CubaBrief: Why is the Castro regime, a violent criminal organization masquerading as a government, not back on the list of state terror sponsors?

On March 1, 1982 Cuba was placed on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This was less than three months after the US State Department confirmed that Havana was using a narcotics ring to funnel both arms and cash to the Colombian M19 terrorist group then battling to overthrow Colombia’s democratic government.

The Castro dictatorship has a record of training, arming, and sponsoring terrorists that stretches back to the earliest years of the regime, and should have placed it on that list when it first came into existence in 1979, but was most likely kept off because of the Carter detente with Havana.

The record is a long and bloody one.

Cuban diplomats Elsa Montera Maldonado and Jose Gomez Abad, a husband and wife team at the Cuba Mission in New York City, who in reality were State Security agents who plotted to murder many Americans. Both were expelled for their role in a planned terrorist attack on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1962 which sought to detonate 500 kilos of explosives inside Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Bloomingdale’s and Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal.

Cuban diplomats expelled for plotting bombing attack in NYC in 1962

Cuban diplomats expelled for plotting bombing attack in NYC in 1962

In 1966 the Tricontinental Conference was held in Havana, and the Organization for the Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAL) was founded to support anti-American revolutionary and terrorist groups around the world.

Cuba’s dictatorship has explicitly viewed terrorism as a legitimate tactic to advance its revolutionary objectives. In 1970 the Cuban government published the “Mini Manual for Revolutionaries” in the official Latin American Solidarity Organization (LASO) publication Tricontinental and translated it into many languages, written by Brazilian urban terrorist Carlos Marighella, which gives precise instructions in terror tactics, kidnappings, etc. and translated into numerous languages which were distributed worldwide by the Cuban dictatorship. There is a chapter on terrorism that declares, “Terrorism is a weapon the revolutionary can never relinquish.”

This manual is still circulating today and the Cuban dictatorship has trained terrorists that targeted the United States and other countries in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with acts of violence with the objective of altering political behavior. John Hoyt Williams in a 1988 article in The Atlantic reported: “In the Arab world some 3,000 [Cuban advisers] can be found in Libya and Algeria, among other things training terrorists and Polisario guerrillas.”

33 years later on May 29, 2015 the Obama Administration removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, the underlying reasons Cuba had first been placed on the list had not changed, but was driven by the White House’s desire to normalize relations with the Castro regime as a legacy project, and what was perceived as an easy “win.”

But reality has reasserted itself and on May 12, 2020, the Department of State “notified Congress that Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba were certified under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019. This [was] the first year that Cuba has been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015.”

The dictatorship in Havana has never cooperated with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. What the Castro regime had been successful in is downplaying the sophistication of its intelligence services, and its record in sponsoring terrorism on an international scale.

Chris Simmons

Chris Simmons

On May 17, 2012 the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere in the U.S. Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on “Cuba’s Global Network of Terrorism, Intelligence, and Warfare.” Among the experts who spoke at the hearing was Mr. Christopher Simmons, founding editor of Cuba Confidential, an online blog and source for news on Cuban espionage worldwide. He is an international authority on the Cuban Intelligence Service and retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency with over 23 years of experience as a counterintelligence officer, and played an important role in the capture of Ana Belen Montes.

The entire hearing is available online along with transcripts, but for this CubaBrief some excerpts of Mr. Simmons testimony is reproduced, and provides the perspective of a senior counterintelligence expert on the nature of the Cuban dictatorship. First, this is how Simmons described the regime in Havana in 2012, and its nature has not changed over the past eight years.

“In many respects, Cuba can be accurately characterized as a violent criminal organization masquerading as a government. The island’s five intelligence services exist not to protect the nation, but to ensure the survival of the regime. More importantly from the perspective of today’s discussion, several of these services, as well as the Cuban military, continue to operate as profit-making entities. From the trafficking of U.S. secrets to running Cuba’s tourism industry, this self-serving and hypocritical capitalism guarantees a continuation of the status quo. The financial livelihood of the mid- and senior levels of these organizations is tied to the existence of the regime. By incentivizing espionage, especially when fueled by the Castro brothers’ visceral hatred of the U.S., Havana has nurtured an organizational culture prone to extraordinarily high risk endeavors.”

Secondly, this retired counterintelligence officer explored the Cuban government’s involvement in terrorism, and it is a complicated and profound relationship.

