CubaBrief: Russia’s long presence in Cuba, Last Administration’s failed charm offensive, and State Dept and The Washington Post call for Cuban dissidents freedom

The National Interest published an article “FACT: Cuba Hosted Russian Spy Planes to Use Against America” on October 19th that demonstrates the decades long close relationship between the Castro regime and Russia. In the national conversation on what Latin American foreign policy would best advance the just interest of the United States this alliance needs to be taken into account, along with other key partners of the Castro dictatorship. Unfortunately that has not always been the case.

In 2009, the President of the United States and the Secretary of State met with and embraced both Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez. Both are key Castro regime allies. This was part of a regional “charm offensive” that sought to expand U.S. influence through resetting relations with regional adversaries, and culminated in the 2014 call for normalization of relations with Cuba, and the 2016 state visit by the President of the United States and his family to Havana.

The results of this reset have not been positive either for the United States or the region as a whole.

Fifty Russian tanks in Nicaragua since 2016 along with a Russian presence.

Fifty Russian tanks in Nicaragua since 2016 along with a Russian presence.

In 2011, Ortega “reformed” the constitution under dubious circumstances to run for a third term in Nicaragua. Eight years later, the Central American nation is gripped in a human rights crisis of violence, kidnappings, and extrajudicial killings caused by the Sandinista regime that has led over 80,000 Nicaraguans to flee their homeland.

In Venezuela, all pretense of democracy have been abandoned. The Maduro regime has lost legitimacy around the world, and rules by force. More than 50 countries no longer recognize Maduro. Thousands of extrajudicial killings have taken place in Venezuela and at least four millions have fled the country, creating a regional crisis.

In 2012, President Obama was overheard on a hot microphone telling Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate with Vladimir Putin after the election.

In 2014, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, occupied Crimea and annexed the territory for Russia.

On August 20, 2015 Secretary of State John Kerry in an interview with journalist Andres Oppenheimer made it known that “the United States and Cuba are talking about ways to solve the Venezuelan crisis.” This ignored the fact that Cuba was responsible for the human rights crisis and had an interest in exacerbating it.

Despite “normal” relations and the U.S. Administration’s 2009 high level outreach, the Ortega regime in Nicaragua pursued closer relations with Russia and China. In April 2016 Nicaragua purchased 50 Russian battle tanks at a cost of $80 million. Vladimir Putin signed a new security agreement with Ortega in 2016.

The U.S. President announced the normalization of relations with Cuba on December 17, 2014, and despite a worsening human rights situation conducted a state visit to Cuba in March 2016 and did the wave at a baseball game with Raul Castro.

The day before US diplomats started their historic US-Cuba talks to normalize diplomatic relations with the Castro regime in January 2015, a Russian intelligence warship docked in Havana. The arrival of the Viktor Leonov CCB-175 that was moored to a pier in Old Havana where cruise ships normally dock was a provocative display that demonstrated the continued Russian presence in the island, one that stretches back decades.

The fruits of the reset have not been desirable throughout the region and starting in November 2016 in Havana, U.S. and Canadian diplomats began suffering neurological injuries that nearly three years later do not have an agreed upon explanation. However, international standards hold the Cuban regime responsible for the safety of diplomats stationed on their territory.

The current White House has shifted its policy and seeks to hold bad actors in Latin America accountable for their human rights violations at home and bad actions in other countries in the region with economic and diplomatic sanctions. The regime’s in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua have been areas of focus for this new policy.

Today, The Washington Post published an OpEd highlighting the plight of Cuban opposition leader José Daniel Ferrer Garcia, who has not been heard from in 20 days, and the increase on attacks against independent Cuban journalists in recent months. The United States is also calling out the Castro regime on the plight of Jose Daniel Ferrer.

The Washington Post, October 21, 2019

Cuba’s communists should realize by now they can’t jail free speech

Cuban opposition leader José Daniel Ferrer in Havana on May 12, 2016 AFP

Cuban opposition leader José Daniel Ferrer in Havana on May 12, 2016 AFP

ON MOST days, José Daniel Ferrer is hard to miss in Cuba. He’s often voicing criticism of the government on Facebook and Twitter, urging people to lose their fear of the authorities and speak up for their rights. Mr. Ferrer is leader of Cuba’s most active opposition group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, or UNPACU, based in Santiago de Cuba. He has been through a lot, including years in prison, and yet never ceased being an advocate for democracy.

