CubaBrief: Cuban military owned business entities linked to drug trafficking added to List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons by US Treasury Dept

“Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) identified three entities controlled by the Cuban military with strategic roles in the Cuban economy. Two of the entities, Financiera Cimex S.A. and Kave Coffee, S.A., are subsidiaries of the third entity, the large Cuban government enterprise Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A., and use their Panamanian incorporation to subvert international trade restrictions,” reported the Treasury Department on December 21, 2020. They have been placed on the updated List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons by OFAC.

Brigade General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez Callejas runs GAESA for Castro family

Brigade General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez Callejas runs GAESA for Castro family

The largest and most problematic of the three is the Grupo de Administración Empresarial, S.A., better known by its acronym GAESA that has funneled billions of dollars into the coffers of the Castro clan and illegal activities. According to Pedro Roig of the Cuban Studies Institute, General Rodriguez Lopez Callejas “leads GAESA, a gigantic conglomerate of state and mixed enterprises that manages over 65% of the legal and illegal financial deals of the Cuban Government (highly secret operation), including the Port of Mariel’s developing enterprises, and a distribution partnership with the Colombian and Venezuelan drug cartels. General Rodríguez is the czar of the economy and a powerful heir to the military dynasty. “

This is the latest round of sanctions targeting the most repressive sectors of the Castro regime, and GAESA had already been under scrutiny.

On September 30, 2020, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) then updated its Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List and added Brigade General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez Callejas. Brigade General Lopez Callejas is a former son-in-law to Raul Castro, father to two of his grandchildren, and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and he oversees GAESA operations.

Nora Gámez Torres and Mario J. Pentón reported on July 30, 2020 in the Miami Herald in their article “We are closing all doors.” The Trump administration goes after Cuban bank in London” that the “United States sanctioned Havin Bank, a London-based Cuban-owned bank, on Thursday in another attempt by the Trump administration to cut off the money flowing to the island’s government.” Havin Bank is part of the Castro regime’s conglomerate GAESA and has a record of corruption.

The monies generated go directly into the hands of the most repressive elements of the Castro regime that today not only finances the repression of Cubans, but also funds their military and intelligence personnel that are propping up the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Greater control by the military of the Cuban economy occurred under the warming of relations between the United States and Cuba between January 2009 and January 2017.

Nearly two years into the prior Administration’s formal opening to Havana in 2014, Andrea Rodriguez of theAssociated Pressreported on September 9, 2016 that the Cuban militarywas expanding“its economic empire under detente.” Worse yet, it was seizing control of economic sectors that had been controlled by more moderate, civilian elements.

Ms Rodriguez described how “over a quarter century, Eusebio Leal turned Old Havana into a painstakingly restored colonial jewel, a tourist draw that brings in more than $170 million a year, according to the most recent available figures. His office became a center of power with unprecedented budgetary freedom from the island’s communist central government. That independence is gone. Last month [August 2016], the Cuban military took over the business operations of Leal’s City Historian’s Office, absorbing them into a business empire that has grown dramatically since the declaration of detente between the U.S. and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.”

Raul Castro engaged in economic liberalization beginning in 2008 due to need, and pressure of U.S. sanctions. The detente with Cuba that began in Cuba with repeatedly loosening sanctions and the normalization of relations in 2015 lessened the pressure, and increased international credits for the dictatorship. This coincided with economic reforms being reversed and the expansion of the military into what had previously been civilian sectors of the economy.

The Center’s Executive Director in a series of tweets issued the following statement on the Treasury announcement.

“Today’s announcement further raises the cost of the Castro regime’s repression both in Cuba and Venezuela, pressures Havana to delink the military from the economy and in sanctioning GAESA places a spotlight on an enterprise linked to illegal practices. According to experts at the Cuban Studies Institute these practices include drug trafficking. This is a positive step for U.S. national interests that may also nudge the Cuban dictatorship into further liberalizing its economy. Steps that Havana has already been forced to take with tightened sanctions and COVID-19.”

Reuters reported on July 29, 2020 in the article “Cuba Loosens Straitjacket on Private Sector to Stimulate Economy” that “Communist-run Cuba is loosening restrictions on small businesses as it seeks to stimulate a state-dominated economy hammered by the implosion of ally Venezuela, U.S. sanctions and the pandemic.”

