The town of Bejucal is in the northwest of Cuba, 17 miles from Havana, and has not seen a person from China in decades. The villagers have been stunned by a news story identifying their town as the enclave where Beijing has established top secret bases to spy on Washington from Cuba — a global news story.
The anonymous source from The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper that scooped the story, has gone even further, reporting that, “China and Cuba are negotiating to establish a new joint military training facility on the island, sparking alarm in the U.S. that it could lead to the stationing of Chinese troops and other security operations just 100 miles off Florida’s coast.” All this, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken was meeting with President Xi Jinping.
The “proof” consists of international news agency Reuters’ photographs of Bejucal showing a satellite dish in the middle of nowhere. It’s as rusty and incongruous as the crooked sign at the entrance of a supposed military facility, which — according to locals — has always been there. No one in charge is visible in the panoramic images; perhaps someone will try to convince us that Chinese spies are invisible.
There are few things as tiresome as Cold War tales cooked up in some obscure U.S. office, with James Bond standing off against mysterious international figures who are using the Caribbean island as a base of operations.
In May 2002, then U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton accused Fidel Castro’s government of producing biological weapons to be clandestinely supplied to Iraq, Libya and Syria. He went so far as to identify the “factory” of bacteriologic bombs: the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, a scientific facility that produces vaccines. The story would fall of its own weight when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter invited others to do what he himself had done — take Castro’s offer to come and check it out.
In 2017, with Bolton as national security advisor in Donald Trump’s White House, spies in the Caribbean reappeared, with magic guns pointed at the ears of U.S. diplomats in Havana. A few Chinese and some Russians appeared behind the scenes in the stories of those days. As fanciful and absurd as it was, the “sonic attacks” story led to 243 additional sanctions against Cuba, in addition to reinstating the Caribbean country on the list of sponsors of terrorism.
With Trump back at Mar-a-Lago and Bolton beyond the horizon, a declassified U.S. State Department report suggested that the decision to dismantle the Havana embassy was a response to the alleged sonic attacks, and reflected mismanagement, lack of coordination and procedural noncompliance. It took Joe Biden half his term to reopen some consular services in Havana; most of his predecessor’s sanctions are still in place.
U.S. greed has been full of scams like these since Washington intervened in the Spanish-Cuban War at the end of the 19th century, and even earlier, according to “The 98 of the Americans” (Madrid, 1974), a book by José Manuel Allendesalazar and a classic on the subject. “Since the United States was born into history, fate has meant that, in one way or another, the island ends up being a nightmare for the Americans. Cuba is a familiar, attractive and irritating word in the vocabulary of the American politician, not only today, but for centuries,” the author said.
The battleship Maine sank in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 189 as a result of an explosion in her boilers that killed 266 American sailors, most of them Black. It was an accident inside the ship (perhaps sabotage), according to several investigations and direct witnesses, but the White House and the chorus of its correspondents and spies in Cuba rushed to blame the Spaniards and to replicate bombastic conspiracy theories and sensationalist soap operas. Since then, the naval incident has become an excuse for war and a classic of American politics and yellow journalism: so close to each other, so recidivist and so given to scandal.
In John Ford’s great film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a journalist receives practical advice: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In the case at hand, of Chinese spy bases and troops supposedly guarding them only 90 miles from Florida, Bejucal is the fact. But who cares?