Russian Spy Station Casualty of War against Terrorism

Cuba Blasts Russian Decision to Close Lourdes Base

From the Ground: The Lourdes Electronic Surveillance Station, Russia's largest overseas covert military station (Photo: AFP).

On Oct. 18, the Cuban government released an official declaration firmly rebuking Russian President Vladimir Putin's abrupt announcement that Russia is cancelling its lease on the Lourdes Electronic Surveillance Station, labeling the decision "a special gift" to U.S. President George Bush. While both U.S. and Russian officials spoke last week of "retiring a Cold War relic" and a sensible reallocation of Russian military funds, the Cuban declaration painted a different picture—one that further illustrates how quickly the world is realigning itself as a result of the new international war on terrorism.

The view from a U.S. spy plane (Photo courtesy of the Fedaration of American Scientists)

The Cuban government's statement occupied the entire front page of the Oct. 18 edition of Havana's government-owned Granma. In a measured but forceful tone, the statement described the history of the Lourdes Base and the political developments that Cuba perceives as having led up to Russia’s unexpected decision. According to the statement published in Granma, during Putin’s visit to Cuba last December, he spoke not of a Russian withdrawal from Lourdes, but of developing and modernizing the facility, saying that "Russia and Cuba are interested in continuing to promote its function."

The Lourdes Station was built just outside Havana by the Soviets in 1964. According to U.S. and British newspaper reports, the station—one of the largest of its kind in the world—employs 1,500 Russian military personnel, and is capable of tapping into White House communications, NASA transmissions, and regional U.S. military signals. The Cuban statement explains that while the Soviet Union was allowed to operate the base "without paying a cent" until the 1990's, Cuba decided to charge the new Russian Federation rent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, since "not even the most minimal political or ideological connection existed between them."

In recent years, Cuba had been receiving some U.S. $200 million a year in rent for the facility from Moscow. Russian officials have reportedly been grumbling about the rent for some time, citing Cuba’s massive foreign debt to Moscow.

Understandably, Cuba is not willing to lose the station without a fight. In their Oct. 18 statement, the government insisted that "the agreement has not been cancelled, since Cuba has yet to give its approval."

According to Havana, Russia’s decision came at "the most inopportune moment, at the exact moment when the United States is more bellicose and politically aggressive than ever, leading many countries to feel threatened." This is both a reference to Cuba’s presence on the U.S. blacklist of seven nations that harbor terrorists, and to President Bush’s earlier warning to foreign governments that they "are either with us or [they] are with the terrorists." Though Cuba signed a broad U.N. resolution to fight terrorism on Sept. 28, and has repeatedly offered its sympathy to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Havana remains adamantly opposed to the current U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, arguing that the conflict should be resolved through the United Nations instead.

The Lourdes Base has been a sticking point in Moscow's relations with Washington for years. Its presence has been cited as an obstruction to Congressional approval of new Russian aid packages.

According to the Cuban statement, the Russians rushed to "declare publicly and immediately" that the Lourdes agreement had been nullified prior to Putin’s meeting with President Bush in Shanghai. The ensuing scenes of jocular exchanges and new-found fraternizing between Putin and Bush have certainly only added to Cuba’s frustration and sense of betrayal.

The closure of the base not only robs the Cuban government of an important source of revenue and intelligence, it also drags a familiar skeleton from the Cold War closet. In 1962, former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev brokered a secret deal with the Kennedy administration to remove Soviet missiles from the island, effectively resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuban President Fidel Castro was not privy to those negotiations either. At least that time Cuba was compensated with additional Soviet aid and new military facilities such as the Lourdes base. This time, the Russians have not yet publicly offered anything to compensate Cuba for the loss of the Lourdes base, and Cuba fears that it may now be left with little more than another Cold-War skeleton.