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Cuban spy network to ramp up its work in US, experts say

MIAMI (AFP) Cuba's vast international spy network, considered among the best in the world, will remain intact under the leadership of the new president Raul Castro, intelligence experts say.

Havana will probably even ramp up its information gathering in the months leading up to the November elections seeking to win a firm handle on the policies of the next US president, said Chris Simmons, a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) counterintelligence Cuba analyst.

"Havana has an insatiable appetite for information about US military operations as well as US intelligence operations," Simmons said.

That need has become even more pressing since Raul Castro took on the reins of power from his ailing brother, Fidel, in the first change of leadership in almost half a century on the communist-ruled island.

"Raul needs to be better informed than he has ever been in his life", said Simmons, looking ahead to the changes that a new president in the White House might bring.

Cuba already has a vast knowledge of US military operations and troop deployments after decades of spying on military bases both in the United States and overseas.

Abroad Cuba has already improved its intelligence operations in countries such as Turkey, Iran and Pakistan keeping a close eye on US military operations and diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia, Simmons said.

Under Fidel, Cuba sent a number of former high-ranking intelligence officers overseas to fill ambassador positions.

Cubas ambassador to Turkey, Ernesto Gomez Abascal was either an intelligence agent or an intelligence collaborator who was Cubas ambassador to Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Simmons charged.

In 2006, Havana re-opened its embassy in Pakistan after 16 years, and observers believe that Iran and Cuba are working together to jam US radio and TV programming into Iran.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Cuban spies are believed to be continuing their surveillance of military bases and the Cuban exile community, particularly in South Florida.

Intelligence experts agree that the US South Command, or Southcom, just outside Miami has long been the focus of Cuban spies, as any potential invasion of the island would be orchestrated there.

"Cuban intelligence is still very active in South Florida", said Frank Mora, a professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College. "The United States is still very much the enemy of the (Castro) regime."

Officials at Southcom would not comment on Cuban intelligence operations aimed at infiltrating the command.

However, the legacy of Cuban spies in South Florida and elsewhere is long and well-noted.

Juan Pablo Roque, a Cuban defector who was a paid informant for the FBI, also infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban dissident group formed in the early 1990s to help the Coast Guard rescue Cuban migrants fleeing the island.

In 1996, two of the groups planes were shot down by a Cuban fighter plane. Roque was implicated in the attack.

In 1998, the so-called "Cuban Five" were arrested in Miami and convicted on espionage, murder and other charges and are serving sentences in US prisons.

Among the charges against them were efforts to infiltrate Southcom and sending to Havana some 2,000 pages of documents from the base.

In political circles, the damage inflicted by Cuban spies on US intelligence was much more severe.

Most notable among those apprehended was Ana Montes. Arrested in September 2001, Montes was a former DIA Cuba analyst who had been feeding information to Cuba on US military operations both in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere for 16 years.

And outside of Washington, spies sent by Havana have managed over the years to infiltrate several South Florida Cuban dissident groups.

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