This was not supposed to happen this way, according to the Chamber of Commerce, the Ag Lobby, and the Pro-Castro lobby sanctions do not work, and that the way that the Castro regime would open up the economy in Cuba would be through loosening sanctions and providing credits to the dictatorship that would help Cubans. This was attempted during the Obama Administration and the results were opposite to what was claimed. Trade between the two countries collapsed in 2015 to $185.7 million from a peak of $711.5 million in 2008, the last year of the Bush Administration.

The claim that trade and tourism with the Castro regime will provide “an economic lifeline for the Cuban people” is untrue. During President Barack Obama’s détente with Cuba, the Cuban military’s role in the tourist economy expanded and further centralized economic control as mentioned earlier.

Out of a population of 11 million Cubans, 600,000 “work for themselves.” Cuban law restricted Cubans living on the island from starting their own companies, reported the Miami Herald in 2018: “Private sector workers in Cuba, known as cuentapropistas, are licensed only to work for themselves and cannot legally establish companies to expand their work beyond a small scale. Larger enterprises are allowed only for the government and foreigners.”

This is why Cuban dissidents are calling for an end to the internal blockade erected by the Castro dictatorship, and over 23,000 have signed the petition calling for its end.

Treasury Department, December 21, 2020

Treasury Identifies Cuban State-Owned Businesses for Sanctions Evasion

December 21, 2020

Español

Washington – Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) identified three entities controlled by the Cuban military with strategic roles in the Cuban economy. Two of the entities, Financiera Cimex S.A. and Kave Coffee, S.A., are subsidiaries of the third entity, the large Cuban government enterprise Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A., and use their Panamanian incorporation to subvert international trade restrictions.

“The Trump administration remains committed to targeting the Cuban regime for its malign behavior and attempts to circumvent United States sanctions,” said Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.

The following entities are being identified on the List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons by OFAC pursuant to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), 31 C.F.R. part 515.

GRUPO DE ADMINISTRACIÓN EMPRESARIAL S.A.

Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA) is a Cuban military-controlled umbrella enterprise with interests in the tourism, financial investment, import/export, and remittance sectors of Cuba’s economy. GAESA’s portfolio includes businesses incorporated in Panama to bypass CACR-related restrictions.

FINANCIERA CIMEX S.A.

Financiera Cimex S.A. (FINCIMEX) is a financial investment and remittance company owned by GAESA and incorporated in Panama. FINCIMEX is authorized by the Central Bank of Cuba to finance export operations, conduct financial leasing operations, and handle commercial distribution of remittance cards.

KAVE COFFEE, S.A.

Kave Coffee, S.A. (Kave) is a coffee company domiciled in Havana, Cuba, and incorporated in Panama. Kave is an indirect subsidiary of GAESA and serves as a leading commodity company based around the nationalized “Cubita” coffee brand.

For more information on Cuba sanctions, click here.

STATE DEPARTMENT INFORMATION

GAESA and FINCIMEX are also listed on the State Department’s List of Restricted Entities and Subentities Associated with Cuba (“Cuba Restricted List” or “CRL”).  The CRL is a list of entities and subentities under the control of, or acting for or on behalf of, the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit such services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise in Cuba.

For more information on the additional restrictions on GAESA, FINCIMEX, and other entities and subentities by virtue of their listing on the CRL, please see 31 C.F.R. part 515.209.

https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm1217

Associated Press, September 9, 2016

Cuban military expands its economic empire under detente

By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ

September 9, 2016

HAVANA (AP) — At the height of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic crisis, a man with the obscure title of city historian began transforming Havana’s crumbling historic center block by block, polishing stone facades, replacing broken stained glass and repairing potholed streets.

Over a quarter century, Eusebio Leal turned Old Havana into a painstakingly restored colonial jewel, a tourist draw that brings in more than $170 million a year, according to the most recent available figures. His office became a center of power with unprecedented budgetary freedom from the island’s communist central government.

That independence is gone. Last month, the Cuban military took over the business operations of Leal’s City Historian’s Office, absorbing them into a business empire that has grown dramatically since the declaration of detente between the U.S. and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.