Transitioning to the issue of terrorism, Havana takes a three-tier approach to its involvement in terrorism: Regime-directed, regime-supported, and finally, alliances with state sponsors. For regime-directed activities we’re looking at specifically bona fide acts of terrorism, Cuban Intelligence Service targeting of the U.S. war on terrorism, and “Active Measures.”
Moving on to regime-supported activities, this focuses on aid to any of the 40 groups the State Department currently lists as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Cuba currently has relations with four of those groups: Hezbollah; the Basque Fatherland and Liberty also known as ETA; and two Colombian groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army. Regarding state sponsors of terrorism, that definition is self explanatory and I’ll continue to move right along.”

Too many Cuba experts overlook that the regime in Havana and most of its leadership have been in power since 1959, and they did try to push the world to nuclear Armageddon. This spooked the Soviet Union at the time.

The Castro regime is an international player, and is not limited to taking actions in Latin America or Spain, although the dictatorship has a heavy presence in both areas, but it also operates in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In his testimony Simmons described how Cuba sought to undermine U.S. efforts in the war on terror following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the American homeland.

“Moving on to post-9/11, Cuba flooded U.S. Embassies with walk-ins claiming to provide intelligence on the terrorism threat. Of the normal 12 walk-ins we expect from the Cubans every year in the first 6 months they sent in almost 20 walk-ins to tie up U.S. resources. This is a 330 percent increase in  the normal activities.”

This hatred for Americans by the Castro regime hierarchy translates to the death of Americans in Iraq and Central America, and Simmons in his testimony explains how they achieve their aims.

“Transitioning to the Cuban intelligence targeting of U.S. operations in Iraq. In late 2002 through early 2003, Havana provided the Iraqi intelligence with information on U.S. troop movements and associated military activities. Cuba’s high-risk adventurism in this endeavor occurred on the heels of the revelations of the American traitor Ana Belen Montes‘ espionage including her efforts to kill U.S. and host nations’ soldiers during the secret war against leftist guerrillas in El Salvador.”

Consider for a moment that the intelligence they gathered from their networks in the United States obtained information on U.S. operations in Afghanistan that ended up with Al Qaeda.

“From April 2006 into the weeks leading up to the death of Osama bin Laden, Cuba’s mission Embassy in Pakistan was led by one of their premiere experts in the targeting of the United States.  This officer who was thrown out of the United States for espionage is known as Gustavo Ricardo Machin.  It is believed that Machin advised the Pakistani Government and their intelligence services using information supplied via Havana, the massive SIGINT and HUMINT capability we talked about earlier and provided much needed context to the Pakistanis to help them take their own operations against U.S. counterterrorism missions. It is important to understand when talking about Cuba’s collaboration with Pakistan is that the massive penetration of Pakistan’s directorate for intelligence services also makes it almost a certainty that al-Qaeda received information from the Cubans via the Pakistani Government.”

Simmons ended his presentation outlining and summarizing the high profile act of state terrorism that killed four Cuban Americans in an operation conducted on orders from highest levels of the Castro regime.

“Last, but not least, of the highlighted issues, I’d like to address Operation Scorpion which was addressed earlier as a shootdown of Brothers to the Rescue. While this mission on February 24, 1996 predates the other information I discussed, it is important because this act of terrorism involves highest levels of the Castro regime. On February 24, 1996, Cuban MiGs shot down two U.S. search and rescue aircraft in international waters. Code named Operation Scorpion, it was led by General Eduardo Delgado Rodriguez, the current head of Cuban intelligence. It was personally approved by Fidel Castro and supported by Raul Castro, the current President of Cuba. Four Americans were murdered in this act of terrorism.”

In 2013 the Obama Administration began secret negotiations with the Castro regime, and on December 17, 2014 went public and released the remaining WASP network spies, including Gerardo Hernandez who was serving a double life sentence for espionage and murder conspiracy for the killings of Armando Alejandre, Carlos Costa, Mario de la Peña and Pablo Morales in the above mentioned attack.

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It is worth revisiting what was revealed about the regime in Havana during the secret negotiations and following the 2014 announcement.

In July 2013, Cuban officials were caught trying to smuggle warplanes, missiles, and technology related to ballistic missile programs hidden under 220,000 bags of sugar to North Korea and lied about it. This was in violation of international U.N. sanctions.