Until now. Mr. Ferrer’s voice has not been heard since Oct. 1, when he and others in his group were arrested without charge. Two were released, but Mr. Ferrer and several others have all but disappeared. Although in recent years the Cuban political police have periodically detained Mr. Ferrer for a few days at a time, this stretch is longer and Mr. Ferrer has been held incommunicado. His family is demanding that the authorities provide proof that he is alive, explain the grounds for his arrest and permit visits. Some activists in his group have told independent Cuban journalists at the news site that he is being framed on a criminal charge of carrying out an assault that didn’t happen.

It should be no mystery why he was arrested: to silence him. UNPACU has proved to be resilient and Mr. Ferrer quite steadfast in speaking out against the Cuban police state. He was among the 75 activists imprisoned in the “Black Spring” of 2003. He and about 50 others were supporters of the Varela Project, a citizen initiative for democracy championed by Oswaldo Payá, who was later killed in a suspicious car wreck.

Cuba’s rulers have tried mightily to suppress voices such as Mr. Ferrer but can’t silence them entirely. Although the regime inspires fear, dissent still bubbles up, and Cubans have lately been eager to take advantage of slightly improved mobile Internet connectivity to share complaints about everyday hardships, including fuel shortages and power blackouts caused by the drop-off of oil imports from Venezuela.

On Oct. 7, a group of 19 independent Cuban news outlets, many of them digital news sites, published a rare and revealing open declaration protesting attacks on journalists working in the country, saying in recent months there had been “a noticeable increase” in assaults and pressure on the unofficial and non-state press, including arbitrary arrests, interrogations, psychological intimidation, house searches, prohibitions on leaving the country, sexual harassment and defamation, among other things, all “part of a systematic campaign by the Cuban government to silence independent journalists.” The journalists demanded the repeal of laws that restrict freedom of expression and insisted that independent journalism be legalized. The declaration was a gutsy and laudable moment of speaking out without fear, just the approach Mr. Ferrer had urged.

Now he must be freed. Cuba’s communists ought to realize by now that they cannot jail free speech, no matter how hard and often they try.

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The National Interest, October 19, 2019

FACT: Cuba Hosted Russian Spy Planes to Use Against America

A forgotten tale of the cold war.

by Sebastien Roblin

Key point: Russia wanted to be able to spy on America and gain an advantage in case of war.

On December 10, 2018, two Russian Tu-160 supersonic bombers with huge condor-like swing-wings swooped down to land at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Caracas, Venezuela. Over the next few days the huge, pointy-nosed bombers flew two ten-hour patrols over the Caribbean, at times escorted by Venezuelan F-16 and Su-30MK2 multirole jets, then flew back to Russia on Dec. 14. Russian media reported that Moscow and Caracas were discussing opening a permanent base on La Orchila island, expanding on facilities already present.

As discussed in this article by Michael Peck, the expense and escalatory political risks for the parties involved make such a move far from assured. In fact, the provocation itself may be more valuable than actually building such a bomber base.

Both Russia and the United States already routinely deploy bombers and spy planes on patrols skirting each other’s airspace for both political and military reasons. For example, Blackjack bombers had previously visited Caracas in 2008 and 2013, on the latter occasion conveying Moscow’s defiance of criticism of the Russo-Georgian War. In 2008-09, the Russian military also loudly aired the idea of basing nuclear bombers in Cuba or Venezuela.

However, the presence of Russian bombers in the Caribbean has a nearly fifty-year-old precedent, as detailed in this article by Ruben Urribarres and later expanded upon in a blog by Miguel Vargas-Caba.

While building up the Soviet garrison that would trigger the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Moscow struggled to find a means to quickly transport high-ranking personnel to the island nation. Its long-range Tu-114 airliners, a civilian version of the Tu-95 “Bear” strategic bomber, needed to layover in Africa, but Washington pressured the governments of Guinea, Senegal and Algeria to deny access to the Tu-114s after only a handful of flights.

Thus Soviet engineers modified three special Tu-114D planes by swapping out 60 percent of the seating for fifteen extra fuel tanks, boosting range for an eighteen-hour-long Moscow-Havana connection, with a layover in Murmansk. The trans-Atlantic flights crossing were difficult: headwinds from the Jetstream could reach nearly 200 miles per hour, adding hours of flight time and gas consumption.

Though Moscow agreed to withdraw nuclear-armed forces from Cuba, the island remained an important Soviet sally on the doorstep of its chief international adversary. Between May 18 and 21, 1970 three pairs of Tu-95s of the 392nd Long-Range Reconnaissance Regiment flew from the Arctic Kola peninsula down to San Antonio airport near Havana. They accompanied a Soviet Navy task force dispatched to the Caribbean to retaliate against increased U.S. Navy patrols.