The military’s long-standing business wing, GAESA, assumed a higher profile after Gen. Raul Castro became president in 2008, positioning the armed forces as perhaps the prime beneficiary of a post-detente boom in tourism. Gaviota, the military’s tourism arm, is in the midst of a hotel building spree that outpaces projects under control of nominally civilian agencies like the Ministry of Tourism. The military-run Mariel port west of Havana has seen double-digit growth fueled largely by demand in the tourism sector. The armed forces this year took over the bank that does business with foreign companies, assuming control of most of Cuba’s day-to-day international financial transactions, according to a bank official.

“GAESA is wisely investing in the more international — and more lucrative — segments of the Cuban economy. This gives the military technocrats a strong stake in a more outwardly oriented and internationally competitive Cuba deeply integrated into global markets,” said Richard Feinberg, author of “Open for Business: The New Cuban Economy.”

Castro has never publicly explained his reasoning for giving so much economic power to the military, but the armed forces are widely seen in Cuba as efficient, fast-moving and relatively unscathed by the low-level payoffs and pilferage that plague so much of the government. Economic disruption also is viewed as a crucial national security issue while the government slowly loosens its once-total hold on economic activity and renews ties with its former Cold War enemy 90 miles to the north.

While U.S. President Barack Obama has said detente was meant partly to help ordinary Cubans develop economic independence from a centrally planned government that employs most of the island’s workers, the Cuban government says the U.S. should expect no change in Cuba because of normalization with the U.S.

The takeover of Old Havana shows how the Cuban government is, so far, successfully steering much of the peace dividend into military coffers.

The announcement nearly two years ago that the U.S. and Cuba were restoring diplomatic relations set off a tourism boom with Old Havana at its epicenter. The cobblestone streets are packed with tourists browsing souvenir stands, visiting museums and dining in trendy private restaurants. World figures and celebrities from Madonna to Mick Jagger to Pope Francis and Obama have all visited. Hotels are booked well through next year.

The largest business arm of the historian’s office, Habaguanex, named for a pre-Columbian indigenous chief, directly runs some 20 hotels and 30 stores and more than 25 restaurants in Old Havana.

Under a special exemption by the ruling Council of State, the office has been allowed to use its revenues as it sees fit rather than returning them to the national treasury and receiving a yearly budget allocation from the central government. That 1993 measure is widely credited for giving Leal the power and flexibility to restore Old Havana to international standards while much of the rest of Havana suffers from neglect that has left buildings collapsing and streets rutted with big potholes.

A towering figure in Cuba’s intellectual and political life, Leal, who turns 74 on Sept. 11, is often chosen to deliver meditations on Cuban history and culture at major public events. He has never groomed an obvious successor. He has appeared frail and thin in some recent public appearances and close associates say he has been receiving treatment for a serious illness.

“I’m giving up everything that I think should be, under current conditions, better directed,” Leal told The Associated Press when asked about the military takeover of his financial operations. “There’s a reality. I was trained and educated to work in cultural heritage, and that’s my calling.”

Through its economic wing, the blandly named Business Administration Group, the Cuban armed forces have become the nation’s biggest retailer, importer and hotelier. The military corporation Cimex, created two decades ago, counts retail stories, auto-rental businesses and even a recording studio among its holdings. The military retail chain TRD has hundreds of shops across Cuba that sell everything from soap to home electronics at prices often several times those in nearby countries. Gaviota has 62 hotels with 26,752 rooms across Cuba, pulling in some $700 million a year from more than 40 percent of the tourists who visit Cuba.

Cuba welcomed more than 3 million tourists last year, a nearly 20 percent rise over 2014.

“It’s obvious that the military has an economic power far beyond what’s needed for its national-security responsibilities,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a political science lecturer at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment on the military’s business operations.

The Business Administration Group, known by its Spanish acronym GAESA, formally took over the city historian’s office on Aug. 1, according to three employees with the office who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the press.

“They’re going to carve everything up and it’ll be absorbed by military businesses that are already operating. The hotels go to Gaviota, the restaurants to Cimex and the stores to TRD,” said one of the officials.

Going forward, the historian’s office will be responsible only for cultural projects and will retain only the proceeds of museum entry fees and souvenir stores, officials told the AP.

