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Museum of State Security: Cuba's shrine to surveillance
CubaNews / May 2003

By Larry Luxner

Considering the Cuban government’s recent dissident crackdown and its growing obsession with national security, what better time than to visit Havana’s Museo de Seguridad del Estado — Fidel Castro’s showcase of espionage and intrigue.

Known in English as the Museum of State Security, this heavily guarded tourist attraction is conveniently located at Calle 14 and Quinta Avenida in Miramar, the fashionable Havana suburb favored by diplomats and top government officials.

Visitors entering the renovated mansion could be forgiven for thinking they’ve stepped onto the set of a James Bond movie, with the museum’s plethora of remote-control bombs, false-bottom suitcases and other paraphernalia Cuba claims it has confiscated over the years from counterrevolutionaries plotting to overthrow the communist regime.

Lured by the excitement of it all, I decided last month to pay the museum a visit.

As I approached the entrance, a guard with a walkie-talkie radioed his companero inside the 11-room, two-story complex, advising him of my impending visit. Inside, a middle-aged woman wearing a khaki-colored Ministry of Interior uniform kept me under close surveillance, in the tradition of Cuban museum employees in general, who are trained to shadow foreign visitors at all times.

At the entrance, after paying the $2 admission fee, one is guided to a wall-size display of the “five patriots” in U.S. jails accused of spying for the Castro regime. A colorful poster, entitled “a heroic behavior in the entrails of the monster,” depicts a massive demonstration in front of the U.S. Interests Section, accompanied by a three-page typed “message to the American people” from the accused spies themselves — copies of which are free for the asking.

It’s impossible to get any real answers from the unfriendly employees who staff the museum. My “minder,” for example, refused to tell me how many people visit the place every week, or even how many people work there.

Despite the museum’s clearly hostile nature, its exhibits are quite interesting. One of the items on display is an original letter written by then-Vice President Richard Nixon to Gen. Fulgencio Batista, thanking the dictator for the hospitality shown to him and his wife, Pat, during the Nixons’ February 1955 visit to Cuba.

There’s also a 1955 official letter from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover praising local U.S. Embassy employee William G. Friedmann. According to museum documents, Friedmann was not only an undercover FBI agent but also a fanatic neo-Nazi who worshipped Adolf Hitler when no one was looking. Next to the letter is a display of Nazi emblems embroidered onto patches of the 2506th Brigade, which stormed ashore in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion sponsored by the United States.

The next room of the museum is devoted to Cuba’s Policia Nacional Revolucionario, and is filled with flashlights, stop signs, radar guns and other mundane tools used to regulate the flow of traffic. Nearby, pistols, revolvers and other small weapons of every description fill the glass display cases.

In the next room are exhibits of counterfeit $100 bills — of the new, redesigned type — along with false pesos convertibles and doctored Visa credit cards issued by Banamex, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and other non-U.S. banks for purposes of “destabilizing the revolution.”

In yet another room, a series of black-and-white photos purport to show U.S. diplomats in Havana making secret “drops” in the forest, while a glass display case shows off two items of special interest: a Sony ICF-7600D shortwave radio Cuba says was used to facilitate secret CIA transmissions, and a hollowed-out artificial rock supposedly used to deposit secret coded data. A card notes that “the rock is made of the same color, dimensions and texture as other rocks in the area.”

As if that’s not enough, a plain-looking suitcase on display, said to be worth $250,000 at the time of its confiscation in 1981, is revealed to be equipped with a 12-volt battery for sending secret transmissions to an American spy satellite 22,300 miles up in space.

Liberally scattered around are magic markers and cigarette lighters with hollowed-out compartments for film, and a plastic Silkience shampoo bottle used to hide C-4 explosives.

A separate exhibit concerns attempts by Miami-based Cuban exile groups to infiltrate Cuban society, and here, one can find bumper stickers advertising the Cuban American National Foundation, as well as a Spanish dictionary introduced into Cuba by the CANF that supposedly contains coded messages.

But the best part of the Museum of State Security concerns Fidel Castro himself. An entire upstairs exhibit is devoted to the 25 known attempts that have been made to assassinate the comandante en jefe.

Sitting all alone in a glass case, for instance, is a bottle of poison disguised as aspirin; an accompanying placard says it was “distributed by collaborators, cooks in the spy network of Leopoldina Grau Alsina, who intended to kill Fidel.”

Having suddenly decided enough was enough, I walked downstairs, out the front door and onto quiet, tree-lined Quinta Avenida, where stern-faced policemen stood guard in their corner kiosks, making sure that no Cuban even thought about seeking political asylum in one of the many foreign embassies fronting the street.

I climbed into my rented Fiat Brava, started up the engine and looked back one last time at Cuba’s Museum of State Security — wondering how secure the state really is.

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