“Czechoslovak intelligence helped Cuban Revolution to survive” – says top Cold War researcher

T-34s used in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Czechoslovak intelligence played a significant role in training Cuban revolutionaries and providing them with information during the early 1960s.

Despite more than three decades since the fall of communism, historians are still discovering new information about communist Czechoslovakia and its role in the Cold War. Some of the most interesting discoveries have been made in the realm of intelligence, where the country’s foreign intelligence service played a disproportionately larger role than other Soviet satellites.  To find out more, I spoke to Dr Jan Koura, the head of Charles University’s Cold War Research Group, who has done much work in the realm of researching communist-era Czechoslovak intelligence.

Dr Koura, I understand that the First (Foreign) Section of the Communist State Security Service (StB) was particularly active in Africa, South America and also in Cuba. How extensive was its activity in comparison to other Soviet satellites?

“The Czechoslovak Foreign Intelligence Service was rapidly reorganised with the help of Soviet advisors after the Communist coup of 1948. The number of intelligence officers grew really significantly. In 1950, this service employed roughly 100 people, but by 1961 it boasted almost a 1,000 members. By the end of the 1960s, Czechoslovak intelligence had over 1,200 workers in its employ, with more than 300 of them stationed abroad at 41 residentiaries in 39 countries.

"The agency network was therefore really broad. During the 1960s the agency managed to obtain approximately 7,000 intelligence reports every year.

“Czechoslovak intelligence had the advantage that the country had intensive economic and diplomatic ties with the Third World already during the interwar period.”

“The service relied primarily on its own agency network, because the originally planned system of largescale information swaps within the Eastern Bloc’s intelligence services was quite limited in practice. Czechoslovak intelligence was indeed not just active in Western states, but also in Latin America or Africa, where it recruited many collaborators such as Mehdi Ben Barka [Moroccan leftist politician who ‘disappeared’ in 1965], Amilcar Cabral, Dennis Phombeah, Viriato Cruz."

So, if I understand correctly, what differentiated the Czechoslovak Foreign Intelligence Service, compared with similar services in other satellites, was that it had the capacity to be active outside of Europe?

“Yes. Czechoslovak intelligence had the advantage that Czechoslovakia had intensive economic and diplomatic ties with the Third World already during the interwar period. For intelligence work you need cover, often diplomatic cover. That means that Czechoslovakia had many embassies in Third World countries that were necessary for this intelligence work.

Jan Koura | Photo: Charles University

“By the early 1960s, Czechoslovakia had more embassies in Africa than the Soviet Union. This is one of the reasons why Czechoslovakia was so active there. It was instructed by the Soviet Union of course. However, what surprised me during my research was that sometimes the Czechoslovak intelligence service acted independently. Not everything was discussed with the Soviet Union and there were also some disputes on intelligence matters between the Soviets and Czechoslovaks.”

What you said at the beginning there sounds very interesting. It sounds like the intelligence service of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic benefited from its country’s [capitalist] past - the interwar First Republic and perhaps even the Austro-Hungarian era to a degree. What would you say to that?

“Yes. I think so. Czechoslovak, and, earlier, Austro-Hungarian products had a very good reputation  in foreign markets, especially Czechoslovak weapons. People trusted Czechoslovak products.

“When Czechoslovakia became communist, some contacts were broken, but not all of them. It was therefore much easier for the Czechoslovak government to sell these products on Third World markets due to their good reputation.

1960s – A golden age for Czechoslovak intelligence

If we move back to why the Czechoslovaks were sometimes working independently of the Soviets, was that during the Cold War period in general or specifically in the 1960s?

“By the early 1960s, Czechoslovakia had more embassies in Africa than the Soviet Union.”

“The 1960s. The situation was a little different back then, because Czechoslovakia was approaching the Prague Spring and there were stronger voices within the intelligence services that Czechoslovakia should support, or impose, more of its own interests and not just follow Soviet policy. However, after the Prague Spring, the situation changed and intelligence was again more servile to the USSR’s wishes.”

That is interesting, because often the most impactful intelligence operations we hear about are from the 1960s. Obviously, the Prague Spring was going on and more resources were deployed during this decade, but was something happening in the world more generally that made the Czechoslovak intelligence service so capable in the 1960s?

“The 1960s were a very interesting period of the Cold War. The decolonisation process intensified and was at its peak - that means that both Western and Communist states wanted to penetrate these newly decolonised countries. It is also why the Third World is now a centre of focus for researchers, because both sides were involved in this conflict.

“The 1960s were also a time of revolt, of different types of protest. The world was changing. The younger generations wanted a different type of political representation for example.

“Not everything was discussed with the Soviet Union and there were also some disputes on intelligence matters between the Soviets and Czechoslovaks.”

“From the Third World perspective the situation was certainly changing very rapidly. These national liberation movements required independence and this was successfully brought about in most African states during the 1960s. Colonisation was at an end. This situation opened up new possibilities for the Eastern Bloc to penetrate the Third World and offer Socialism as an alternative model to capitalism.

“Since the former colonialist powers had a bad reputation in this part of the world, many Third World politicians were thinking about adopting some socialist ideas, or structures of socialist states and their systems. For them it was an attractive alternative to capitalism.”

So, can one say that the main role of these Czechoslovak intelligence officers was to act as exporters of communism abroad?

“We certainly cannot deny that Czechoslovak intelligence tried to spread communism in the Third World. However, I also came across the fact that Czechoslovak intelligence also supported its country’s economic and political interests.

“For example, in Morocco, Czechoslovak intelligence was very interested in weakening the ties of Morocco with Western states and wanted to increase bilateral trade, because Morocco had some resources that were important for the Czechoslovak economy.