In January 2016, The Wall Street Journal broke the story that in 2014 an inert US Hellfire missile sent to Europe for a training exercise was wrongly shipped on to Cuba. The United States had been asking the Cuban dictatorship to return the missile but it had not done so. It was only after the story broke that a short time later the Hellfire missile was returned.

On February 13, 2016 Vice News reported that in 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been warned that the Iranian-linked Islamist terrorist group Hezbollah was setting up an operational base in Cuba to carry out attacks in Latin America that might also involve attacks on American diplomatic posts or banks there.

President Obama and General Raul Castro announce effort to normalize relations.

President Obama and General Raul Castro announce effort to normalize relations.

The State Department knew that beginning in November 2016 American diplomats in Havana were suffering brain injuries, but didn’t make it public until August 9, 2017 when CBS News broke the story. This was done, in part, to maintain the illusion that detente was working.

Furthermore, the pretense in some U.S. foreign policy circles that Havana did not know what was being done to American and Canadian diplomats on their territory, ignores the history and ability of the Cuban intelligence services, and the close working relationship with the intelligence services of Beijing and Moscow to advance objectives hostile to U.S. interests that stretches back six decades.

On January 2, 2017 Cuban troops marched in a parade over which Raul Castro presided, chanting that they would repeatedly shoot President Barack Obama in the head so many times that they would make a “hat out of bullets to the head.”

Soldiers in Cuba chanting they'd repeatedly shoot President Obama in the head.

Soldiers in Cuba chanting they’d repeatedly shoot President Obama in the head.

In November of 2017 former Cuban diplomat, Jose Antonio “Tony” Lopez was linked to terrorists responsible for the June 17, 2017 bombing in Bogota, Colombia that killed three and injured nine according to prosecutors in the South American country. A mother of one of the accused denied her son’s involvement in the attack but confirms the link with the former Cuban diplomat.

This leads to an obvious question: Why is the Castro regime, a violent criminal organization masquerading as a government, not back on the list of state terror sponsors?

U.S. Department of State, May 13, 2020

Countries Certified as Not Cooperating Fully With U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts

Media Note

Office of the Spokesperson

May 13, 2020

Yesterday, the Department of State notified Congress that Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba were certified under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019.  This is the first year that Cuba has been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015.  This certification prohibits the sale or license for export of defense articles and services and notifies the U.S. public and international community that these countries are not fully cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Iran: In 2019, Iran continued to be the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, supporting Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist groups, and other terrorist groups operating throughout the Middle East.  In 2019, Iran maintained its support for various Iraqi Shia terrorist groups, including Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), Harakat al-Nujaba (HAN), and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).  Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, has been directly involved in terrorist plotting and has killed U.S. citizens.  The IRGC – most prominently through its Qods Force – has the greatest role among Iranian regime actors in directing and carrying out a global terrorist campaign.

North Korea: In 2019, four Japanese individuals who participated in the 1970 hijacking of a Japan Airline flight continued to live in the DPRK.  The Japanese government also continued to seek a full account of the fate of 12 Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by DPRK state entities in the 1970s and 1980s.

Syria: Syria has continued its political and military support for terrorist groups, including the provision of weapons and political support to Hizballah.  The Assad regime’s relationship with Hizballah and Iran grew stronger in 2019 as the regime became more reliant on external actors to fight opponents and secure areas.  The IRGC and IRGC-backed militias remain present and active in the country with the permission of President Bashar al-Assad.

Venezuela: In 2019, Maduro and members of his former regime in Venezuela continued to provide permissive environments for terrorists in the region to maintain a presence.  While Maduro was not the recognized President of Venezuela during this period, his control within Venezuela effectively precluded cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism efforts. Individuals linked to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents (who remain committed to terrorism notwithstanding the peace accord) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) were present in the country.  The U.S. Department of Justice has criminally charged Maduro and certain other former regime members with running a narco-terrorism partnership with the FARC for the past 20 years.

Cuba: Members of the ELN, who travelled to Havana to conduct peace talks with the Colombian government in 2017, remained in Cuba in 2019.  Citing peace negotiation protocols, Cuba refused Colombia’s request to extradite ten ELN leaders living in Havana after the group claimed responsibility for the January 2019 bombing of a Bogota police academy that killed 22 people and injured more than 60 others.  As the United States maintains an enduring security partnership with Colombia and shares with Colombia the important counterterrorism objective of combating organizations like the ELN, Cuba’s refusal to productively engage with the Colombian government demonstrates that it is not cooperating with U.S. work to support Colombia’s efforts to secure a just and lasting peace, security, and opportunity for its people.

