Faced with an increasingly desperate economic situation, Fidel Castro is making cooing noises in the direction of the Bush administration, but the wooing is complicated by tales of Cuban espionage against the United States and even Cuban links with terrorism.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told reporters at the United Nations earlier this month that Cuba is ready for normal relations. That, of course, would mean lifting the US trade embargo, which has existed for some 40 years and which the Cubans would dearly like to see end. Mr. Perez Roque opined that American public opinion favors lifting the ban, but that hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami have held US policy hostage.
Castro is also hoping to leverage a US multimillion dollar humanitarian aid deal with Cuba, which would bring food and medicine to the island after a devastating hurricane, into further easing of the embargo.
The hurricane is but one recent blow to the Cuban economy. Tourism to the island, a critical source of foreign exchange, has dropped sharply since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The economic slump in the US has cut back remittances to Cuba from exiles in Miami. And the abrupt closing of Russia's electronic listening station in the Cuban town of Lourdes will, to Castro's intense irritation, close off another substantial foreign subsidy in the form of rent.
Cuba had been hoping to extend the lease and boost the rental on the Lourdes operation, but was confronted by an abrupt notice of cancellation just before Russian President Vladimir Putin met with President Bush at the Oct. 19 Shanghai economic summit. Some intelligence experts suggest that the US, concerned about Cuba's espionage capabilities, leaned on the Russians to close down the listening post in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
Another intriguing coincidence is the arrest of Ana Belen Montes, an alleged Cuban mole holding a senior position in the Defense Intelligence Agency, only 10 days after the New York and Pentagon attacks. The DIA, based at Bolling Air Force Base outside Washington, produces military intelligence in support of US planning and operations.
Ms. Montes had apparently been under surveillance by FBI agents for some time, but was quickly picked up after placing a series of calls to Cuban intelligence officers from public phone booths in the Washington area in the days succeeding the Sept. 11 attacks.
She is being held for providing sensitive classified information to Cuba, and it is not known whether she is telling all, or being tight-lipped, in the days preceding trial. A quiet, 44-year-old Puerto Rican-born American citizen, she had been the DIA's top analyst on Cuba, with access to top-secret material she is now accused of having compromised. This included access to documents from intelligence agencies other than the DIA, not only related to Cuba, and conceivably involving US antiterrorist tactics. The concern of the intelligence community is that the information she might have passed on to Havana might in turn have been transmitted to such Castro allies as Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Libya.
Montes is one of a number of people arrested for spying for Cuba in recent years.
Most were connected with the so-called "Wasp" network in Florida, assigned to infiltrate US military installations and Cuban exile groups. Five of them were convicted in June of spying for Cuba, and Castro lauded them for their "heroic behavior in the belly of the monster." Two more pleaded guilty in September. Four fled the US.
Castro's sympathy for such regimes as that of Iraq and Libya, and for the goals of various terrorist organizations, is what has caused the US State Department to list Cuba as one of seven countries sponsoring terrorism. In spring, Castro toured Libya, Syria, and Iran, and was quoted as telling Iranian university students: "Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees. The US regime is very weak, and we are witnessing the weakness from close up."
Cuba has provided sanctuary for terrorist organizations such as the Irish IRA, the Colombian FARC, and the Spanish ETA. It has also operated training camps for other terrorists and mercenaries.
Some Cuba watchers claim Cuba has dabbled in production of biological weapons at a bioengineering and genetic facility under Castro's direction.
Such behavior casts a cloud over the prospect of US-Cuban rapprochement at a time when the US has little time for those who indulge terrorists.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.