Alive and Kicking: Mistakenly Viewed by Many Today as a Virtually Harmless Entity, Cuba Instead Remains a Serious Intelligence Threat with the Disturbing Ability to Penetrate United States' Institutions

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A big mess in the American hemisphere awaits President George W. Bush, a mess that offers historic opportunities -- opportunities as colossal as the challenge, say Latin America experts.

Argentina's economy has collapsed, potentially spreading anti-U.S, populism like a cloud of billowing debris. Colombia, twice the size of France and straddling the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, risks becoming a narcostate like Afghanistan as drug-trafficking guerrillas fight to seize power. Mexico, beset with its own internal guerrilla problems, is on the verge of an historic anticorruption effort that actually could make a dent in the institutionalized kleptocracy. Venezuela, the largest supplier of U.S. oil, now shows resistance to the Qaddafi-style dictatorship of left-wing strongman Hugo Chavez.

Against this backdrop in nearby Cuba, the 43-year-old Communist regime of Fidel Castro looks more and more ripe for its much-delayed, post-Soviet transition. Unless, that is, the United States tries to rescue it in the name of stability.

In January, Bush appointed to the State Department someone whom supporters say is the right man at the right time to run U.S. policy in the Americas: Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Juan Reich. A former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela who served in the Reagan State Department to promote free markets and roll back the Soviet advance in Central America, Reich's die-hard opponents were few but influential. With Castro personally denouncing Reich from Havana and a vocal pro-Castro network running a Website called StopOttoReich.com, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) tried to block Bush's pick by denying him a Senate hearing (see "Smearing Reich?" Aug. 6, 2001).

A senior State Department official tells INSIGHT that Reich is swamped with diplomatic protocol and bureaucratic cleanup duties, but that he is energized for the huge task awaiting him. And none too soon, supporters say. Until now, Clinton holdovers in the State Department and on the National Security Council had been running Bush's hemispheric policy.

U.S. policy in the region may have been tainted from within, thanks to the very aggressive and sophisticated tradecraft of Cuba's lean and mean intelligence agency, the Direcci6n General de Inteligencia (DGI). At least 15 Cuban intelligence agents were arrested, indicted or convicted in 2001, revealing a skillfully laid network of operations to sabotage U.S. military facilities and to penetrate the U.S. government.

Ten days after the September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI arrested a suspected DGI agent deep in the U.S. military-intelligence system. Ana Belen Montes was in charge of Cuban affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) when the bureau raided her office at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington on Sept. 21 and arrested her as a Cuban spy. During her arraignment, she refused to enter a plea.

Officials still are trying to measure the gravity of the betrayal, but every indication shows it to be serious. Counterintelligence officials say Montes had access to a range of U.S. military and intelligence secrets of interest to Havana and to terrorist groups and regimes allied with Castro. She allegedly betrayed the identity of a U.S. intelligence officer in Cuba, provided classified details about U.S. Navy war games and compromised a Special Action Program so sensitive that she was one of only two people who knew about it. Equally if not more importantly, Montes wrote or influenced intelligence reports that might have corrupted U.S. perceptions of Cuban subversive capabilities, operations and intentions.

Cuba's successful penetration of the DIA shows that the Havana regime, brushed off by many after the Soviet collapse as a quaint anachronism, remains a serious intelligence threat. Built by the Soviet KGB but refined and disciplined by the East German Stasi, the DGI has surprised friend and foe alike with its disruption and destruction of U. …