La Tertulia

Committed to finding balance and transparency in information and analysis about Latin America and U.S. policy.

Chinese “bases” in Cuba

Trying to make sense of the exaggerations and fake news about Chinese “surveillance” and “military training” bases in Cuba.

Q&A on allegations that China has established a “spy base” and
“military training facility” in Cuba

Q: What evidence did the WSJ and other media present to support allegations that China has established a “spy base” and “military training facility” in Cuba?

  • WSJ and other media cited an anonymous U.S. “official” that China and Cuba reached “an agreement in principle” to establish an electronic eavesdropping facility on the island, and that Beijing would pay Havana “several billion dollars to allow it.” The allegation was that the two countries would reopen a facility, called Lourdes (also known as Torrens), that the Soviet Union had until 2001. Many media, except Reuters, copied the story without significant additional reporting. Although the allegations were first made (seven years ago) by a U.S. Senator, the word “official” usually signifies the source was a person in the Administration.

    An anonymous official also told a reporter that “highly classified intelligence” about a new Chinese “military training facility” in Cuba was “convincing but fragmentary.” The official reportedly said such a facility “would” give China a platform to “potentially house troops permanently on the island.”

    The White House at first called the “spy base” story “inaccurate.” A day later, an anonymous “senior official” backgrounded the media that, yes, China has for years been working to “increase its spying efforts” in many countries “around the world,” including Cuba. Other anonymous officials told reporters that, in one reporter’s words, “China and Cuba already jointly run four eavesdropping stations on the island.” An anonymous White House official also said Beijing “will keep trying to enhance its presence in Cuba, and we will keep working to disrupt it.” Secretary of State Tony Blinken said he had “deep concerns” about the unspecified Chinese activities in Cuba.

Q:  How good is the information the anonymous officials are referring to?

  • The sources have said “details are scant,” and none has provided the details they claim to have. One anonymous U.S. intelligence official is quoted as saying, “It is premature to draw firm conclusions about recent reporting. At this stage, it does not appear to be anything that provides much of an enhancement to [China’s] current suite of capabilities [in Cuba].”

    The circumstantial evidence has also been weak. Press reports quote two anonymous sources who said that workers from Chinese telecommunications companies (one said Huawei and ZTE; the other said Golden Dragon Technology Group) have been tracked entering and exiting a building that the reporter said is “suspected of housing Chinese eavesdropping operations in Cuba.” The reports said they “might be playing a role,” but it added that neither company is known to make or install intercept technologies.

Q: Are the allegations consistent with other information?

  • No. Some of the allegations are easily proved false. The “Lourdes” SIGINT station that the Soviet Union had until 2001 (with U.S. blessing for SALT/START verification) was deactivated 20 years ago. It is on the campus of Cuba’s Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas (UCI) – with no or only minimal security.

    Bejucal, the other facility that reports have named, is an old Cuban radar site about 10km away from Lourdes (and 27km from Havana). Security around it is minimal; Reuters has published a photo of its rusted security signs. The small community around it has deep roots, and several different reporters say that citizens have seen no new activity and no expansion of the facility and, except for one Chinese family living in the area for decades, no sign of any Chinese presence or transits through the area.

Q: What have the Chinese, Cuban, and U.S. governments said – and do their statements mean anything?

  • All three governments denied the accuracy of the reports about a Chinese “spy base” in Cuba – a rare public agreement. The Cuban Foreign Ministry called the reports “totally mendacious and unfounded.” Chinese officials denied them as well, saying that the United States is “expert at chasing shadows and meddling in other countries’ affairs.”

    A day after saying the WSJ reports were inaccurate, the Biden Administration altered its position after interested Members of Congress expressed outrage at the U.S. denial. But even the U.S. “clarification” did not support the press reports. The anonymous briefer backpedaled from their previous statement that the reports were “inaccurate” but did not use words like “base” or cast any Chinese efforts as significant, new, or threatening.

Q: Does this mean that China has no SIGINT capability in Cuba?

  • No. The Chinese and Cuba government have made many statements about generally increasing security cooperation over the years. Around the world, joint and unilateral collection of SIGINT is common practice. Major and medium-size powers all have such facilities. China almost certainly has some SIGINT capability in Cuba, directed both internally to Cuba and toward the United States.

    Such facilities are often based in embassies, but many also include remote locations, essentially antenna sites, that forward signals to processors elsewhere, which are then forwarded home for exploitation. It’s standard. Whether the remote site is approved by the host government, or even joint with it, depends on the bilateral relationship, but approval does not signify an extraordinary intelligence-cooperation relationship.

Q: Does China have no “military training facility” or program in Cuba?

  • The vague terminology – “training” and “facility” – makes a precise answer difficult. Almost any interaction between militaries – ranging from briefings on world events or emerging technologies, to battlefield tactics and exercises – can be called training. It would be normal for reciprocal exchanges of visits by the two countries to include the former. There is no hard nor circumstantial evidence of the latter, and it would be inconsistent with the two countries’ past interaction.

    The press allegations and comments by anonymous “officials” seem calibrated to take advantage of this ambiguity – for maximum impact to build a case against the Biden Administration’s China and Cuba policies. But the fact remains that the people making the allegations remain anonymous and have provided no evidence.

