A secret Chinese spy base? Cuban officials say no to media report

US and Cuban officials dismissed a Wall Street Journal report about a surveillance base to be built in the Caribbean.

The US Embassy in Havana beside the Anti-Imperialist stage
The US Embassy in Havana next to the Cuban capital's Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform [File: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]

A report in the Wall Street Journal saying Beijing planned to set up a spy base in Cuba has been dismissed by multiple government sources in the Caribbean and the United States.

The denials began with an “exclusive” in the New York-based newspaper, describing “a secret agreement for China to establish an electronic eavesdropping facility on the island”.

Quoting unnamed US officials familiar with “highly classified intelligence”, the article said the proposed base would allow China to conduct “signals intelligence”, a kind of espionage that would allow it to intercept emails, phone calls and other data from the US.

The Journal said agreement had been reached in principle with Beijing agreeing to pay Cuba “several billion dollars” to set up the facility.

“We have seen the report. It’s not accurate,” John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, told the Reuters news agency without elaborating on which aspect of the report was incorrect.

Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, a spokesperson for the US defence department, said: “We are not aware of China and Cuba developing a new type of spy station.”

In Havana, Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio dismissed the Journal article as “totally mendacious and unfounded”, calling it a US fabrication meant to justify Washington’s decades-old economic embargo against the island.

He said the island rejected all foreign military presence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington said: “We are not aware of the case and as a result, we can’t give a comment right now.”

With Cuba roughly 150 kilometres (93 miles) from the Florida coast, the report sent ripples through the US political sphere, particularly on the right.

“This month alone, China has harassed and threatened a US fighter jet and naval ship. Now, it’s putting a spy base in Cuba,” Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley posted on Twitter.

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan echoed her outrage, blaming US President Joe Biden and tying the news to the aircraft earlier this year that US intelligence identified as a Chinese spy balloon traversing its airspace.

“First, it was a Chinese spy balloon. Now, it’s a Chinese spy base. Didn’t happen under President Trump. But happening now under President Biden,” he wrote.

The Journal reported the facility would allow Beijing to gather electronic communications from the southeastern US, which houses many US military bases, as well as monitor ship traffic.

The US Central Command headquarters is based in Tampa. Fort Liberty, formerly Fort Bragg, the largest US military base, is in North Carolina.

The reported deal comes as Washington and Beijing appear to be taking tentative steps towards easing tensions that have spiked over issues from Taiwan to the South China Sea, human rights and the suspected spy balloon.

February’s furore over the balloon promoted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned visit to Beijing and there had been suggestions it could now take place in the coming weeks.

“We have had real concerns about China’s relationship with Cuba, and we have been concerned since day one of the administration about China’s activities in our hemisphere and around the world,” the White House’s Kirby said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies