WASHINGTON—At a time when Fidel Castro is ill and his brother-successor is missing from public view, the Bush administration is admitting that it's in the dark on what's really going on in Cuba, an island 90 miles away from the Florida coast.
"Our insight into the decision-making process of ... this particular dictatorship isn't that great," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday, three days after Castro ceded power to his brother following what was described as complicated surgery to stem gastrointestinal bleeding.
"I don't think there are too many people outside that small core group of people who run Cuba who really know what is going on. I don't have an assessment for you on Fidel Castro's health," McCormack said.
Later in the day, President Bush issued a statement saying the U.S. government is "actively monitoring the situation in Cuba" following Castro's temporary transfer of his powers to Defense Minister Raul Castro, who has yet to make a public appearance.
But U.S. officials have confessed ignorance on events in Cuba in private encounters with lawmakers and other Cuba watchers, people in contact with administration officials say.
White House spokesman Tony Snow has attributed the lack of information to Cuba's status as a "closed society" with a government-controlled media and a long tradition of secrecy because of fears of U.S. attacks.
Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuba native who has met with Bush and other high-ranking administration officials in recent days, acknowledged Thursday that "sometimes people in Miami know more than what the government knows."
"I've asked and we don't have any more information than what the Cuban government has released," Martinez said.
The Bush administration isn't alone in being mystified by events in Havana.
A diplomat with the Organization of American States, who asked for anonymity so as not to affect his nation's relations with Havana, said the Cuban government has been "pretty hermetically sealed" since Monday.
His embassy had no information on recent events in Havana, and he noted that U.S. diplomats were "blind down there" because they're confined to Havana and under heavy vigilance.
Another European diplomat who attended an encounter to discuss Cuba at the State Department said the administration was "as confused as we are."
But Cuba's highly regarded intelligence services also have been effective in denying the island's secrets to Washington.
Nearly 20 Cuban spies have been nabbed, including in 2002 Ana Belen Montes, a top Cuba analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington. She was convicted of spying for Havana and is now serving a 25-year sentence.
U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged that many U.S. "spies" in Cuba later turned out to have been double agents working for Havana. And in 1998, the FBI broke up a Cuban spy ring that included two FBI informants who reported to Havana on the bureau's inner workings.
When asked about what's happening in Cuba these days, officials repeat what already has been announced in Havana.
"What we hear, it appears that this is a . . . temporary handing-off of power as Fidel Castro undergoes surgery," said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American. Gutierrez, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, co-chaired the multi-agency Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which spent nearly six months drafting a 95-page report on what the United States should do to help bring democracy to Cuba.
"They've said very little. It's not as though it is an open free press whereby things are known on a timely basis," Gutierrez said.
Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a member of the House International Relations Committee, said she wasn't surprised that the administration didn't have any solid intelligence on Cuba because most people in Cuba don't know much about what happens in the top rungs of their government.
"I don't think anyone but maybe two or three people in that regime know what's going on," she said. "It's so tightly controlled and people know better not to leak, or they pay for it with their lives."
She suggested it was too risky for the U.S. government to post agents on the island.
"And it's not been worth it," she said. "Because Castro's days are numbered one way or the other."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map