By ISABEL VINCENT, National Post
(January 25, 2003) – AT THE HEIGHT of the Cold War in 1963, a junior Canadian diplomat stationed in Havana set off on a sensitive intelligence-gathering mission, armed only with a pencil and a sketchbook.
The diplomat, more accustomed to interminable meetings with Communist bureaucrats than to spying, had at one point been offered a high-tech camera to document his findings. But his work was deemed so sensitive he feared the camera might be confiscated by Cuban authorities, and ultimately jeopardize his top secret mission – spying on Cuba and its Soviet masters for the United States.
He was one of many Canadians who were directly enlisted by the U.S. State Department in the 1960s and 1970s to spy for the Americans on the Communist island, according to recently declassified U.S. and Canadian intelligence documents.
Although maintaining friendly relations with Cuba has long been a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy, these documents paint a very different picture and illuminate how much the United States relied on Ottawa for information about the Communist island. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in January, 1961, after it became clear Cuban leaders had embraced Communism and were beginning to ally themselves with the Soviet Union.
While a succession of prime ministers have pointed to Canada’s good relations with Cuban leader Fidel Castro as proof of its independent foreign policy, Ottawa in fact co-operated with the United States, regularly deploying Canadian diplomats to spy on Soviet military installations on the island.
“Publicly, Canada and the U.S. essentially agreed to disagree on Cuba,” said John Dirks, a Toronto-based archivist who has combed documents in Washington and Ottawa for details of Canada’s Cold War relationship with Cuba and the United States.
In a 1961 U.S. government memorandum classified as secret, a U.S. official noted, “Official Canadian views of the Castro threat have now moved much closer than heretofore to the U.S. appraisal of the situation. In his April 19  statement, Prime Minister [John] Diefenbaker expressed his government’s deep concern over developments in Cuba and characterized Cuba as a bridgehead of international communism threatening the hemisphere, a danger to which Canada could not be indifferent.”
Though Ottawa was largely in agreement with the U.S. position, Washington secretly counselled Canada not to break off diplomatic relations with the island, especially when it realized Canada’s embassy in Havana could be useful for intelligence-gathering purposes.
In a 1962 telegram from the State Department to the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, a U.S. official cautions against trying to convince Canada to break diplomatic relations with Cuba after reports a Canadian freighter was deliberately sabotaged by Cuban authorities.
“Canadian reporting from Habana [sic] of great value to us, and we would not intend propose [sic] suspension of diplomatic relations,” reads the telegram, marked confidential and dated Nov. 20, 1962.
Even during the Trudeau years, when relations with the Communist island appeared particularly strong, the spying continued.
In fact, one State Department document notes Pierre Trudeau, who as prime minister publicly flaunted his close friendship with Mr. Castro, the Cuban President, may have in fact been deeply suspicious of the Cuban revolution.
“Americans found Trudeau’s nationalistic edge annoying but they believed his instincts were more conservative than they appeared in public,” said Mr. Dirks, whose research began as part of a master’s history project at the University of Toronto. In the mid-1970s, when Cuba dispatched soldiers to fight in Angola, Mr. Trudeau seems to have distanced himself from the Communist island, the declassified memos show.
In addition to mostly low-level Canadian diplomats, the Canadian embassy in Havana also appears to have enlisted ordinary Canadians working in Cuba – particularly Roman Catholic priests and nuns – to gather intelligence for the United States, said Don Munton, an international studies professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, who has studied some of the newly released documents.
“The Canadian government provided intelligence on Cuba on a regular basis to the United States and other allies during the years following the Castro revolution out of the Canadian embassy in Havana,” wrote Prof. Munton in a research paper presented last year at a security conference in Ottawa.
According to Prof. Munton, Canadian diplomats would be sent out to collect intelligence on military installations and other things in Cuba important to the Americans. High-level meetings between Canadian officials and Cuban officials would also be made available to U.S. intelligence. The reports would be sent from the Canadian embassy in Havana by diplomatic pouch to the Ministry of External Affairs in Ottawa, which would forward the intelligence documents to the Canadian embassy in Washington. An official from the Washington embassy would then gather the reports in an envelope, and “walk them over to the State Department.”
In the summer of 1962, Canadian diplomats were among the first to alert the United States to large shipments of arms and troops arriving from the Soviet Union. The Soviet military shipments and manouevres culminated in the Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the brink of nuclear war over Russia’s shipment of nuclear missiles to Cuba.
Although Canada reported to the United States about these Soviet military manoeuvres, they had no idea of the size and scope of the operation, historians say.
According to Prof. Munton, Canadian diplomats conducted numerous “drive-by” surveillance trips to Cuban military installations weeks before the crisis and saw “Slavic men,” but did not know that what they were seeing was simply “the tip of the iceberg.” At the height of the crisis, more than 40,000 Russian troops were on the island.
Later, Canadian diplomats were instrumental in reporting on the dismantling of the Soviet military bases and the removal of the missiles, he added.
A year after the missile crisis, Canadian intelligence-gathering increased following a meeting between then prime minister Lester Pearson and president John Kennedy at the U.S. leader’s retreat in Hyannis Port, Mass.
At the May, 1963, encounter, Mr. Kennedy asked the new Canadian prime minister if Canada could “extend further its intelligence efforts in Cuba,” Prof. Munton said. Mr. Pearson agreed, and a few months after the meeting many Canadian diplomats stationed in Cuba found themselves being trained by the Central Intelligence Agency in intelligence-gathering operations. One participant was the low-level Canadian diplomat who toured the island with his sketchpad in 1963.
Canada was not the only country providing classified information to the United States. Britain was also doing the same. In early 1962, months before the Cuban missile crisis, one Washington-based British diplomat noted that, according to U.S. officials, “only we and the Canadians supply any real military information on Cuba.”
But while Ottawa readily supplied Washington with information about the Communist island, the United States seems to have kept Canada in the dark about many of its own activities there.
For instance, according to declassified memos found by Mr. Dirks, Canadian officials appeared to be in the dark about U.S.-led efforts to overthrow the Castro regime.
In February, 1962, when Mr. Kennedy set in motion a process to remove Mr. Castro from power, Ottawa was told U.S. policy was simply to isolate Cuba through economic measures.
Canada was deliberately not informed about the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. During the ill-fated CIA-backed operation, a group of Cuban exiles were sent to the island to overthrow Mr. Castro.
But just how much did Cuban counter-intelligence officials know about Canadian spying activities?
The question may now be impossible to answer since Cuban intelligence archives remain sealed, but experts say Cuban officials probably knew of Canada’s activities but did little to interfere with them.
For its part, the Canadian government did little to close down the Cuban consulate and trade commission on Cremazie Boulevard in north Montreal, which was well known as “a significant base for espionage in North America,” Prof. Munton said.
The office was also used to smuggle goods of U.S. origin to Cuba in diplomatic bags in contravention of the Canadian ban on the transshipment of such goods through Canada.
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