Cuba harbors several U.S. fugitives from justice wanted on charges of political violence, many of whom have resided in Cuba for decades.  For example, the Cuban regime has refused to return Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted of executing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973.  The Cuban Government provides housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.

From the Archives

Cuban Studies Institute, August 29, 2019

A publication of the Cuban Studies Institute

Cuba’s Continuous Support for Terrorism

Staff Report*

Staff Report*

Although Cuba was removed in 2015 from the U.S. State Department list of countries supporting terrorism, General Raul Castro’s regime continues to collaborate with terrorist groups and countries, and harbors U.S., Spanish, and Colombian terrorists in the island.

Iran, Cuba and Venezuela have developed a close and cooperative relationship against the U.S. and in support of terrorist groups and states. The three regimes increasingly coordinate their policies and resources in a three-way partnership aimed at counteracting and circumventing U.S. policies in the Middle East and Latin America. Within this relationship, Cuba plays a strategic role in terms of geography (proximity to the U.S.), intelligence gathering (both electronic eavesdropping and human espionage) logistics, and training.

In addition to its proven technical prowess to interfere and intercept U.S. telecommunications, Cuba has deployed around the world a highly effective human intelligence network. The type of espionage carried out by Ana Belén Montes, the senior U.S. defense intelligence analyst who spied for Cuba during some 16 years until her arrest in 2001, has enabled the Castro regime to amass a wealth of intelligence on U.S. vulnerabilities as well as a keen understanding of the inner-workings of the U.S. security system.

Such information and analysis are being provided to strategic allies like Iran. While one may argue that factors such as Iran’s limited military capabilities and sheer distance diminish any conventional concerns, one should expect that Tehran, in case of a U.S.-Iran conflict, would launch an asymmetrical offensive against the U.S. and its European allies through surrogate terrorist states and paramilitary organizations. In such a scenario, Cuban intelligence would be invaluable to Iran and its proxies, and Cuban territory could be used by terrorist groups to launch operations against the U.S.

Following is recent evidence of Cuba’s involvement with terrorism:

  • Cuba directly and through Venezuela continues to provide intelligence to Hamas and Hezbollah.

  • Hezbollah, on orders from Hasan Nasrallah, set up an operational base in Cuba.

  • Working in coordination with the Cuban government, Venezuela is promoting Hezbollah and Iranian targets in South America and against the U.S. They fundraise for Hezbollah, facilitate travel for Hezbollah activists to Venezuela, and through Venezuela to other countries. This is all part of the strategic alliance between Venezuela, Cuba and Iran.

  • Cuban military officers are acting as liaison between Venezuelan military and the narco-guerrillas of the Colombian FARC. Cuban General Leonardo Ramon Andollo, Chief of Operations of the Cuban MINFAR (Ministry of the Armed Forces), has visited Venezuela several times and acted as a go between the Cuban and Venezuelan military involved in drug trafficking.

  • On May 19, 2019, the Panamanian Naval Services (SENAM Panama) announced that they confiscated thousands of packages of cocaine hidden in carbon bags that originated in Cuba and were destined for Turkey.

  • The FBI estimates that Cuba has provided safe harbor to dozens of fugitives from U.S. justice who live on the island under the protection of the Castro regime. Some of these fugitives are charged with or have been convicted of murder, kidnapping, and hijacking, and they include notorious killers of police officers in New Jersey and New Mexico, most prominent among them Joanne Chesimard (Assata Shakur), placed by the FBI in 2013 on the “Most Wanted Terrorist List.” The FBI is offering two million dollars for information leading to her apprehension.