Mehdi Ben Barka | Photo: ANEFO,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0

“This penetration into the Third World was also good business, because Czechoslovakia was building investment units there and these states paid for it. The Third World also paid for Czechoslovak expertise, including intelligence expertise. Czechoslovak intelligence experts were therefore active for example in Guinea during the early 1960s where they trained local security personnel.

“Czechoslovak intelligence also supported national liberation movements in Portuguese colonies, supporting rebels with weapons, or again providing training for them.”

You mention former Portuguese colonies; I believe Angola was among them as well. Was there any reason why these particular states were picked? Was it just that they tried everywhere where it worked, or was there some sort of more general strategy from the side of the Soviet Union, from the KGB, on how to act in Africa?

“Every weakening of NATO states was a welcome opportunity for Eastern Bloc states. When Portugal started having problems in Africa and these liberation movements intensified, it became one of the aims for the Eastern Bloc to weaken that country’s position in Africa.

“Every weakening of NATO states was a welcome opportunity for Eastern Bloc states.”

“We have some documents that talk about the general strategy of the KGB and Eastern Bloc intelligence services to penetrate the Third World, to weaken the position of Western states as soon as possible. It ranged from supporting liberation movements, delivering weapons, training of people, or recruiting local politicians, journalists and prominent people to get information.

“It was all about the information during the Cold War. It was an ideological war and information was very precious in this conflict.”

Czechoslovak intelligence and the Cuban Revolution

It sounds a bit abstract these terms – training people or getting information. Have you found, during your research or that of other people, that Czechoslovak intelligence had a real historic impact in some cases?

“Czechoslovak intelligence also organised training courses on its own territory, not just that of the Third World. That means that these supporters of liberation movements, or the opposition to the political establishment within these states, were also trained in Prague in deferent types of courses. They ranged from sabotage, surveillance, or the use of weapons.

“I think that Czechoslovak intelligence helped the Cuban revolution to survive.”

“If we use the example of Cuba, about which I recently published an article on Czechoslovak-Cuban cooperation, the Cuban Revolution depended on Czechoslovak intelligence during its initial years. I also think that Czechoslovak intelligence helped the Cuban revolution to survive.

“The United States wanted to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime and the Czechoslovaks helped to train the Cubans. They provided them with intelligence, some of which warned Cuba that there may be a US attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro.

“Everyone knows of course about the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion [a failed landing operation on the southwestern coast of Cuba in 1961 by Cuban exiles secretly financed and directed by the US government]. Intelligence was necessary for the survival of the Cuban Revolution. It seems that this extensive collaboration in the realm of information exchanges was really crucial for the survival of the Cuban revolution.”

So, if we are talking about the Bay of Pigs Invasion, I understand you would also have Soviet agents informing the Cubans. Was it the Czechoslovaks who played the main role?

“The head of the Cuban intelligence service, Manuel Piñeiro, was trained in Prague.”

“Key information really came from the Soviet Union. What changed the approach of the Eastern Bloc was that the Czechoslovaks failed to predict the exact date of the invasion, while, most likely, the Soviets had this information and warned the Cubans to prepare for this invasion that eventually failed.

“After the Bay of Pigs Invasion the situation changed, because the Soviets did not want the Czechoslovaks to be so active in Cuba. It was a strategic island and a few months later the Soviets delivered to nuclear weapons to Cuba that ended up not being installed. Cuba was very important for the USSR in global politics, so they put the Czechoslovaks back in their place and the Czechoslovaks had to stop this intense collaboration with the Cubans. They were replaced by the Soviets.

“However, in the period from 1960 to early 1961, the Czechoslovak main intelligence chief of the local residentiary met regularly with Cuban representatives and the head of the Cuban intelligence service, Manuel Piñeiro, was trained in Prague. These contacts were very intensive, but we can also see this limited position of Soviet satellites in the Third World - when they crossed certain boundaries the Soviets replaced them.”

The limits of being a Soviet satellite

The Warsaw Pact was of course run quite differently to NATO. It was clearly run by the Soviet Union, despite being officially presented as an alliance governed by consensus. How concerned were the Soviets about this sort of Czechoslovak intelligence activity which seems to have been quite successful and did the Czechoslovaks benefit from their intelligence relationship with the Soviets in any way? I understand the KGB rarely shared its own information with satellites.

“Third World politicians very often collaborated with smaller socialist states, because they feared the Soviet Union.”

“Czechoslovakia did not profit much from this relationship. It was also the reason why the voices within its intelligence service, calling for more a more self-interested intelligence policy, intensified during this period. It was an unequal relationship.

“Czechoslovakia provided the Soviets with lots of valuable information, but its officers complained that this did not work vice-versa. Soviet intelligence officers did not share all of their information with them.

“However, when I studied the files relating to Mehdi Ben Barka, it surprised me that the KGB was not that interested in this relationship and let the Czechoslovak intelligence service to take the lead in on this case and recruit him. I do not know why exactly. He was, after all, a prominent, internationally renowned opposition politician, who was active in the general non-aligned movement.

“What I can say is that Third World politicians very often collaborated with smaller socialist states, because they feared the Soviet Union. It was still an imperial power and people like Barka may have thought that collaborating with a smaller state would not place their home country in a dangerous relationship with Soviet imperialism. That was of course a false assumption, because, as I just said, the USSR had the decisive word within the Eastern Bloc.”

In part two of this interview we will explore how the Czechoslovak intelligence services sought to use their ties with the third world for economic benefit and the wide-range of education programs that were provided for citizens from the Third World in Czechoslovakia.