“They’re going to impose discipline and probably it’ll function better that way,” said another official in the business wing of the historian’s office. “It will affect those of us on the business side, but I don’t think it will affect cultural projects. The Cuban military isn’t stupid.”

https://apnews.com/article/1a473ab397bb4868a4c1c4fae7f4a816

Reuters, August 22, 2019

Special Report: How Cuba taught Venezuela to quash military dissent

By Angus Berwick            

CARACAS (Reuters) – In December 2007, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez suffered his first defeat at the polls Although still wildly popular among the working class that had propelled him to power nearly a decade earlier, voters rejected a referendum that would have enabled him to run for re-election repeatedly. 

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a meeting with soldiers at a military base in Caracas, Venezuela January 30, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Stung, Chavez turned to a close confidant, according to three former advisors: Fidel Castro. The aging Cuban leader had mentored Chavez years before the Venezuelan became president, when he was still best known for leading a failed coup.

Now, deepening economic ties were making Cuba ever more reliant on oil-rich Venezuela, and Castro was eager to help Chavez stay in power, these advisors say. Castro’s advice: Ensure absolute control of the military.

Easier said than done.

Venezuela’s military had a history of uprisings, sometimes leading to coups of the sort that Chavez, when a lieutenant colonel in the army, had staged in 1992. A decade later, rivals waged a short-lived putsch against Chavez himself.

But if Chavez took the right steps, the Cuban instructed, he could hang on as long as Castro himself had, the advisors recalled. Cuba’s military, with Castro’s brother at the helm, controlled everything from security to key sectors of the economy.

Within months, the countries drew up two agreements, recently reviewed by Reuters, that gave Cuba deep access to Venezuela’s military – and wide latitude to spy on it and revamp it.

The agreements, specifics of which are reported here for the first time, led to the imposing of strict surveillance of Venezuelan troops through a Venezuelan intelligence service now known as the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence, or DGCIM.

Under Cuban military advisors, Venezuela refashioned the intelligence unit into a service that spies on its own armed forces, instilling fear and paranoia and quashing dissent.

Now known for its repressive tactics, the DGCIM is accused by soldiers, opposition lawmakers, human rights groups and many foreign governments of abuses including torture and the recent death of a detained Navy captain.

According to the documents reviewed by Reuters, the agreements, signed in May 2008, allowed Cuba’s armed forces to:

• Train soldiers in Venezuela

• Review and restructure parts of the Venezuelan military

• Train Venezuelan intelligence agents in Havana

• And change the intelligence service’s mission from spying on foreign rivals to surveilling the country’s own soldiers, officers, and even senior commanders.

The first agreement, according to the documents, would prepare Venezuelan intelligence agents to “discover and confront the subversive work of the enemy.” The second agreement authorized Cuban officials to oversee the “assimilation” and “modernization” of Venezuela’s military.

The presence of Cuban officials within Venezuela’s military has been known for years. President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s disciple and increasingly beleaguered successor, said in a 2017 speech: “We are grateful to Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces. We salute them and will always welcome them.”

But neither country has ever acknowledged details of the agreements or the extent of Cuba’s involvement.

In March, after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence denounced Havana’s “malign influence” on Caracas, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez downplayed the relationship. “I strongly reject repeated and false accusations,” he tweeted, “of Cuban military ‘training,’ ‘controlling’ or ‘intimidating’ in Venezuela.”

Neither Venezuela’s Defense Ministry nor its Information Ministry, responsible for government communications including those of Maduro, responded to emails and phone calls for this article. Cuban officials didn’t respond to requests from Reuters for comment.

Eleven years after they were forged, the military agreements have proven crucial for Maduro’s survival as president, according to security experts, people familiar with the administration and opposition politicians.

With Cuba’s help and training, the military has stood by Maduro and helped him weather an economic meltdown, widespread hunger and crime, and the emigration of more than 4 million people – more than 10 percent of Venezuela’s population in recent years.

In June, Reuters explained how a reshuffling of the armed forces, and proliferation of senior officers, has kept military leadership beholden to Maduro.

Now, the documents laying out Venezuela’s agreements with Cuba – and interviews with dozens of current and former members of the armed services, government officials and people familiar with the relationship between Caracas and Havana – show how instrumental Castro’s help has been as well.

The transformation of the DGCIM, these people say, has been particularly effective. “The most important mission for the intelligence service once was to neutralize any threat to democracy,” said Raul Salazar, a former defense minister under Chavez who opposes Maduro. “Now, with Cuba in charge, the government uses it to stay in power.”

