After the Cold War, Cuba and China developed a strong and comprehensive alliance. Today, their collaboration is two-fold. Firstly, the economically-dependent Cuba helps China advance its myriad of interests in Latin America and the Caribbean. Secondly, the alliance meets China’s strategic needs in two broad areas: military-intelligence and biotechnology/neurosciences.
Cuba is a poor investment and trade partner, has failed to repay China billions of dollars in loans, and requires major support and humanitarian aid. However, the country has enabled China’s enormously successful economic, political, and geostrategic offensive into the region.
China has become South America’s first trading partner and the region’s second-largest after the United States. With trade growing from USD 12 billion in 2000 to USD 445 billion in 2021, China has secured new markets and privileged access to raw materials. The roughly USD 150 billion in loans from China have given it control over critical infrastructure projects, including 56 ports and telecommunications in 29 countries. Military personnel from the region now receive training on cybersecurity and military doctrine in China. This has all accelerated risks for malign commercial activities, political and economic coercion, and asymmetric attacks on infrastructure. Furthermore, it has boosted China’s civilian-military fusion strategy, which seeks to make its military the most advanced in the world and able to defeat the U.S.
Last June, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cuba and China were jointly operating four electronic eavesdropping facilities in Cuba and negotiating to establish a military training facility there. Since the 1990s, China has reportedly sold military equipment and provided training to Cuba while jointly engaging in military and intelligence projects. The Chinese presence in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) stations in Cuba goes back to the 1990s—one defector reports it as far back as the 1980s. The terms of China’s involvement are unclear but it has been reported that China provides Cuba with equipment, supplies, and technical training in exchange for a presence on the island and the sharing of collected intelligence. The radioelectronic activities have been camouflaged in Radio China transmissions from Cuba and by China’s building of Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure.
Numerous defectors have long reported that Cuba’s Communist regime has always collected extensive intelligence on the U.S. and other countries, which it shares with allies for profit and to strengthen relations. According to a Cuban regime official interviewed confidentially, the country’s Radio-Electronic Brigade, a Division of the Military Intelligence (DIM), currently runs its SIGINT operations from an underground facility south of Havana. The brigade’s longstanding priority has been to intercept all U.S. military communications within reach into the mainland, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America. It has also systematically monitored the Cuban population and foreign targets in Cuba, and has used encrypted communications with its embassies, intelligence centers, and vast network of spies around the world.
With China’s help, Cuba has also used information technology to monitor Venezuela strategically and spread digital authoritarianism regionally. In particular, Cuba’s armies of trolls have helped to advance its interests in the cyber space. Its information warfare has even confused air traffic controllers in New York and jammed pro-democracy broadcasts to Iran. According to the U.S. government, China’s electronic espionage from Cuba was enhanced in 2019. Coincidentally, in the midst of an economic crisis, Cuba continued to order Chinese broadcasting equipment at remarkably high volumes. Between 2016 and 2021, this figure increased considerably to USD 276.6 million, surpassing food and medical imports from China as overall imports declined.
Another fundamental pillar of the Cuba-China relationship is the strategic alliance in biotechnology, in line with a Chinese government mandate for China’s biotech sector to expand and surpass that of the U.S. and the West. It has relied on Cuba’s know-how and technology transfers in at least 30 collaborative biotech projects. This is concerning because Cuba has had biowarfare capabilities since the 1980s. Into the early 2000s, several defectors also reported on a suspected biowarfare program.
Cuba and China also conduct joint research in neurotechnology and bioengineering and are developing five neuro-technological products. Cuba’s mind-control and neuroscience programs stem from the 1960s and have been used to torture political opponents and U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. Since the 1980s, it has developed novel neurological drugs and treatments by way of experimental practices of questionable safety, marred in ethical deficits and claims of atrocities.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has been warning that China seeks to acquire technology to take over the biotechnology and neurosciences sectors. In December 2021, the U.S. imposed a ban on exports and transfers to China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, along with eleven entities believed to be involved in creating brain-control weaponry to dominate Chinese citizens and repress minorities. Several reports by the People’s Liberation Army have detailed the brain warfare research underway in mind control technologies meant to subdue the enemy, as well as “neuro-defense” equipment and brain-implanted microchips meant to fend off similar attacks.
It is difficult to acquire evidence proving these illicit activities. Secrecy is intrinsic to military and intelligence operations, and biotech and neuroscience institutions are tightly guarded operations within the two authoritarian states of China and Cuba. Thus, a comprehensive examination of all potential threats is in order. The international community should demand expert inspection of Cuba’s biotechnology facilities, including their activities and exports, to verify compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, as well as an independent review of neuroscience collaborations with dual-use capabilities.
The United States has laws and mandates in place that would, if fully enforced, better contain Cuba, hinder resources for the dictatorship, and aid the Cuban people in attaining their freedom. A thorough review should be undertaken to assure their full enforcement, starting with the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, and the Trafficking in Persons Victims Act. If the Cuban economy and the regime’s hold on power continue to weaken, China would have to reevaluate its investments in the Caribbean Island. The region would then greatly benefit from a free and democratic Cuba.
Maria C. Werlau is co-founder and Director of the Free Society Project/Cuba Archive, a non-profit think tank defending human rights through information. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and a Master’s degree in International Studies from Universidad de Chile. This article is based on a scholarly paper that will be published in an academic journal by year-end 2023.