Raúl Castro’s Cuba: Ally of Rogue Regimes and Safe Haven for Terrorists
Cuba Transition Project
29 de abril de 2009

By Hans de Salas-del Valle*

Islamic Republic of Iran

      In 2008, Iran granted a 500 million euro (US$665 million) revolving credit line to the Cuban government in compensation for a longstanding and evolving strategic alliance between the two vociferously anti-American regimes.[2] Havana’s collaboration with Tehran has ranged from the transfer of Cuban-developed biotechnology [3] (along with the requisite biopharmaceutical processing equipment for large-scale manufacturing of vaccines, interferon, and other genetically engineered products) to the use of Cuban territory to intercept and interfere with U.S. satellite transmissions.[4]

     The Cuban government remains a staunch supporter of Iran’s aspirations to develop nuclear power for ‘peaceful purposes’ and has defended Iranian policies within both the United Nations General Assembly, where the Castro regime is especially influential among developing nations, and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which Cuba currently heads.[5] According to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, “Iran and Cuba have always supported each other on the international scene,” [6] a relationship which in recent years has expanded into a three-way partnership with the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.


North Korea

     The flourishing of bilateral relations between North Korea and Cuba has been spearheaded by the armed forces of the two communist regimes. In 2001 [7] and again in 2005 [8], senior delegations from the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) traveled to Pyongyang for high-level talks with counterparts in the Korean People’s Army (KPA). In 2004, Kim Jong-Il sent Vice Marshal Kim Yong-Chun, then Chief of the General Staff of the KPA, for an extensive stay in Cuba which included observation of combat units and tours to FAR-affiliated business operations and defense industry facilities. [9] Orchestrating this increased communication and collaboration between the FAR and the KPA in recent years was Gen. Raúl Castro, the Cuban regime’s lifelong minister of defense, who succeeded his elder brother as president of Cuba and commander-in-chief of the Cuban armed forces in 2008. Notably, on the North Korean side Vice Marshal Kim Yong-Chun was promoted to Defense Minister by Kim Jong-Il in February 2009. [10]

     Cuba today enjoys the closest ties to North Korea’s military establishment of any country in the Western Hemisphere. Such intimacy between the militaries of two totalitarian states on distant continents, yet united by a common hostility to Washington, suggests possibilities for the exchange of intelligence, technology transfer, economic cooperation, and bilateral trade in armaments. In particular, the clandestine supply of materiel and spare parts has been of concern ever since 2003 when Dr. David Kay, then lead CIA investigator for weapons in Iraq, publicly referred to “North Korean missiles going to Cuba” on the basis of evidence discovered by his team in the archives of Saddam Hussein’s government. [11] It is well known that North Korea has been a leading exporter of generic Scud-type missiles for many years. Raúl Castro’s armed forces, in search of affordable alternatives to repair or replace Soviet-era weapon systems, could have turned to Pyongyang as a confidential supplier of Soviet-compatible equipment and components. To date, and although it was not independently corroborated, Kay’s assertion about a North Korea-Cuba arms trade has yet to be conclusively refuted.


Latin America: The Havana-Caracas-Tehran Axis

     Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran have developed a close anti-American alliance. While both Havana and, more recently, Caracas have each cultivated intensive relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the three regimes increasingly coordinate their policies and resources in a three-way partnership aimed at counteracting and circumventing U.S. foreign policy in both the Middle East and Latin America. Within this relationship Cuba plays a strategic role in terms of geography (proximity to the U.S.), intelligence gathering (both electronic eavesdropping and human espionage), and logistics. Havana also serves as a convenient and secure base for the expansion of Iranian economic and political linkages with Central and South America, and potentially for covert operations against the United States.

     One of the latest joint ventures by the three regimes was the formation in 2007 of a state-owned shipping line connecting Iran to Venezuela via Havana. Summarizing the commercial rationale for the freight service, Iranian finance minister Massoud Mir-Kazemi stressed that “both [Cuba and Iran already] have important business ties,” with Tehran especially interested in the island’s “well-developed biology [i.e., biotechnology] projects.” While also “boosting Tehran-Caracas relations,” Iran sees the new venture as a means to facilitate the “expansion of trade between Iran and other Latin American nations.”[12]

     Behind the scenes, Cuba enables Tehran to extend its reach within the Latin world by way of Havana’s unsurpassed ties to and influence among Latin American leftist organizations, revolutionary movements, and governments in the region. Thanks in part to the Castro regime’s endorsement of Iranian resistance to perceived U.S. global hegemony Tehran has been legitimized as a respectable ally for leftist administrations in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. [13] Havana’s role as a regional powerbroker and advocate for Iran in Latin America is best evidenced by the generous financial support received from Ahmadinejad’s government. In total, Tehran has provided more than US$1.1 billion in government-backed investment and commercial credit for Cuba since 2005 in reciprocity for the Castro brothers’ solidarity and services on behalf of the Islamic Republic.[14]

     The equally flourishing bilateral relationship between Caracas and Tehran -- itself worth over US$20 billion in joint projects -- owes much to the pioneering efforts of Cuban collaboration with Iran over many years and is, in a sense, one of the great successes of Fidel Castro’s foreign policy in the last decade.