Once Cuba began training DGCIM personnel, the intelligence service embedded agents, often dressed in black fatigues, within barracks. There, they would compile dossiers on perceived troublemakers and report any signs of disloyalty, according to more than 20 former Venezuelan military and intelligence officials.

The DGCIM also began tapping the phones of officers, including senior military commanders, to listen for conspiracies.

The crackdown has led to hundreds of arrests. At least 200 military officials are currently detained, according to the opposition-led National Assembly. Citizen Control, a Venezuelan organization that studies the armed forces, says the number is over 300.

In a June 2017 report, reviewed by Reuters, the DGCIM accused a soldier, who enrolled in a university considered to be aligned with the opposition, of “ideological and political subversion.” Speaking out for the first time, the former lieutenant recounted how he was handcuffed to a chair in a continuously lit room and beaten until two vertebrae broke.

“Those days had no end,” he recalled. He revealed his story to Reuters on the condition that the news agency use only his first name, Daniel, and not disclose his age.

Since its remaking, the DGCIM’s ranks have swelled – from a few hundred agents early in the Chavez administration to at least 1,500 now, according to former military officials.

A recent United Nations report accused the DGCIM of torture – including electric shocks, suffocation, waterboarding, sexual violence, and water and food deprivation. Under Maduro, DGCIM officers have been promoted to senior positions, including the command of his personal security detail.

The repression, opposition leaders say, has cowed the armed forces. Juan Guaido, head of the National Assembly, early this year denounced Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham and declared, with the support of most Western democracies, that he was Venezuela’s rightful leader.

But opposition pleas for a military rebellion have gone unheeded. “We have failed,” said a senior opposition official involved in attempts to broker talks with military leaders. “We have nothing to offer to convince them.”

“A BASTION OF LATIN AMERICAN DIGNITY”

For Chavez, the changes foreseen by the two agreements resonated on a personal level.

Castro, whom he had long admired, was the first international leader to embrace Chavez as a rising politician in the 1990s.

Venezuela’s military intelligence unit, meanwhile, was run by officers allied with the conservative elite and opposed to Chavez’s vision of transforming a country which, despite boasting the world’s biggest oil reserves, suffered rampant poverty.

When Chavez’s 1992 coup failed, officers from the unit, then known as the Directorate of Military Intelligence, or DIM, were the ones tasked with arresting him. They initially jailed him in one of the same underground cells at the DIM’s Caracas headquarters where Chavez would later detain some of his own political opponents, according to several former officials.

Months after his release from prison because of a presidential pardon, Chavez in 1994 flew to Havana, where Castro, in their first in-person meeting, greeted him at the airport.

In Chavez, Castro saw a like-minded leftist leader of the sort that had become rare since the end of the Cold War. In Venezuela’s vast oil wealth, Castro saw potential nourishment for a Cuban economy starved by the collapse of its former sponsor, the Soviet Union.

With Castro looking on, Chavez in a speech at the University of Havana called Cuba, then in its fourth decade of authoritarian rule, “a bastion of Latin American dignity.” He vowed to cure the capitalist “gangrene” afflicting Venezuela.

After the visit, the two men began to speak regularly, former advisors said.

By the late 1990s, high inflation, low economic growth and increased poverty made Chavez’s Socialist message attractive to a growing number of Venezuelans. In 1998, he was elected president. Almost immediately, he deepened formal links with Cuba.

In October 2000, Castro traveled to Caracas to sign a series of economic agreements. Venezuela would give Cuba enough oil to meet half its energy needs.

Since then, Venezuela has sent at least 55,000 barrels per day to the island, or more than $21 billion worth of oil, according to government figures and average prices over the period. In exchange, Cuba sent thousands of doctors, teachers and agricultural specialists to help diversify Venezuela’s grass-roots economy.

By 2002, many of Venezuela’s elite had tired of Chavez. That April, conservative opposition leaders teamed up with military chieftains, including senior DIM officials, and detained him. But the coup, after a massive popular uprising on his behalf, failed within two days.

Back in power, and with Castro’s blessing, Chavez placed Cuban advisors within his inner circle to tighten security, according to his former advisors and several former military officials. He began a purge of the intelligence service and other top ranks of the military.

