Spy work celebrated at museum in Havana
Herald StaffHAVANA -- To hear Cuba's spy masters tell it, their intelligence agents have had nothing but success -- albeit with a few deaths of their own -- in foiling U.S. and Cuban exile attempts to destroy Fidel Castro and his 42-year-old revolution.
It is a tale explained at the museum of the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT, whose Directorate of Intelligence state security organization was responsible for the spy ring that operated in the Miami area until the FBI made arrests in 1998.
The Havana museum, little known outside of Cuba, commemorates 40 years of Cuban intelligence work. The entrance fee is $2.
The exhibit includes James Bond-style poison pens the CIA allegedly
used to try to kill Castro, hollowed out rocks used by American diplomats
to hide messages to
Cuban counter-revolutionaries, and firearms and explosives that the Cubans claim were seized from saboteurs sent by Miami exile groups.
``Ask most Cubans about these attempts on Fidel's life and they know all about these gadgets,'' said a diplomat who asked not to be named. ``These things are part of the history of the revolution and most of it -- the bombs, the chemicals to make Fidel's beard fall out -- are the real thing.
``He says himself (in 1999) they've tried to kill him 637 times. He's probably not kidding.''
CIA spokesman Mike Tadie said the agency did not wish to talk about Cuba's assertions that intelligence officers are based at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, or about the cases of two American officials the Cubans said they photographed doing espionage in the 1980s and whose pictures are on display in the museum.
Appropriately enough, the museum is housed in eight rooms in an elegantly restored villa at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street in Havana's Miramar district. The residence is also the headquarters of the First Chief of Operations of State Security, the top spy position once held by General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, a fan of espionage novels who also runs MININT.
Stern-faced, matronly guides shake their heads disapprovingly before each exhibit documenting individual ``sinister yanqui schemes and plans,'' and surveillance cameras follow every movement of visitors.
``This was terrible, terrible,'' said a silver-haired guide, motioning toward an exhibit dealing with young Elián González, who she said is ``a very happy boy now. But in Miami he was a prisoner of forces sponsored by the CIA.''
It includes Cuban intelligence officer José Imperatori, expelled by the United States in the winter of 2000, about a month after he escorted Elian's grandmothers in the United States as they made emotional appeals for the boy's return to Cuba.
One topic the museum does not mention is the June 8 conviction of five Cubans for spying.
The show traces Cuban intelligence work back to 1868, when Federico Pérez Carbó -- whose code name was Leónidas Raquín -- spied on Cuba's colonial masters from Spain.
But its main focus is on intelligence efforts since Castro came to power in 1960.
U.S. SPIES IN CUBA
Between 1978 and 1987, MININT agents detected 151 U.S.-financed spies -- almost all of them of Cuban ancestry -- recruited by American diplomats assigned to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the exhibit claims. It said that network was detected because 27 of the spies were actually Cuban double agents.
Washington and Havana do not have diplomatic relations, but their ``interests section'' offices in both cities serve as de facto embassies.
Of the 69 accredited diplomats at the U.S. mission between 1977 and 1987, 38 were actually CIA agents, the show maintains. There were 418 diplomats with temporary accreditation in the same time period, and 113 of these were from the CIA.
One series of photos shows Clyde Myron Benford, a second secretary
with the U.S. Special Interests Section specializing in politics and economics,
football-size, plastic ``rock'' in some brush beside a highway in 1986.
Benford, the exhibit said, placed money and instructions inside the hollow object -- which is displayed in a glass case -- for Cubans recruited by the CIA.
Another group of photos shows Second Secretary Richard Michael Davidson, who was stationed in Havana from 1979 to 1981, leaving items for his Cuban recruits inside a wrecked car in a Pinar del Rio junkyard. Videotapes of both diplomats ``engaged in espionage'' have been aired on Cuban television.
``Are there spies among the diplomats now?'' the guide was asked.
``Many, I am sure,'' she said. ``Otherwise, what would their purpose be here?''
``Is Cuba spying on the United States?''
``Naturally, we want to protect our country,'' the guide said, echoing the claim by lawyers for the five convicted Cuban spies that they were only trying to infiltrate exile organizations and were not spying on the U.S. government or the U.S. military.
Castro told CNN that the most surprising thing about the case
was ``that the most spying country in the world is accusing the most spied-on
country in the world of
ACTS OF TERRORISM
Such U.S. efforts, the exhibit said, were responsible for countless
acts of terrorism, sabotage and attempts on Castro's life. ``They have
already killed me about 100
times,'' Castro quipped in a speech earlier this year.
The United States also caused, Havana said, an epidemic of a Southeast Asian strain of dengue hemorrhagic fever in 1981 that made 344,203 Cubans sick. Of these, 116,143 people were hospitalized. The mosquito-borne virus killed 158 people, including 101 children. The U.S. State Department has denied causing the epidemic.
Many of the attempts on Castro's life are well-documented.
``The enemy knows it is all true,'' a European reporter was told by museum director Lt. Col. Jose Angel Sáliva earlier this year.
Some exhibits make use of official documents from the United States.
They often feature transcripts from congressional hearings into
CIA operations in Cuba, especially those in the wake of the unsuccessful
Bay of Pigs invasion. Such
hearings have ended with U.S. officials asserting that Washington is no longer trying to kill Castro.
But such attempts on Castro's life are continuing, José Pérez Fernández, a MININT colonel, declared in 1999 as a Havana court heard a $181 billion civil lawsuit filed by Cuba against the U.S. government for damaging the island nation's economy. ``They are a sickly obsession,'' he said.
Diagrams in the museum show how in one U.S.-sponsored failed plot, a man was to throw a grenade at Castro from the top of bleachers as the Cuban leader sat in the front row to watch a ball game.
Another exhibit explains how Cuban exiles allegedly planned to
kill Castro last year at the Ibero-American diplomatic summit in Panama.
Some of the supposed
assassins are in jail in Panama, which has rejected a Cuban request to extradite the prisoners to Cuba for trial. The Cubans claim the alleged ringleader, Luis Posada
Carriles, is responsible for the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1973 near Barbados in which 73 people died.
Yet another deals with the case of seven Cuban exiles suspected of planning to use a long-range 50-caliber sniper's rifle to shoot down Castro's plane as it arrived at a Latin American meeting in Venezuela in 1997.
Painted portraits of four Cuban agents for MININT, killed in 1992 by a band of Cuban exile raiders, hang on a wall over their bloodstained clothing. One exhibit is dedicated to Rogelio Iglesias Patino, who was killed in 1983 when his boat sank as he attempted to land in Florida ``to fulfill a mission within the columns of the enemy.''
One room shows surveillance videos of U.S. agents at work in Cuba.
Another video shows in graphic detail how Castro's personal security is maintained:
Tunnels lead from a main Castro residence at Jaimanitas -- on a one-way street alongside Marina Hemingway -- to roads giving him access to the nearby Ciudad Libertad military airstrip and to an underground bunker designed to protect him against air attack and naval bombardment.
``The commander-in-chief is under constant attack, and we must be vigilant,'' a fiercely patriotic guide told two American women from a California organization dedicated to solidarity with Cuba's revolution, who were asking about Castro's safety.
``Everything you see at the museum is reality,'' she said. ``Here, we do not lie.''