Q: Does this mean that China is not, as some U.S. politicians have alleged, conducting “aggression” against the United States from Cuban territory? Is it not an “imminent threat” to the United States? Why did one Member of the U.S. Congress call on President Biden to “take out the Chinese assets in Cuba”?

  • The word “aggression” covers a broad array of possible activities, including certain diplomatic maneuvers and trade measures (neither of which China would be doing from Cuba). For most people, the collection of SIGINT, even if it were happening on a large scale, does not amount to “aggression.”

    As for explicit forms of “aggression,” such as interfering with U.S. communications signals, launching military operations, etc., not even the anonymous sources have alleged any evidence whatsoever of that. Moreover, precedent shows that Cuba has not tolerated provocative third-country activities from its territory in the past, having shut down certain at least two countries’ operations directed against specific (non-USG) targets.

Q: But isn’t there any mischief going on between the two countries to undermine the United States?

  • With both China and Russia, Cuba has always sought political solidarity and, whenever possible, material benefit. The Trump/Biden policies of “maximum pressure” to achieve change in Cuba, which have made the embargo more rigid than ever and included significantly augmented embargo enforcement, have deepened the need for Cuba to find alternative trading partners and economic advantages. Cuba would be foolish not to. During the period of Obama’s policy of normalization with Cuba, Havana did not seek deeper ties with China and Russia.

    These efforts have rarely gone significantly beyond rhetoric. China strictly controls its trade with Cuba to keep Cuba from accumulating too much debt; it’s a largely transactional relationship. But that rhetoric, including pledges (which some U.S. persons see as threats) to expand security cooperation, is politically useful to both sides – a reminder that U.S. policy does not preclude closer China-Cuba ties.

    — China wants to counter what it perceives as U.S. efforts to curtail its influence around the world as well as the pressure it feels from the 70-year U.S. military presence around it (in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and previously Taiwan).
    — Cuba needs economic assistance and, to counter popular frustration with the Trump/Biden reversal of U.S.-Cuba normalization, wants to reassure the Cuban people that they’re not alone in the world.

    It’s worth repeating, however, that the rhetoric is always far ahead of the facts of cooperation. It seems intended to remind the United States that, despite its regime-change policies, Cuba remains in independent, sovereign state.

    (Cuba and Russia reiterated their “solid defense ties” this week as well. Russia promised unspecified “assistance” to Cuba. There’s no evidence yet that it is for anything other than this same purpose.)

Q: Wouldn’t it be a big benefit to China to have a SIGINT station in Cuba?

  • Not so much as it would in the past. The technology of communications has changed drastically since the Soviets used Lourdes for intelligence collection, notably for monitoring U.S. SALT and START compliance. No longer does collection require huge antenna farms because radio transmission methods have changed. Fiber, finely targeted satellite links, various scatter technologies, and massively advanced encryption have also changed the game. China can collect a lot from its diplomatic outposts in the United States.

    During the Soviet era, the missile telemetry Lourdes could collect if the United States launched missiles toward the Soviet Union would be of great value to Moscow. Whether such telemetry would be available today from Cuban territory and exploitable during a westward missile launch against China is unknown outside very close circles, but seems unlikely.

Q: Then what’s this China basing story all about?

  • Several comments:

    “Leaks” like those reportedly driving these reports are an effective political tool – a dirty weapon – because a) they create an (incorrect) assumption that there’s some truth to them, b) the source and information are inherently unverifiable, and c) they nonetheless give momentum to whatever exaggerations or fake news they’re trying to spread. The word “leaks” is problematic unless there’s hard evidence that the info is true – which it is not in this case.

    Only rarely are leaks (of real or fake information) initiated by “intelligence officials.” The policy and political people usually suck them into their game – exploiting intelligence officers’ vanity (desire to “serve the consumer”) and their ignorance about what’s going on “downtown.” They bombard the intelligence guys with loaded questions that force them to admit (because no one can prove a negative) that something is “possible.” In this case, upon a basic truth – i.e., that “everyone collects intelligence everywhere” – they build “possible scenarios” in which anything “can” happen. It’s ridiculous to think that a couple of Huawei and ZTE workers are setting up a SIGINT base, but it’s “possible”; one “can’t rule it out.” The policy and political people pocket that “possible,” kick it up a notch, and push it to sympathetic journalists, who then get corroboration from “officials.”

    These particular allegations originated on Capitol Hill and have been pushed onto the bureaucrats downtown for seven years. The NSC and State Department share responsibility for giving this story legs– such as when they flip-flopped from the statement it was “inaccurate.” They have consistently failed to push back against the Hill advocates of these allegations and, in so doing, aided their campaign.

Q: Is there precedent for allegations against Cuba being false?

  • Over the past 70 years of bilateral tensions, there have been many such episodes. The most recent was the series of allegations the Trump Administration made (and the Biden Administration has not walked back from) that Cuba was conducting “sonic attacks” against U.S. intelligence officers and diplomats in Havana, causing them permanent brain damage and serious symptoms. Repeated efforts (at considerable taxpayer expense) by the CIA and State Department to prove the allegations failed. The U.S. Intelligence Community unanimously rejected the claims.

– Fulton Armstrong