China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on April 6, 2023. Chinese intelligence agencies will be able to monitor ship traffic and electronic communications from a new base in Cuba, 90 miles from Florida.

China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on April 6, 2023. Chinese intelligence agencies will be able to monitor ship traffic and electronic communications from a new base in Cuba, 90 miles from Florida. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — In a move underscoring its geopolitical ambitions in the Western Hemisphere, China is going to establish an espionage base in Cuba just 90 miles from Florida, for which the Chinese government will reportedly pay billions of dollars to the cash-strapped Caribbean nation.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the secret deal citing officials familiar with the classified intelligence, the eavesdropping facility would allow Chinese intelligence agencies to monitor ship traffic and electronic communications throughout the U.S. southeastern region where the Doral-based U.S. Southern Command and other military facilities are located.

China is believed to already have a military presence in Cuba in a listening station in Bejucal, a town south of Havana, where there were reports of a new radar surveillance installation in 2018. It is unclear if the new deal entails expanding this facility or constructing a new one.

The news follows intense speculation that Russia, not China, was planning to reopen its Soviet-era espionage base in Lourdes, a town near Havana, which it shut down in 2002. High-ranking Russian national security officials and diplomats have been traveling to the island recently, and the two governments appear as close as ever, with Cuban leaders offering public support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, when publicly asked about reopening the Lourdes base during his trip to Havana in April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not directly address the question. And despite several economic agreements recently announced by Russian and Cuban authorities, including land-lease deals, the news about a Chinese spy base speaks to the realities on the ground: The island is desperate for cash as its economy continues sinking. Russia had limited resources even before embarking on a war against Ukraine — and China can pay.

On May 20, Cuba’s interior minister, Gen. Lázaro Alberto Álvarez Casas, met with Chinese Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong.

“China stands ready to work with Cuba to implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and deepen pragmatic cooperation in various fields, especially in law enforcement and security,” a Chinese government statement said.

The news about the spy base comes as the Biden administration has been taking steps to improve its strained relationship with China, which is considered the United States’ primary military and economic rival.

At the same time, State Department officials and members of Congress have been raising concerns about China’s increased influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. China has become South America’s largest trading partner, exploited the Biden administration’s reluctance to new trade deals and inked a free trade agreement with Ecuador, while Uruguay and Panama are in line, U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Miami, said during a congressional hearing she chaired Wednesday.

“That is very troublesome,” Salazar said, blaming the Biden administration for ignoring the pleas of allies in the region with conservative governments “to the benefit of our enemies.”

When asked by representative Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, why the U.S. has seemed to become “more passive” and allowed China to increase its influence in the Western Hemisphere, the State Department’s top diplomat for the region acknowledged the administration needs to act with a sense of urgency.

“This is the most challenging moment I have seen in 30 years in our hemisphere, and we have to do everything that we can to help our neighbors and our partners around the region to succeed and resist these strategic competitors from outside,” Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs Brian Nichols said.

The China deal also complicates U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The administration has lifted some restrictions on flights and remittances, resumed the family reunification program for Cubans and reestablished migration and law enforcement talks with the Cuban government. However, it stopped short of easing other embargo restrictions and removing Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, which the Cuban government had made a condition to improving relations.

The cozying up to Russia and China indicates the Cuban government has chosen to seek further support from its longtime political and ideological allies rather than pursuing normalization of relations with the U.S. at a time Cuban authorities perceive their grip on power is at risk.

Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis in decades and serious political challenges from a population that has taken to the streets to protest and demand regime change.

Ebrahim Raeisi, the president of Iran, another major U.S. adversary, is set to travel to the island after visiting Venezuela and Nicaragua next week.

The strategy suggests something else: The Cuban military is calling the shots on the island, not the civilian team led by Cuba’s handpicked president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Florida Republicans in Congress quickly reacted to the report on the China espionage base deal to highlight what they said is an increasing national security threat coming from Cuba.

“The threat to America from Cuba isn’t just real, it is far worse than this,” Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted. “But to date, not only does the Biden White House not care, they have people who actually want to appease the regime.”

“The Cuban regime is auctioning off land to the Russians, hosting the Iranians, and letting the Chinese open a base to spy on the U.S.,” Salazar tweeted. “Just 90 miles from our coast, the dictatorship has opened the door to our greatest enemies!”

©2023 Miami Herald.

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