  • Other terrorists fugitives of the U.S. living in Cuba include Ishmael LaBeet, one of the five men convicted of the infamous Fountain Valley Massacre, a racially tinged 1972-armed robbery in the Virgin Islands that turned into mass murder, with eight dead. Guillermo Morales, the master bomb-maker of the Puerto Rican separatist group FALN, which set off 140 or so blasts around the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, killing at least six people. Victor Gerena, an armed robber working for another Puerto Rican separatist group, who is believed to have taken the proceeds of a $7 million heist to Cuba with him. Charles Hill who in 1971 hijacked a civilian plane carrying 49 passengers and fled to Cuba. Hill is also wanted for the 1971 murder of New Mexico State Police officer Robert Rosenbloom. Frank Terpil, a former CIA officer and convicted arms trafficker who is wanted for providing more than 20 tons of plastic explosives to the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Others include William Lee Brent, William Potts and Ronald Labeet, all wanted in the U.S.

  • Current and former Spanish members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), a Basque terrorist organization continue to reside in Cuba. While some of these terrorists are on the island as part of an accord between the Cuban and Spanish governments, others are hiding in Cuba, fugitives of Spanish justice. ETA terrorist, Jose Angel Urtiaga Martinez, has lived in Cuba since the 1980s and is wanted by Spanish Justice. In addition, there are about a dozen other ETA members living in Cuba.

  • In mid-2013, the Castro regime was caught smuggling weapons (aircraft, missiles, etc.) out of Cuba on a North Korean vessel in violation of UN sanctions. Cuba lied to the international community about the content of the vessel. The official UN Report on “Cuba-North Korea Illegal Weapons Trafficking,” published in March 2014, revealed “a comprehensive, planned strategy to conceal the existence and nature of the cargo.” The Report concluded, contrary to Cuba’s allegations, that “some, if not all, of the consignment was not expected to be returned to Cuba.”

  • Former Cuban intelligence official, Uberto Mario, has described how the Castro regime is training Venezuelan “Tupamaros,” pro-Maduro groups who violently attack Venezuelan students.

  • “Hezbollah in Cuba,” the Hamas-funded Turkish “charity” known as IHH continues to operate in Havana. IHH is a member of the “Union of Good,” an umbrella organization that financially supports Hamas.

  • Managed by Cubans and Venezuelans sympathetic to Cuba, Venezuela’s immigration system, “Misión Identidad,” facilitates the entry of Cuban agents into Venezuela. Cubans also control SIME (Servicio de Identificacion, Migracion y Extranjeria, Caracas) which facilitates the travel of drug organizations, Colombian guerrillas, and Islamist terrorists. Cuba also has on the island duplicate Venezuelan forms and stamps to issue passports and identifications to these groups.

  • Warranting special mention are the outstanding U.S. indictments against Cuban Air Force pilots Lorenzo Alberto Pérez-Pérez, Francisco Perez Perez and General Rubén Martínez Puente, the head of the Cuban Air Force, who in 1996 shot down two unarmed civilian American aircraft over international waters in the Florida Straits. That act of terrorism, ordered by Fidel and Raul Castro, killed four men, three of them American citizens. The Castro brothers personally accepted responsibility for the shot-down.

  • In 2013 “Prensa Islamica” published an article on Cuba-Iran growing relationship. The article explains that Cuba has shared with Iran its “vast knowledge on intelligence” and has discussed cooperation “on electromagnetic weapons capable of sabotaging enemy communications.”

  • In January 2019, Colombia’s President asked Cuba to extradite several leaders of Colombian terrorist group Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Yet Cuba refuses. Living in the island are Israel Ramírez Pineda aka Pablo Beltrán; Victor Orlando Cubides, aka Aureliano Carbonell; Manuel Gustavo Martínez; Consuelo Tapias; Tomás García; Isabel Torres; Juan de Dios Lizarazo Astroza, aka Alirio Sepúlveda; Luz Amanda Pallares, aka Silvana Guerrero; Vivian Henao; Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, aka Gabino; and Oscar Serrano.

  • Other leaders of the Colombian terrorist group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC live in Cuba or use the island as safe heaven. They include Ivan Marquez, Jesús Santrich and Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, aka Timochenko.

  • The electro-magnetic cyber-attacks against U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana that harmed a number of them, is still an unresolved issue.

In an attempt to obtain unilateral concession from the U.S., Gen. Raul Castro’s regime has toned down some of the violent anti-U.S. propaganda of older brother Fidel. Yet his commitments to and interrelationships with anti-American terrorist groups have not disappeared. They have taken a more sophisticated approach; many times, using proxies such as Venezuelan supporters. 

*   Cuban Studies Institute Staff Report.  Foreign intelligence services provided information for this report.