China has had a spy base in Cuba for decades, former intelligence officer says

China’s espionage efforts in Cuba targeting the United States are not recent and date back at least three decades, a retired army counterintelligence agent has told the Miami Herald.

It took U.S. intelligence agencies nine years to figure out who was behind the repair and enhancements spotted during the 1990s at a “signals intelligence facility” — a reference to the interception of electronic communications — in the town of Bejucal, a 45-minute drive from Havana.

“We saw the enhancements over a decade, a steady evolution; clearly something was going on, but we didn’t know what,” said Chris Simmons, a former chief of a counterintelligence research branch on the Western Hemisphere at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, which had Cuba as its number one target. “And then, in 2001, we discovered that the Chinese had been there already for nine years. We were told at that time that when the Chinese arrived in 1992, they were embedded in a single building within Bejucal, and they were 50 officers in this facility.”

The revelations of the long-term foothold of Chinese spy agencies in Cuba come after new intelligence reported by the Wall Street Journal suggested Cuban and Chinese officials were discussing building a spy base and a military training facility on the island and paying billions of dollars to Cuba in exchange. White House and Pentagon officials first said the initial report had “inaccuracies” without further elaboration. But later, Biden administration officials confirmed that China had intelligence-collection facilities in Cuba since at least 2019, when they were upgraded.

The revelations come amid efforts by the Biden administration to improve communications with Beijing. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will visit China on Tuesday following a trip by the Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, in which he said he raised the issue of the Chinese base in Cuba with senior Chinese officials.

Following the first media reports about a spy base, members of Congress expressed concern for what seemed like a recent effort by China to establish intelligence facilities in Cuba.

“It comes as no surprise to us that the Cuban regime — which has historically opened its doors to foreign adversaries of the United States — and the [People’s Republic of China] are working together to undermine U.S. national security. However, the establishment of intelligence facilities and expansion of military ties this close to U.S. territory is a significant, escalatory step,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairmen of the Senate and the House committees handling foreign affairs, wrote last week in a letter requesting an intelligence briefing on the matter.

But as it turns out, Chinese spies have been in Cuba longer than previously disclosed.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China quickly moved to secure a position in Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida Keys, though, at the time, the Asian country was not perceived as a U.S. adversary, but just as a regional power, Simmons said.

“Washington knew the Chinese were engaged,” Simmons said. “But the conventional wisdom was that China just seized the political opportunity because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was the simplified D.C. logic. We could see the ships going in and the weapons coming off. But for the most part, Washington didn’t want to ask the hard questions.”

China and Cuba have vigorously denied reports of Chinese espionage on the Caribbean island, which they said are part of a disinformation effort by the United States.

National Security Council’s deputy spokesperson, Kate Waters, said she could not confirm that Chinese personnel were present in Bejucal as far as 1992 but added that “there also seems to be a mix-up here because the Administration’s position has not been that this is a recent development, though there has been some misreporting that has suggested that.”

She referred questions to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). DNI’s spokesperson Lauren Brackmann said she could not provide “additional guidance.”

Previously, scholars and analysts using open-source information thought the Chinese presence could date back to 1999 or 2001, but that was not verified, said Evan Ellis, a Latin American Studies research professor at the U.S. Army War College that has been tracking Chinese presence in the region.

But much has changed that would make Chinese long-term espionage activities in Cuba more dangerous now, including China’s military build-up, more sophisticated technical capabilities to collect and analyze signals intelligence and its increased aggressiveness, Ellis said.

“That creates a risk of a type of global war in which [China] could project forces into the Western Hemisphere,” he added. “That wasn’t there 20 or 30 years ago, so where the Chinese are at also increases the risk in addition to where modern weapons systems are at.”

“To me, Latin America, and especially the Caribbean, would inevitably become one of those regions the PRC would focus in times of war over Taiwan,” he added.

Chinese spies in Cuba could monitor several U.S. military facilities in the southeastern region – including the U.S. Southern Command based in Doral, the Naval Air Station in Key West and the Special Operations Command South located at Homestead Air Reserve Base – as well as aircraft and Navy ship traffic, all valuable information that could be used to disrupt U.S. operations amid a military conflict, Ellis said.

If China also sets up a military training facility in Cuba, that would provide additional capabilities for intelligence gathering or disruption operations and “accelerates the level of tactical and operational coordination between China and Cuba that can be used in times of war,” Ellis said.

Because Cuba is so close to the United States, signals from U.S. satellites communicating with ground stations can be intercepted by the facility in Bejucal, Simmons, the former counterintelligence official, said, giving Chinese and Cuban spies large amounts of valuable data.

For example, even if the content of a phone call is encrypted, intelligence officers at Bejucal could track phone numbers from several U.S. government agencies and differentiate between a routine volume of calls and something more significant.

“The Cubans have been amazingly proficient at what we call pattern analysis,” Simmons said. “They triage who the important numbers are, and they can tell you that Chris Simmons, on average, makes three phone calls to this number for the CIA. So they don’t know what I’m saying, but just the pattern tells them who I’m operating with and what’s normal for me.”

Chinese technological advances could mean there is a risk they could eventually decrypt intercepted data too, Ellis said.

In addition to Bejucal, China reportedly maintains a presence in at least two other Soviet-era monitoring facilities, in Lourdes, near Havana, and Santiago de Cuba. The reported presence of Chinese spies in Cuba was cited by a U.S. government commission that recommended last year denying permission to a U.S. company wanting to extend a submarine internet cable connection between South Florida and Cuba.

Chinese companies also seem to have played a key role in building internet and telecommunications infrastructure in Cuba, providing the government with tools to censor content and spy on its citizens.

According to a 2019 report by the Cuba Internet Task Force convened by the State Department under the Trump administration, “China played a major role in financing and constructing Cuba’s ALBA-1 undersea cable and Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecommunications company, was involved in developing Cuba’s backbone network as well as installing Wi-Fi hotspots across the island.” The report says two other Chinese companies, ZTE and TP Link, provided modem technology.

In a 2017 report, the Open Observatory of Network Interference says it found Chinese code associated with Huawei’s equipment when its team tried to access blocked websites in Cuba. The report also says the login portal for ETECSA, Cuba’s state-owned sole internet provider, appears to have been written by Chinese developers because its source code contains comments written in Chinese.

The country’s video surveillance network also uses Chinese technology, a former intelligence officer said. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

As China has grown to become a superpower, it is possible its spy agencies figure they need to expand their presence on the island, as recent intelligence suggests, Simmons said. But the “smart move” would not be to build a whole new base and replace the Cuban staff with its own. Instead, it makes more sense, he says, if they beef up personnel, get new equipment and keep paying Cuban officers for what they do.

“China’s not going to kick Cuba to the curb,” he said. “They are too valuable of an intelligence partner.”