For the next eleven years, Tu-95RTs or (Bear-D) regularly flew thirty to forty patrols from Cuba a year across the Eastern Seaboard, shadowing the movements of U.S. carriers. Over that time one Bear vanished without a trace in transit, and another experienced a non-fatal landing accident.

The Tu-95RT was a “reconnaissance-targeting” variant of the iconic Bear bomber, a long-range four-engine beast propelled to up to 575 miles per hour by four epically noisy turboprops, each with two contra-rotating propellers spinning faster than the speed of sound. Though the RT model did not carry bombs or missiles, it was far from harmless: it was specifically designed to guide submarine-launched P-6 missiles to annihilate U.S. aircraft carriers with 350 kiloton nuclear warheads.

The supersonic P-6 cruise missile (codenamed SS-N-3a Shaddock by NATO) was mounted on the Juliet and Echo II-class diesel-electric submarines and could theoretically strike ships up to 310 miles away. However, the submarines’ radar couldn’t actually see targets that far away, and approaching close enough to a well-escorted U.S. carrier group while surfaced to provide radar-guidance was a risky business.

Here the Tu-95RT stepped in, using its belly-mounted “Success” radar to track the position of U.S. carriers, then using the data link in its distinguishing bulbous “chin” pod to remotely guide the missiles, or transmit course corrections back to the submarine using the Arfa relay on its tail. Only in the terminal approach would the P-6’s radar activate to home in for a kill.

Urribarres’ article implies the P-6 could also have been used to deliver nuclear strikes on inland North American targets. However, most sources state the P-6 was not designed with land-attack capabilities.

Nonetheless, the Tu-95s were routinely intercepted by U.S. F-4 Phantom and F-15 Fighters, and Canadian CF-101 Voodoos armed with Genie nuclear-tipped rockets. However, the Bear crews and their NATO escorts typically just took photographs of each other over international airspace. Cuba-based Tu-95s did occasionally intrude into American airspace, though, eliciting diplomatic complaints, and in one 1980-incident, an escort of F-15s had to lead away a Bear close to Langley Air Force base in Virginia.

Urribarres claims that the NATO interceptors performed dangerous, harassing maneuvers while shadowing the Soviet patrol planes. However, in exchanges published by the Aviationist, Robert Sihler, back-seat weapons-systems officers of an Iceland-based F-4, gives the impression that the routine intercepts were not so hostile.

“At that time, we probably averaged two intercepts of “Bears” per week…Generally, the intercepts occurred on Fridays and Sundays, at the “Bears” flew from Murmansk to Cuba on training and, we guessed, “fun” missions. Generally, we did these barrel rolls at the request of the Soviet crewmembers. They gave us hand signals to let us know they wanted us to do it. They photographed us as well. The Cold War was winding down and the attitudes on both sides had improved,” Sihler explains.

You can see a remarkable photo of an upside-down F-4C barrel-rolling around the Tu-95 in that article.

In 1973 the Cuban Revolutionary Air Force also dispatched MiG-21F fighters to intercept Bears executing a mock raid on Cuba at an altitude of 40,000 feet. The Bears were standing in as proxies for high-flying U-2 spy planes. The FAR found that its MiGs were able to make the intercept only by using fuel-gulping afterburners.

In November 1981, Moscow decided to permanently base up to twelve Tu-95RTs at San Antonio and even began building facilities to repair the bomber’s fan blades. Predictably, the Bear’s “Oriental Express” deployment to the Caribbean was popular with Bear crews and mechanics, who could enjoy a break from deployment in the Arctic circle residing in full-service hotel rooms in Havana.

In March 1983, the Tu-95s were joined by Tu-142M Bear-F patrol plane variants with a very different mission: tracking the position of U.S. submarines by lacing dozens of sonar buoys across the Caribbean. According to Urribarres, Tu-142s detected six submarines on their first ten flights alone. Later, the Bear-Fs combed the southern Atlantic Ocean, shuttling back and forth to a base in Luanda, Angola. Presumably, the Tu-142s were armed with anti-submarine torpedoes.

The Soviet Navy dispatched 756 Bear patrols from the Cuban base before it was finally shut down in 1989 as the Soviet empire began dissolving. The Tu-95 flights had gathered useful intelligence and generated military pressure on the U.S.’ Atlantic coastline. However, Moscow could no longer afford the economic assistance needed to maintain the distant Cuban base.

That calculus would need to change for Russian bombers to permanently return to the Caribbean in the present day.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in January 2019.