He appointed Hugo Carvajal, a lieutenant colonel who had joined Chavez’s 1992 coup effort and later headed the DIM’s investigations division, to be its subdirector. Within two years, Carvajal became its director general.

Carvajal began modernizing the DIM. In an email to Reuters, Carvajal said Venezuela’s central bank provided millions of U.S. dollars in cash to the DIM for new technology, including surveillance equipment and a database to centralize intelligence.

The intelligence boss would lead the service for nearly a decade. Now out of office, he has been sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department for allegedly helping Colombian guerrillas. Last April he was arrested in Spain and remains detained in response to a U.S. warrant for alleged drug trafficking.

In the email, sent through his lawyer in Spain, Carvajal denied the accusations.

In July 2007, Chavez named Gustavo Rangel, a loyalist who headed the army reserves, as defense minister.

At his swearing-in, Rangel spoke of the need for “new Venezuelan military thinking” to counter the “real enemy.” The “empire,” he said, using common Caracas shorthand for the United States, was sponsoring “subversive groups” bent on destroying the revolution.

Reuters was unable to reach Rangel, now retired, for comment.

That December, Chavez lost the referendum on term limits. On television, he vowed a “new offensive” to pursue the goal.

Defense talks with Cuba began. At a meeting in Caracas on May 26, 2008, Rangel and General Alvaro Lopez, Cuba’s vice minister of defense, signed the two agreements.

Under the first agreement, Cuba’s defense ministry would oversee a restructuring of the DIM and advise on creating “new units” inside the service. The DIM would also send groups of as many as 40 officers to Havana for up to three months of espionage training.

According to the documents, Venezuela would send resumes of training candidates for Cuba to vet. Courses included how to handle “secret collaborators,” how to conduct criminal investigations and how to select new intelligence agents.

Most of the training, according to the documents, took place at the Comandante Arides Estevez Sanchez Military Academy in western Havana. At the academy, a cluster of white four-story buildings and parade grounds, Cuban instructors told DIM agents their mission henceforth would be to infiltrate and control the military, according to five people familiar with the courses.

The second agreement created a committee known as the Coordination and Liaison Group of the Republic of Cuba, or GRUCE. The GRUCE, comprising eight Cuban “military experts,” would send Cuban advisors to Venezuela to inspect military units and train soldiers.

One former Venezuelan intelligence official recalled training he received by Cuban instructors on a farm in the eastern Venezuelan state of Anzoategui. Instructors, he told Reuters, drilled students with questions about their political beliefs. The DIM, they said, must be the “tip of the spear” in the fight against “traitors.”

Chavez, fortified by increases in government spending that boosted his popularity, won a new referendum to end term limits.

In 2011, he changed the DIM’s name to include the term “counterintelligence,” reflecting its mission to thwart sabotage from within. By then, the new DGCIM was several hundred agents stronger, former officials said.

Fresh from Cuban training, the new agents began infiltrating barracks. “We lived and trained with the troops to monitor them, keeping the bosses informed,” another former DGCIM officer told Reuters. “We had an iron grip.”

Some agents pretended to be regular soldiers. Others donned their DGCIM uniforms and regularly encouraged soldiers to report on each other. They came to be known as “the men in black,” according to several former soldiers.

“I’ll hand you to the DGCIM,” a battalion commander warned would-be rebels, one soldier recalled. Stories of detentions and torture by DGCIM agents, sometimes wearing skeleton masks and balaclavas, spread through the ranks.

“YOU CAN’T FIGHT THE STATE”

Chavez, following four surgeries in Cuba, died in 2013. Castro in a newspaper column called him “the best friend the Cuban people had in their history.” Voters elected Maduro to succeeded him.

In 2014, oil prices plummeted.

Maduro’s effort to spur the economy failed.

Hunger and shortages hit even the armed forces. A military doctor told Reuters recently that many enlisted soldiers are underweight, subsisting primarily on pasta and lentils.

As growing numbers of troops sought to desert, the DGCIM grew more aggressive. It expanded surveillance, wiretapping senior officers.

On the top floor of its headquarters, some 40 agents in its Operational Communications Division used a platform called Genesi, according to a former member of the team.

The system, designed by Italian telecommunications firm IPS SpA, allows users to “intercept, monitor and analyze every kind of information source,” according to the company’s web site.

