Charade in Havana: Documents show Canadian diplomats gathered intelligence about Cuba for the U.S.
At the height of the Cold War in 1963, a junior Canadian diplomat stationed
Havana set off on a sensitive intelligence-gathering mission, armed only with a
pencil and a sketchbook.
The diplomat, more accustomed to interminable meetings with Communist
bureaucrats than to spying, had at one point been offered a high-tech camera to
document his findings. But his work was deemed so sensitive he feared the
camera might be confiscated by Cuban authorities, and ultimately jeopardize his
top secret mission -- spying on Cuba and its Soviet masters for the United States.
He was one of many Canadians who were directly enlisted by the U.S.
Department in the 1960s and 1970s to spy for the Americans on the Communist
island, according to recently declassified U.S. and Canadian intelligence
Although maintaining friendly relations with Cuba has long been a cornerstone
Canadian foreign policy, these documents paint a very different picture and
illuminate how much the United States relied on Ottawa for information about the
Communist island. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in
January, 1961, after it became clear Cuban leaders had embraced Communism
and were beginning to ally themselves with the Soviet Union.
While a succession of prime ministers have pointed to Canada's good
with Cuban leader Fidel Castro as proof of its independent foreign policy, Ottawa
in fact co-operated with the United States, regularly deploying Canadian diplomats to spy on Soviet military
installations on the island.
"Publicly, Canada and the U.S. essentially agreed to disagree on Cuba,"
said John Dirks, a Toronto-based
archivist who has combed documents in Washington and Ottawa for details of Canada's Cold War relationship
with Cuba and the United States.
In a 1961 U.S. government memorandum classified as secret, a U.S. official
noted, "Official Canadian views of
the Castro threat have now moved much closer than heretofore to the U.S. appraisal of the situation. In his April
19  statement, Prime Minister [John] Diefenbaker expressed his government's deep concern over
developments in Cuba and characterized Cuba as a bridgehead of international communism threatening the
hemisphere, a danger to which Canada could not be indifferent."
Though Ottawa was largely in agreement with the U.S. position, Washington
secretly counselled Canada not to
break off diplomatic relations with the island, especially when it realized Canada's embassy in Havana could be
useful for intelligence-gathering purposes.
In a 1962 telegram from the State Department to the U.S. embassy in
Ottawa, a U.S. official cautions against
trying to convince Canada to break diplomatic relations with Cuba after reports a Canadian freighter was
deliberately sabotaged by Cuban authorities.
"Canadian reporting from Habana [sic] of great value to us, and we would
not intend propose [sic] suspension of
diplomatic relations," reads the telegram, marked confidential and dated Nov. 20, 1962.
Even during the Trudeau years, when relations with the Communist island
appeared particularly strong, the
In fact, one State Department document notes Pierre Trudeau, who as
prime minister publicly flaunted his close
friendship with Mr. Castro, the Cuban President, may have in fact been deeply suspicious of the Cuban
"Americans found Trudeau's nationalistic edge annoying but they believed
his instincts were more conservative
than they appeared in public," said Mr. Dirks, whose research began as part of a master's history project at the
University of Toronto. In the mid-1970s, when Cuba dispatched soldiers to fight in Angola, Mr. Trudeau seems to
have distanced himself from the Communist island, the declassified memos show.
In addition to mostly low-level Canadian diplomats, the Canadian embassy
in Havana also appears to have
enlisted ordinary Canadians working in Cuba -- particularly Roman Catholic priests and nuns -- to gather
intelligence for the United States, said Don Munton, an international studies professor at the University of
Northern British Columbia, who has studied some of the newly released documents.
"The Canadian government provided intelligence on Cuba on a regular
basis to the United States and other allies
during the years following the Castro revolution out of the Canadian embassy in Havana," wrote Prof. Munton in
a research paper presented last year at a security conference in Ottawa.
According to Prof. Munton, Canadian diplomats would be sent out to collect
intelligence on military installations
and other things in Cuba important to the Americans. High-level meetings between Canadian officials and Cuban
officials would also be made available to U.S. intelligence. The reports would be sent from the Canadian embassy
in Havana by diplomatic pouch to the Ministry of External Affairs in Ottawa, which would forward the intelligence
documents to the Canadian embassy in Washington. An official from the Washington embassy would then gather
the reports in an envelope, and "walk them over to the State Department."
In the summer of 1962, Canadian diplomats were among the first to alert
the United States to large shipments of
arms and troops arriving from the Soviet Union. The Soviet military shipments and manouevres culminated in
the Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the
brink of nuclear war over Russia's shipment of nuclear missiles to Cuba.
Although Canada reported to the United States about these Soviet military
manoeuvres, they had no idea of the
size and scope of the operation, historians say.
According to Prof. Munton, Canadian diplomats conducted numerous "drive-by"
surveillance trips to Cuban
military installations weeks before the crisis and saw "Slavic men," but did not know that what they were seeing
was simply "the tip of the iceberg." At the height of the crisis, more than 40,000 Russian troops were on the
Later, Canadian diplomats were instrumental in reporting on the dismantling
of the Soviet military bases and the
removal of the missiles, he added.
A year after the missile crisis, Canadian intelligence-gathering increased
following a meeting between then prime
minister Lester Pearson and president John Kennedy at the U.S. leader's retreat in Hyannis Port, Mass.
At the May, 1963, encounter, Mr. Kennedy asked the new Canadian prime
minister if Canada could "extend
further its intelligence efforts in Cuba," Prof. Munton said. Mr. Pearson agreed, and a few months after the
meeting many Canadian diplomats stationed in Cuba found themselves being trained by the Central Intelligence
Agency in intelligence-gathering operations. One participant was the low-level Canadian diplomat who toured the
island with his sketchpad in 1963.
Canada was not the only country providing classified information to
the United States. Britain was also doing the
same. In early 1962, months before the Cuban missile crisis, one Washington-based British diplomat noted that,
according to U.S. officials, "only we and the Canadians supply any real military information on Cuba."
But while Ottawa readily supplied Washington with information about
the Communist island, the United States
seems to have kept Canada in the dark about many of its own activities there.
For instance, according to declassified memos found by Mr. Dirks, Canadian
officials appeared to be in the dark
about U.S.-led efforts to overthrow the Castro regime.
In February, 1962, when Mr. Kennedy set in motion a process to remove
Mr. Castro from power, Ottawa was told
U.S. policy was simply to isolate Cuba through economic measures.
Canada was deliberately not informed about the Bay of Pigs invasion
in 1961. During the ill-fated CIA-backed
operation, a group of Cuban exiles were sent to the island to overthrow Mr. Castro.
But just how much did Cuban counter-intelligence officials know about Canadian spying activities?
The question may now be impossible to answer since Cuban intelligence
archives remain sealed, but experts say
Cuban officials probably knew of Canada's activities but did little to interfere with them.
For its part, the Canadian government did little to close down the Cuban
consulate and trade commission on
Cremazie Boulevard in north Montreal, which was well known as "a significant base for espionage in North
America," Prof. Munton said.
The office was also used to smuggle goods of U.S. origin to Cuba in
diplomatic bags in contravention of the
Canadian ban on the transshipment of such goods through Canada.
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