba. By the way, the Chinese are reportedly also dancing with our friends in Havana, allegedly like the Russians, swapping debt for spies. For example, the Chinese are allegedly using another SIGINT facility in the tiny Cuban town of Bejucal.

I don’t doubt for a second that Cuba has offered its strategically located island as a spy base for Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and possibly many more rogue nations. None of that is new. Communist Cuba regime officials have been doing that since the Cold War. However, in the larger scheme of things, sending troops to Syria in this day and age makes absolutely no political sense. Then again, we are talking about hardline Communists. There is as much sense in that lot as there are pots of gold on either side of rainbow.

If the UM report turns out to be true, Obama Administration officials are going to have a lot of explaining to do. As a matter of U.S. law and policy, Cuba sending troops to Syria, even just a military advisor or two, puts Cuba back in contention to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. Even without the Syria issue, it should’ve never come off the state sponsors of terror list in the first place. Then there is the question of who in the U.S. government knew what and when?

State Department officials on background complain, rightly, that the National Security Council has hijacked Cuba policy. That tune is a little old. If you know something, say something. If those that know fear for their jobs, go to Congress or avail yourself of the many whistleblower legal protections that exist to help people come forward. Whitewashing terror and human rights reports to advance an egotistical political agenda harms U.S. national interests in the Americas and, if these reports turn out to be true, in the Middle East and beyond.

Congress should do its part as well to get to the bottom of this story. They’ve been mostly absent on U.S.-Cuba policy since December 17, 2014 and this political ambivalence from the Hill could, in part, be the reason why seasoned State Department foreign service officers refuse to step up and bring information to light that could put in proper perspective the President’s goals with respect to Cuba. If Russia is cashing in a chit, the American people deserve to know why. Even if Syria was part of Russian request of Cuba, I doubt it is the only thing that Russia wants from its former satellite.

The Institute for Cuba and Cuban-American studies is a reputable outfit and its recent report on alleged Cuba troop involvement in Syria warrants follow up. As they said in 2007 in a similar report, “[t]here is no persuasive, much less credible evidence to support the notion that engagement with a totalitarian state will bring about its demise. Only academic ideologues and some members of Congress interested in catering to the economic needs of their state’s constituencies cling to this notion. Their calls for ending the embargo have little to do with democracy in Cuba or the welfare of the Cuban people.” They were right then and, who knows, may be right today too.

 

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