IPS didn’t respond to calls, emails or a letter seeking comment at its Rome headquarters. Reuters couldn’t identify an IPS office or personnel working in Venezuela.

In July 2017, Daniel, the Army lieutenant in Caracas, was summoned to his battalion commander’s office. Once a Chavez supporter, Daniel had joined the army in 2004 but under Maduro lost enthusiasm and told superiors he planned to leave. He had enrolled in law classes at a local university while still in the military and taken part in some opposition marches.

Daniel’s behavior, according to the intelligence report reviewed by Reuters, was “counter-revolutionary.” The report described the university, whose name Daniel asked Reuters not to disclose, as a school for the opposition.

Upon reporting to the commander’s office, Daniel said, three uniformed counterintelligence agents confiscated his phone and said he was needed for an “interview” at DGCIM headquarters.

Daniel said agents transferred him to an underground cell and handcuffed him to a chair. Each day, a man entered and punched him repeatedly. The beatings broke two vertebrae, according to a physician’s report reviewed by Reuters. The cell was lit all hours, causing Daniel to lose track of time.

After 20 days, a military court charged him with treason, rebellion and violating military decorum. Pending a trial, he was transferred to another prison. Six months later, after entering a guilty plea, the court released Daniel on condition he remain in the country. He was expelled from the Army.

Daniel returned to law classes, but regrets pleading guilty. “I’m not sure it was the right thing to do,” he said, but noted that many who don’t enter a plea remain detained indefinitely. “You can’t fight the state.”

The surveillance has hurt even senior officers.

One case sparked national outrage, forcing the government to recognize DGCIM abuse. Rafael Acosta, a 50-year-old Navy captain, died in DGCIM custody on June 29, eight days after agents arrested him.

Tarek Saab, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, said Acosta was detained for participating in an unspecified “right wing” plot. Acosta’s wife, Waleswka Perez, said the accusations were untrue and accused the DGCIM of torture.

On July 1, Saab said the government had charged two DGCIM agents with homicide. He gave neither a cause of death nor the circumstances in which it occurred. The charges, Saab said in a statement, followed an “impartial” investigation into the “unfortunate event.”

Most DGCIM handiwork never comes to light.

In March 2018, five DGCIM agents summoned Lieutenant Colonel Igbert Marin, commander of the 302nd mechanized Army brigade, in Caracas. Marin, now 40 and the father of two young children, for most of his career was a rising star who had excelled at Venezuela’s top military academy.

His wife, Yoselyn Carrizales, told Reuters the agents took Marin to the Defense Ministry, where he was met by officials including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Ivan Hernandez, the current head of the DGCIM.

The officials accused Marin of scheming against the government, said Carrizales, who is acting as one of Marin’s attorneys. They said they had video evidence of Marin and eight other officers conspiring, she added, but didn’t show him the video.

Marin denied the allegation, saying that the meeting in question had been merely a gathering of old academy classmates. Indignant, he told the defense minister that such accusations were counterproductive, especially at a time when most of the military was suffering from shortages of food, pay and equipment.

The minister should “leave his office, open his eyes and see how soldiers actually feel,” Marin told Padrino, according to Carrizales. Another lawyer defending Marin, Alonso Medina Roa, confirmed her account.

Neither Padrino nor Hernandez could be reached for comment.

The agents took Marin and the eight other officers to DGCIM headquarters. Marin later told his attorneys that agents handcuffed him to a chair, placed a bag over his head and filled it with tear gas. His lawyers detailed the alleged abuse to Reuters.

A week later, at a hearing Carrizales attended, a military court charged Marin with treason, instigating rebellion and violating decorum. Agents then took Marin away. He remained incommunicado for 78 days.

“I didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” said Carrizales.

Marin remains detained, and his wife continues to work for his release. Venezuelan officials haven’t publicly commented on the case or shown Marin’s lawyers the alleged video. No trial date has been set.

“They fear him,” Carrizales said. “He is an obvious leader within the armed forces. That’s why they arrested him.”

Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Venezuela; Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogotá; Marianna Parraga in México City; and Angelo Amante in Rome. Editing by Paulo Prada.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-cuba-military-specialreport/special-report-how-cuba-taught-venezuela-to-quash-military-dissent-idUSKCN1VC1BX