How Baseball Betrayed Cuba’s Covert Ops
How Baseball Betrayed Cuba’s Covert Ops
American intel looked for telltale diamonds
by ADAM RAWNSLEY
April 5 is opening day for Major League Baseball. This season, there’s
speculation that the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations could lead to
even more players from Cuba, home to some of the world’s best
ballplayers and most enthusiastic fans, joining the big leagues here in
the United States.
Maybe so, but it wasn’t too long ago that America and Cuba’s favorite
pastime was also a battleground in Cold War espionage. On a few
occasions, Cuba’s unique fondness for baseball betrayed its covert
activities?—?at home and abroad?—?to American reconnaissance, thanks to
the visible presence or absence of distinctive baseball diamonds.
The stories certainly have the whiff of the apocryphal about them?—?and
they’ve since become minor pieces of intel lore. But there are kernels
of truth in the tales.
Twice during the Cold War, Cuban troops’ penchant for building
recreational baseball fields helped American reconnaissance learn some
of Fidel Castro’s secrets.
The first story?—?dubbed “The Case of the Missing Diamond” in an article
by legendary CIA photo analyst Dino Brugioni?—?begins in 1970. That
year, Cuba began to build up the naval infrastructure on Cayo Alcatraz,
an island in the port of Cienfuegos. The construction got underway just
as a Soviet flotilla consisting of a nuclear submarine and
guided-missile ships headed for the island.
The nearly world-ending showdown in 1962 over Soviet nuclear missiles in
Cuba had compelled U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier
Nikita Khrushchev to reach an understanding?—?that the United States
would refrain from invading Cuba in exchange for the Soviets removing
the weapons from the island.
In September 1970, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger burst into
the office of H.R. Haldeman, Pres. Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, with
what he believed were answers. In an episode that both Haldeman and
Kissinger recounted in their memoirs, the presence of soccer fields at
the new facility led U.S. analysts to conclude it was meant for the Soviets.
Haldeman writes that Kissinger slapped U-2 spy plane photos of Cayo
Alcatraz on his desk and drew his attention to the soccer fields. “Those
soccer fields could mean war, Bob,” Kissinger said. “Cubans play
baseball. Russians play soccer.”
Then-CIA Director Richard Helms concurred. In a Congressional briefing
recounted by Brugioni, Helms told congressmen that “clinching the case
that all this was for Soviet?—?not Cuban?—?use, there are sports
facilities for soccer, tennis and volleyball only, and we have yet to
see a major Cuban military installation that does not provide for
“The ubiquitous baseball diamonds are an important part of the Cuban
landscape, and photo interpreters often gauge the amount of activity by
the number of diamonds present in an area,” Brugioni wrote. The practice
dated back at least early as the Cuban missile crisis, according to
Brugioni. During the crisis, analysts counted on soccer and baseball
fields to distinguish Soviet from Cuban military encampments.
After a diplomatic huddling between the two superpowers and some stern
words from the Nixon administration, the Cienfuegos crisis fizzled. Cuba
left the naval base unfinished.
Cuba’s fondness for baseball captured the attention of America’s aerial
spies on another occasion in 1975. When Angola achieved independence
from Portugal during that year, Cuba sent military advisers to assist
the leftist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola in its war
against factions backed by the United States and the racist apartheid
government in neighboring South Africa.
The Cuban advisers stayed well into the 1980s. Their bases were
apparently identifiable to American satellites?—?because of the baseball
diamonds the Cubans built. David C. Miller, Jr., American ambassador to
Tanzania during the administration of Pres. Ronald Reagan, recalled that
he used to pass images of the fields to Tanzanian president Julius
Nyerere in order to convince him of Cuba’s role in Angola.
“You would show Julius [Nyerere] examples of satellite photography of
Angola,” Miller told an interviewer in an oral history for the
Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. “And then point out
that the overhead photography keeps turning up baseball diamonds all
over Angola. We know that they’re Cubans playing baseball.”
At Cienfuegos, the U.S. had been tracking the Soviet flotilla well
before it ever reached the port. According to Kissinger, the CIA had
also published a study as early as June of 1970?—?months before the U-2
caught a glimpse of the island’s soccer fields—claiming the Soviets
might be looking to build a naval base at Cienfuegos.
In Angola, America was aware of Cuba’s movement into the African country
long before Havana’s troops could carve out home plate. The CIA had
noted the absence of senior Cuban military officials and was tracking
ships en route to Angola from Castro’s island nation.
What’s more, Cuba’s lack of long-range transport planes meant that the
troops headed by air to Angola in November 1975 had to refuel in
Barbados and the Azores?—?where the U.S. State Department was already
protesting accommodation of the flights.
Far from being bumbling fools who were clueless about American espionage
tradecraft, Cuba’s intelligence service was?—?and is?—?world-class. The
tiny island’s spies managed to penetrate America’s own intelligence
apparatus and run a string of double agents for years.
And for whatever secrets Cuba’s baseball diamonds did spill, the Reagan
administration’s attempt to use and abuse them also highlights the
perils of analyzing intelligence through the lens of simplistic truism.
In the 1980s, Reagan’s National Security Council was hard at work
orchestrating the illegal sale of arms to Iran and diverting the
proceeds to fund “Contra” rebels fighting the leftist Sandanista
government in Nicaragua.
After the scandal broke, NBC’s Tom Brokaw recalled a briefing he’d
received in advance of a trip to Nicaragua by one of the maestros of
Iran-Contra, U.S. Marine Corps colonel Oliver North. Writing in The New
York Times, Brokaw said North excitedly pointed out baseball diamonds in
grainy satellite footage of what he alleged was a Cuban training camp in
“Nicaraguans don’t play baseball,” North told Brokow in an apparent
attempt to cast himself as Kissinger at Cienfuegos. “Cubans play baseball!”
Of course, both the Cubans and Soviets supported the Sandanista
government in Nicaragua. But as Brokaw quickly realized, North’s
contention was astonishingly ignorant of the country’s long history of
baseball fandom. “His declaration will come as a surprise to the
Nicaraguans who have made it to the major leagues,” Brokaw wrote.
Source: How Baseball Betrayed Cuba’s Covert Ops — War Is Boring — Medium