     Havana’s diplomacy in the Third World, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is typically perceived, and so portrayed by Havana [15], as a selfless display of the Cuban revolution’s social achievements in health and education (a surplus of well-trained physicians to send abroad) at the service of impoverished communities worldwide. Without diminishing the laudable individual contributions of Cuban doctors and other professionals, who indeed often labor in conditions of extreme hardship not tolerated by local staff, Havana’s internationalist medical missions are first and foremost political (and often economic) tools of Cuban foreign policy.

     In the case of Zimbabwe, Cuban personnel have been doing yeoman’s work to keep the repressive regime of Robert Mugabe from collapsing. In late 2008, for example, some 130 Cuban physicians and other healthcare specialists were dispatched to Zimbabwe to combat an epidemic of cholera [16] amid the deteriorating sanitation and economic conditions fostered by Mugabe’s dictatorial rule. Among the most ruthless policies undertaken by Mugabe’s government has been the premeditated extermination of white farmers in the former British colony. Mugabe uses whites as scapegoats for his economic mismanagement and has adopted a de facto policy of ethnic cleansing to confiscate white-owned agricultural properties, which are considered Zimbabwe’s most productive lands in an otherwise ruined economy.

     Mugabe has benefitted from Cuban backing at a time of increasing political isolation. In spite of terroristic acts (including rape, executions, and other atrocities) by government forces against the dwindling white minority in Zimbabwe the Cuban government steadfastly defends Mugabe. Cuba’s ambassador in Harare has asserted that Zimbabwe is merely “being punished by the West for seizing white-owned farms,” with no mention of the campaign to terrorize whites into fleeing and killing those determined to stay, while drawing parallels about “the way America deals with Cuba and Zimbabwe.” [17] On the international stage Mugabe’s alliance with the Castro regime offers an alternative to isolation and recasts Zimbabwe’s dire economic situation as a consequence of Western imperialism and capitalist sanctions to bring a defiant African nationalist to his knees. When Zimbabwean vice president Joyce Teurai Ropa Mujuru visited Havana in 2007 the then Cuban foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, praised Mugabe’s regime as “an admirable example of resistance” and condoned its “right to adopt whatever measures it considers appropriate to protect its people…including access to [white-owned] farmlands.” [18]

     Western sanctions have failed to isolate and dethrone Mugabe from his nearly 30-year rule due in no small part to critical support from a select group of anti-American regimes, including China, Iran, and Cuba, all of which have been key allies in propping up Mugabe’s government and legitimizing his policies both domestically and internationally.


Safe Haven for Fugitives and Terrorist Organizations

      Since the 1960s Cuba has been a safe haven for American fugitives, especially those who committed violent acts inspired by ideological hatred of capitalist society and opposition to the U.S. government. [19] Such expatriates have resided for decades in Cuba, where they live freely and are protected by the Cuban government from prosecution and deportation. Among the most notorious American fugitives in Cuba is Charlie Hill, involved in the murder of a 28-year-old New Mexico state trooper and hijacking a TWA airplane to Cuba in 1971. By his own admission, Hill “would have been just another dude in jail” had he been arrested and convicted by the U.S. justice system. Instead, in Cuba he enjoys full immunity and feels secure enough to have his photograph taken during an interview with the New York Times in 2007.

     Hill is hardly alone as he shares the streets of Havana with tens of American felons accused or convicted of killing police officers, attempting to commit mass destruction, carrying out hijackings, and other violent crimes prosecutable as terrorist acts.

     For its part in aiding and abetting American fugitives, as well as providing safe haven to members of various global terrorist organizations, the U.S. State Department has continued to list Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” [20] In its most recent review of Cuban policies the State Department notes that “the Cuban government continued to permit more than 70 U.S. fugitives to live legally in Cuba” and has repeatedly rejected Washington’s requests for their deportation to the United States. [21] Perhaps the single most sought American fugitive in Cuba is Joanne Chesimard, formerly of the Black Liberation Army terrorist organization. The FBI continues to offer a one-million dollar reward for information leading to her arrest. [22] Chesimard killed a New Jersey state trooper “execution-style at point-blank range” in 1973. Convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, Chesimard escaped in 1979 and went underground until resurfacing in Havana in the early 1980s. As do other U.S. fugitives in Cuba, Chesimard lives with impunity for her crimes.

     American domestic terrorists like Hill and Chesimard form part of a much larger multinational community of violent extremists and radicals who have found refuge and a second life in Castro’s Cuba. The E.L.N. and FARC guerrillas of Colombia; the Puerto Rican "Macheteros;" the Spanish-Basque ETA; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); and various Syrian and Iranian-sponsored groups are among the diverse terrorist organizations whose members have been granted safe haven by the Castro regime over the last 50 years.


1. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iran Wins Backing from Nonaligned Bloc,” Prague, September 17, 2006, http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1071404.html.

2. Fars News Agency, “Iran, Cuba Sign Trade MoU,” Tehran, June 20, 2008, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8703310656.

3. José de la Fuente, “Wine into vinegar--The fall of Cuba’s biotechnology,” Nature Biotechnology, 19 (905-907), 2001, http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v19/n10/full/nbt1001-905.html.

4. BBC News, “US broadcasts ‘jammed by Cuba’,” July 18, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3077303.stm. See also J. Michael Waller, “Iran, Cuba zap U.S. satellites,” WorldNetDaily.com, August 7, 2003, http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=33957.

5. Cf. “NAM backs Iran’s right to nuclear technology,” Tehran Times, August 2, 2008, http://www.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=174294.

6. See “Ahmadinejad Welcomes Expansion of Cuba Ties,” Iran Daily, p. 3, June 17, 2008, http://www.iran-daily.com/1387/3151/pdf/i3.pdf (accessed April 2009).

7. Cf. KCNA, “Kim Yong Nam meets Cuban military delegation,” Pyongyang, July 7, 2001, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2001/200107/news07/07.htm.

8. KCNA, “Talks between Delegations of DPRK and Cuban Armies Held,” Pyongyang, May 4, 2005, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2005/200505/news05/05.htm.

9. Idania Rodriguez Echevarria, “Conversaciones oficiales de jefes militares de Corea y Cuba,” Granma Internacional, November 25, 2004, http://www.granma.cu/espanol/2004/noviembre/juev25/conversaciones.html (accessed April 2009).

10. Jack Kim, “North Korea’s Kim Jong-il names new defence minister,” Reuters, Seoul, February 11, 2009.

11. David Kay, interview with George Stephanopoulos, This Week (ABC News), Sunday, October 5, 2003, http://www.autentico.org/oa09655.php (accessed April 2009).

12. Press TV, “Iran, Cuba to launch shipping venture,” November 5, 2007, http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=29859 (accessed April 2009).

13. Cf. Real Instituto Elcano, “Outside Players in Latin America (II): Iran,” Madrid, April 12, 2007, http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/analisis/ARI2007/ARI124-2007_Malamud-GarciaEncina_LatinAmerica_II__Iran_Venezuela.pdf (accessed April 2009). See also Traci Carl, “Iran Leader Courts Latin American Allies,” Associated Press, Managua, January 15, 2007, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/01/15/ap/world/mainD8MLJHIO3.shtml.

14. Cf. Cuba Transition Project, “Islamic Investment in Cuba,” Cuba Focus, August 11, 2008, http://ctp.iccas.miami.edu/FOCUS_Web/Issue99.htm.

15. Cf. Hedelberto López Blanch, “Cuba y Africa están eternamente unidas,” Granma, June 20, 2008, http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/2008/06/20/interna/artic01.html (accessed April 2009).

16. Agencia Cubana de Noticias (ACN), “Cuban Doctors Commit to Help Zimbabwe Face Cholera Epidemic,” Havana, December 9, 2008, http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/2008/06/20/interna/artic01.html (accessed April 2009).

17. DPA, “Havana will support Zimbabwe: Cuban ambassador,” Harare, January 19, 2008, http://www.monstersandcritics.com/news/africa/news/
article_1387565.php/Havana_will_support_Zimbabwe_Cuban_ambassador (accessed April 2009).

18. “Reitera Cuba solidaridad con el pueblo y gobierno de Zimbabwe,” Granma, September 12, 2007.

19. Cf. Marc Lacey, “U.S. Fugitives Worry About a Cuba Without Castro,” The New York Times, May 12, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/12/world/americas/12cuba.html (accessed April 2009).

20. U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” http://www.state.gov/s/ct/c14151.htm (accessed April 2009).

21. U.S Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Counter Reports on Terrorism 2007 (April 30, 2008), Ch. 3, “Cuba,”http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2007/103711.htm (accessed April 2009).

22. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Wanted by the FBI: Joanne Deborah Chesimard,” http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/fugitives/dt/chesimard_jd.htm (accessed April 2009).

23. Cf. Cuba Transition Project, “Castro and Terrorism: A Chronology,” Cuba Focus, Issue 57, July 29, 2004, http://ctp.iccas.miami.edu/FOCUS_Web/Issue57.htm.

* Hans de Salas del Valle is a Research Associate, Cuba Transition Project, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. 




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