Cuba’s primary foreign intelligence service, the world-class Directorate of Intelligence (DI), exploits the “Sister City” program, a concept conceived by President Eisenhower to enhance international understanding through the use of people-to-people exchanges.
The DI views this program as a lucrative tool to meet with sympathizers and agents, spread disinformation and identify candidates for the next generation of spies. So important is the program that DI officers helped establish or sustain programs in six of the first eight U.S. cities to create such relationships.
The six cities exploited were Mobile, Ala.; Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Richmond, Calif.; Oakland, Calif.; and Tacoma, Wash.
Orchestrated from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, the Sister City effort gives the DI a plausible reason for travel throughout the U.S. It views this as an necessity, given the 25-mile travel limit Havana and Washington impose on each other’s diplomatic missions. Historically, half of the Interests Section’s 26 assigned diplomats are spies. With this, the DI sustains its efforts as a long-term intelligence operation against “target-rich” sites across the U.S.
From 1993 to 2003, the DI’s noticeable role evolved with the legitimate growth of the Sister Cities program. Operationally, its visibility and the success of the program are inversely proportional. In short, the DI proved able to significantly reduce the public appearances of its officers as its U.S.-based efforts thrived.
As the DI effort matured, it capitalized on the travel to and from Cuba by the respective Sister City committees. In Cuba, these visits are coordinated by the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, known by its Spanish acronym ICAP. Former DI Officer Juan Reyes-Alonso said a large staff of collaborators aids ICAP’s small cadre of DI officers. Mr. Reyes-Alonso noted that, as a result, roughly 90 percent of ICAP personnel are thought to be DI-affiliated.
The timing of the DI’s inclusion of Cuba-based intelligence officers proved fortuitous. In May 2003, the U.S. expelled 14 diplomat-spies in retaliation for Cuba’s provision of U.S. secrets to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The unprecedented expulsion crippled most DI operations into early 2005.
However, the DI’s targeting of the Sister City program is thought to have survived intact. Most likely, it temporarily redirected the entire effort to Cuba-based officers with little adverse effect. By 2006, the Interests Section undoubtedly had retaken the reins, albeit much more discreetly than its overt style of 1993-2003.
Consider, for example, the heavy-handedness of Afro-Cuban DI officer Felix Wilson Hernandez. A specialist in targeting blacks, he served in Washington from 1996 to 2000.
Mr. Wilson featured prominently at the national formation meeting of the U.S.-Cuba Sister City Association in Pittsburgh in March 1999. That same month, he went to Cambridge, Mass. - an emerging sister city - and lectured at Harvard University about blacks in Cuba. One month later, Mr. Wilson was in Richmond, Calif., interacting with its significant black andHispanic populations. He also repeatedly visited Seattle community leaders in preparation for the World Trade Organization conference in the winter of 1999. At the time, Seattle’s Friendship Committee was active in its sister city initiative.
In the late 1990s, Intelligence Officer Josefina Vidal handled all “exchange programs,” including Sister Cities. She traveled to Cambridge in July 1999 for an event commemorating the Cuban Revolution and was back in October 2002 for a discussion on the Cuban Missile Crisis. In May 2003, she found herself among the previously cited 14 diplomat-spies expelled.
In March 2000, Intelligence Officer Fernando Garcia Bielsa arrived to replace expelled spy Jose Imperatori. In February 2002, he gave the keynote address at a “Cuban Five” event in Cambridge. All five of the convicted spies Mr. Garcia spoke of were directly or indirectly involved in the February 1996 murder of four Americans. That same month he traveled extensively throughout Southern California, giving numerous speeches on the “Cuban Five” and the Cuban Revolution. In May 2003, he, too, was among those expelled for espionage.
In April 2000, DI Officer Oscar Redondo Toledo arrived to run the Sister City program with Mobile, Ala. In June 2002, he was the keynote speaker at an event in Philadelphia. Five months later, he was expelled for espionage.
A little known DI officer supporting Sister Cities at that time was Alejandro Pila Alonso, who worked with the Havana-D.C. Sister City Committee. Co-sponsored by the Howard University Students Association, Mr. Pila’s experience against academic targets certainly played a role in his coverage of the Havana-D.C. initiative.
For at least 16 years, the DI has methodically exploited the Sister City program while U.S. counterintelligence services did little or nothing to stop it. The U.S. can no longer be an accessory in espionage conducted against it.
Visionary and bold counterintelligence and security activities are needed to cripple or destroy this DI endeavor. Havana will only end its covert role when the U.S. makes it too costly to continue. The question is, when do we start?
A four-time war veteran and recently retired spy-catcher, Chris Simmons is an internationally known expert on Cuban intelligence.