Ana Belen Montes: US double agent and defender of Cuba

For 17 years, a high-ranking US spy instead spied for Cuba, preventing US terrorism against its people — until she was caught and kept in near isolation for two decades. Finally free, MARC VANDEPITTE tells her story

ON JANUARY 6, Ana Belen Montes was released after 21 years in federal military prison. As a high-ranking member of the US intelligence service, she had forwarded secret information to the Cuban authorities to thwart attacks against Cuba. In a sense, she was waging a “war on terror” — but against her own country’s state terror.

In 1959, the Cubans succeeded in building a socialist revolution on the doorstep of their all-powerful neighbour. Successive US presidents have therefore done everything they can to bring the revolution to its knees.

It is well known that Cuba has been subjected to the longest economic blockade in history, with devastating consequences. Less known is that the country has also been exposed to a lot of other kinds of aggression from the US in the last 64 years.

There was the failed Bay of Pigs military invasion in 1961, an airliner was shot down in 1976, there were hundreds of assassinations, bombings and sabotage actions, and real bacteriological warfare was unleashed against the island in the 1960s.

This terrorism has left 2,099 people disabled for life and 3,478 dead — more than the September 11 attacks on the US.

Highly decorated intelligence career

To defend their country, pro-socialist Cubans infiltrated Miami’s terror networks. Once arrested, they would become known around the world as the Cuban Five — in 2020 a Netflix film The Wasp Network told their story.

But Cuba could also count on the support of some US citizens. One of them was Montes. Her parents were from Puerto Rico, so she had US citizenship

In the mid-1980s, she joined a major Pentagon intelligence agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency. Her field of activity was Cuba, and she had an exceptional career, rising quickly through the ranks.

Because of her rank, she had access to virtually everything the intelligence community gathered about Cuba.

She was a member of the super-secret Inter-agency “working group on Cuba,” which included key analysts from federal agencies such as the CIA, the State Department, and the White House.

Her work was very much appreciated, so much so that she received several recognitions, including the Certificate of Distinction, the third-highest intelligence award. Because of her abilities, Montes became known in intelligence circles as “the Queen of Cuba.”

Moved by her conscience to defend Cuba after becoming involved in left-wing Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s, she proceeded with extreme caution. She was very discreet, did not enter into a relationship and lived alone in a simple apartment.

To avoid being discovered, she never took anything home with her. She memorised everything and then wrote up the information on encrypted hard drives that she then delivered to the Cuban authorities.

For 17 years, she passed secret information to Cuba, which, like the Cuban Five, helped her foil numerous destabilisation operations. She also managed to convince presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that Cuba was not a military threat to the US.

As a result, she may have prevented a war against Cuba that would have resulted in countless Cuban casualties. She also revealed the identities of four undercover US intelligence agents who were working in Cuba.

Discovery and conviction

In September 2001, three years after the Cuban Five were exposed and arrested, Montes was also arrested. In the absence of evidence, she was charged, like the Cuban Five, with “conspiracy to commit espionage” for Cuba.

A week before her arrest, she had learned that she was under surveillance. She could have fled, but in her own words, her political commitment made her feel that she couldn’t give up on the people she was helping.

Regarded by the head of US counterintelligence as “one of the most damaging spies the US has ever known,” she was sentenced to 25 years for being “a danger to the nation.”

In the political climate shortly after the September 11 attacks, she risked the death penalty. That’s why she negotiated with the court and pleaded guilty. Like Julian Assange, she was transferred to a special prison ward for violent offenders with psychiatric problems, to break her mentally.

She could not receive visitors, except a few relatives. Her mother could not visit her. She lived in absolute seclusion, was not allowed to make telephone calls, received no newspapers or magazines and could not watch television. She developed cancer during her imprisonment.

Motivation: in her own words

Montes never received any money for her work as a double agent; she acted out of faith in justice and solidarity with the Cuban people. At her trial, she told the court: “An Italian proverb perhaps best describes the fundamental truth I believe in: ‘All the world is one country’.”

“In such a ‘world country,’ the principle of loving one’s neighbour as much as oneself seems, to me, to be the essential guide to harmonious relations between all of our ‘nation-neighbourhoods.’

“This principle urges tolerance and understanding for the different ways of others. It asks that we treat other nations the way we wish to be treated ourselves — with respect and compassion. It is a principle that, tragically, I believe we have never applied to Cuba.

“Your honour, I engaged in the activity that brought me before you because I obeyed my conscience rather than the law. I believe our government’s policy towards Cuba is cruel and unfair, profoundly un-neighbourly, and I felt morally obligated to help the island defend itself from our efforts to impose our values and our political system on it.

“We have displayed intolerance and contempt towards Cuba for most of the last four decades. We have never respected Cuba’s right to make its own journey towards its own ideals of equality and justice.

“I do not understand why we must continue to dictate how the Cubans should select their leaders, who their leaders cannot be, and what laws are appropriate in their land. Why can’t we let Cuba pursue its own internal journey, as the US has been doing for over two centuries?

“My way of responding to our Cuba policy may have been morally wrong. Perhaps Cuba’s right to exist free of political and economic coercion did not justify giving the island classified information to help it defend itself. I can only say that I did what I thought right to counter a grave injustice.

“My greatest desire is to see amicable relations emerge between the US and Cuba. I hope my case in some way will encourage our government to abandon its hostility towards Cuba and to work with Havana in a spirit of tolerance, mutual respect, and understanding.

“Today we see more clearly than ever that intolerance and hatred — by individuals or governments — spread only pain and suffering. I hope for a US policy that is based instead on neighbourly love, a policy that recognises that Cuba, like any nation, wants to be treated with dignity and not with contempt.

“Such a policy would bring our government back in harmony with the compassion and generosity of the American people. It would allow Cubans and Americans to learn from and share with each other. It would enable Cuba to drop its defensive measures and experiment more easily with changes.

“And it would permit the two neighbours to work together and with other nations to promote tolerance and co-operation in our one ‘world country,’ in our only ‘world-homeland.’”

Freedom in Puerto Rico

Since her release, she has returned to Puerto Rico. Her freedom was greeted with applause in many countries in Latin America. However, in a written statement, she announced that she does not want any media attention.

“I, as a person, am irrelevant. I encourage those who wish to focus on me to focus instead on important issues [such as] the serious problems facing the Puerto Rican people or the US economic embargo against Cuba.

“Who in the last 60 years has asked the Cuban people if they want the US to impose a suffocating embargo that makes them suffer? Also worthy of attention is the pressing need for global co-operation to halt and reverse the destruction of our environment.”

Together with Katrien Demuynck, Marc Vandepitte has written several books on Cuba and visited members of the Cuban Five when imprisoned in the US.