Cuban Counterintelligence Plays Hardball with Journalists / Iván García

Headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior in Revolution Square. From Paseos por la Habana.

Ivan Garcia, 17 April 2017 — Money is no object. When it comes to thwarting, harassing and repressing intellectuals or journalists, there are always enough funds in military’s coffers to write a blank check.

Solid numbers are hard to come by but, according to conservative estimates, Cuba’s special services and armed forces account for roughly 35% of the nation’s paltry GDP.

There is never a shortage of fuel, guesthouses, vacation homes, medical clinics or surveillance equipment for monitoring alleged counterrevolutionaries.

It is mistakenly believed that the top priority of the Special Services is the fragmented domestic opposition, which can never turn out more than a few followers for any public gathering. Meanwhile, the brave fighters at the barricades are kept in line by punches, karate chops and detention in damp, filthy jail cells.

The real danger for the government, and for counterintelligence as well, are high-level officials. “They are like laboratory guinea pigs, always under observation. Their phone calls, internet traffic, contacts with foreigners, sexual preferences and personal tastes are monitored. They cannot escape electronic surveillance even in the bathroom,” says a former intelligence officer with experience listening in.

As in the German film The Lives of Others, people with meaningful positions in government, the armed forces, international trade and the foreign ministry are under tight scrutiny. The next most heavily monitored group of individuals — more closely monitored even than dissidents — are those in the world of arts and letters and the sciences.

“The method for dealing with outspoken opposition figures is to intimidate them, pressuring them with physical and psychological abuse, or simply incarcerating them. We know how they think. But individuals such as writers, musicians, scientists, researchers and government-employed journalists are like a knife with two edges. Many are silent dissidents. They often lead double lives. In assemblies, government offices and newsrooms they appear to be loyal to the system. At home they are budding counterrevolutionaries,” observes the former intelligence officer.

According to this source, agents are well-trained. “They focus on managers, officials and employees of important state institutions. Recent graduates of the Higher Institute of the Ministry of the Interior are assigned to dissidents and independent journalists. They are more adept at using physical and verbal violence than intellectual arguments.”

In my twenty-years working as an independent journalist, State Security has summoned me for questioning five or six times. On other occasions the interviews were more casual. A guy would park his motorcycle outside my building or near my house, as though he were a friend, and calmly chat with me or my mother, Tania Quintero, who now lives in Switzerland as a political refugee and who was also an independent journalist.

He said his name was Jesús Águila. A blond, Caucasian young man, he had the air of an Eton graduate. When he became annoying, as when he would call or visit us to discuss our case or would harass my sister at work, Tania would threaten him with a ceramic mug and he would flee the scene.

One afternoon in the late 1990s I was questioned at a police station by a high-ranking, rather refined official. Then, on an unbearably hot morning in 2010, I was questioned at a branch of Special Troops near the Reloj Club on Boyeros Avenue by officials from Military Counterintelligence.

The site where I was interviewed was an interrogation cubicle located in a holding area for inmates. I had written a couple of articles for the Americas edition of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo on meddling by senior military officers in businesses and corporations. According to my interrogators, the Cuban armed forces did not like the image these articles created of military institutions. In a hollow threat, they told me that I could charged with violating a law — I do not remember which one — against disrespecting the “glorious and undefeated revolutionary armed forces.”

But ultimately it only amounted to intimidation. For six years they did not bother me. They denied me access whenever I tried to cover something at which operatives from State Security were present but they never detained me. Then, three weeks ago, they questioned a few of my friends whom they suspected of being sources for my articles.

I wrote one piece in which I said that, if they wanted to know anything about me, they could call me in for questioning. Apparently, they read it because on April 4 they summoned me to appear the next day at a police station in Havana’s Lawton district.

There I encountered two pleasant, mixed-race and educated young men. I cannot say much else about them. I told them that what is needed — once and for all and by everyone — is open dialogue, to acknowledge the opposition and to try to find a solution to the national disaster that is Cuba today by following the path of democracy. While the officers did not promise tolerance, they did remain silent.

Three days later, one saw the flip side of the coin. As had happened for ninety-seven Sundays, a mob dressed in civilian clothes was incited by State Security to stage a verbal lynching of the Ladies in White House near the police station in Lawton where I had been questioned.

From January to March of 2017 the political police made 1,392 arrests and in some cases confiscated work materials and money from independent journalists and human rights activists.

They harass people with little rhyme or reason. A group of reporters from Periodismo del Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism), an online journal which focuses on environmental issues and vulnerable communities, or a neo-Communist blogger like Harold Cardenas are as likely to be targeted as an overtly anti-Castro figure like Henry Constantin, regional vice-president of the Inter-American Press Society.

With ten months to go before Raul Castro hangs up his gloves, the Special Services’ game plan is poised to undergo a 180-degree turnaround. Using its contacts, it could establish a channel of communication between dissidents and the government, which could serve as a first step towards the ultimate legal resolution of Cuba’s political problems.

But I fear that democracy is not one of the Cuban regime’s top priorities.