The latest excerpt from Brian Latell’s new book “Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine” is a light and breezy read, but disappointingly devoid of facts. It captures the reminisces of a few Cuban defectors who claim that a handful of Russians trained a cadre of starry-eyed Cubans spies, who subsequently taught themselves and became one of the world’s premier services.
In contrast to the simplistic picture painted by Latell, Cuba received considerable and sustained help from other nations. For example, the Soviet Union and East Germany help Havana establish its counterintelligence force, focused on internal threats. General Marcus Wolf, head of East Germany’s Intelligence Service, originally assessed the performance of Havana’s services as amateurish. He equated their sophistication and professionalism to his own services 10-15 years earlier. Wolf subsequently advised Cuba on how to improve its effectiveness and efficiency. This, along with the Soviet support, helped seal the fate of the anti-Castro resistance in the early 1960s, further consolidating Castro’s power.
No-cost training and assistance in “foreign intelligence” came from the Soviets and several Warsaw Pact allies. The Soviets were the more generous in terms of quantity, but Cuba viewed the East German and Hungarian assistance as being of higher quality. Czechoslovakia also provided intelligence advisors, but details regarding their activities remain limited.
As Moscow-Havana ties deepened in the early 1960s, Cuban intelligence officers were sent to the Soviet Union for advanced training. For the remainder of the 1960s, sixty Cuban intelligence officers arrived annually for ten months of training. Half of the Cuban personnel studied foreign intelligence with the KGB. The other half was schooled in the dark art of Counterintelligence.
It was the culmination of this massive training and assistance program, followed by bilateral intelligence operations that led to Cuba’s rapid rise as an intelligence powerhouse. A scholar of Dr. Latell’s stature should know better than to blindly accept the recollections of defectors, no matter how well trusted or respected. Defectors are human, with inherently imperfect memories and perceptions built upon their unique experiences. They will also have biases – intended or not – based on these experiences and yes, sometimes personal agendas. Defectors can be rewarding sources of information, but their information is simply a starting point awaiting cross-checking and verification against other sources.