Smuggling Satellite Dishes into Cuba

Revisiting “Operation Surf”

Tracey Eaton (

1-Verdades y PrincipiosHAVANA TIMES — An Internet freedom activist linked to the smuggling of satellite dishes to Cuba said he wouldn’t feel safe going back to the island “until the situation changes there.”

“The security threats are real,” Robert Guerra said Thursday. “It’s very important for democracy groups and others that are doing work there to be very aware of the very nuanced security threats and issues that are there.”

Guerra, the former director of the Internet Freedom Project at Freedom House in Washington, D.C., declined to give details on the projects he has carried out in Cuba.

“I wouldn’t be in a position to talk about them right now,” he said. “I did some projects…I can say that I’ve been to the island, but I’m not necessarily in a position to talk about it other than to say that Cuba’s a complex country in regards to digital activism.”

Cuban authorities allege that Guerra took part in “Operation Surf,” aimed at disguising satellite dishes as boogie boards and smuggling them to Cuba.

Guerra said, “I can’t comment other than saying that if you’re familiar with the technology, it’s ridiculous. It’s just that satellite dishes don’t look like surf boards. I won’t comment any further on that.”

So was Guerra saying that the operation didn’t take place – that no one smuggled the satellite dishes to Cuba, as Cuban officials claimed in March 2011 video?

“I have not seen the video, so I cannot comment on that,” replied Guerra, a founding director of Privaterra, which assists non-governmental organizations with matters of data privacy, information security and human rights.

The Cuban government’s version of events is that a California man named Barry Fink smuggled satellite dishes to Cuba as part of a U.S. government-financed operation in 2008.

Robert_Guerra-cc-1The satellite dishes wound up in the hands of a Cuban electronics technician named Dalexi González Madruga.

González went to Cuban authorities with what he knew and became an informant, nicknamed Agent Rául.

González said when he met Fink in 2008, Fink introduced himself with the code words: “How’s the surf in the south of France?”

González answered with the correct password and they got on with business. Cuba’s state-run Granma newspaper reported:

They headed for a minibus parked a few meters away, and Barry gave him four satellite dishes, camouflaged as surf boards…

Fink, a commercial video producer based in Marina Del Rey, Calif., declined to talk about the supposed operation.

“I’m just not in a position to discuss it,” he said Thursday. “I can’t.”

Asked if he had signed a confidentiality agreement, Fink said no, but preferred not to comment.

“I do not think it would be appropriate.”

Barry Fink. Photo: LinkedIn
Barry Fink. Photo: LinkedIn

Guerra is an expert on Internet freedom and cybersecurity, according to his LinkedIn profile. Cuban officials allege that he acted as González’s handler.

Asked if he worried he could be arrested in Cuba, Guerra said he “took a lot of care” to be discreet while on the island.

“I was in Cuba for a long period of time,” he said. “You just expose yourself to problems.”

The working environment is challenging, he said.

“It’s no different than the Cold War with the Russians,” he said. “If you’re experienced, you can deal with it. If you’re naive, it can be more of a problem.”

What does Guerra think of the plight of Alan Gross, the American development worker jailed in Cuba in December 2009 while carrying out a U.S. government-financed democracy program?

“I’m familiar with that case and I think one has to be aware of that,” he said.

Gross is in a difficult spot, Guerra said, because the U.S. government doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba, making it more difficult for American officials to negotiate for his release.

Cuban government photo of Barry Fink
Cuban government photo of Barry Fink

Cuban officials contend that the Internet freedom activists smuggled the satellite dishes into Cuba as part of a plan to set up an illegal communications network in Cuba. They hoped to set up a mobile Internet connection free from socialist government control.

“The internet works VERY RAPIDLY!” a technician told his Cuban contact while describing the equipment. ” …You may use Skype, Yahoo video + voice… Next week we will be talking FOR FREE!”

Guerra said he hasn’t been involved in any Cuba projects “for the last couple of years,” but imagines that democracy activists have changed their approach.

The Cuban government has loosened travel restrictions, making it easier for such activists as Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez to travel to and from the island.

“Yoani, who would have thought many years ago that she would be on a world tour?” Guerra asked. “Others can travel, as well. That changes the dynamic. There’s a lot that is changing on the island.”

13 thoughts on “Smuggling Satellite Dishes into Cuba

  • August 7, 2013 at 4:26 am

    Interesting little piece following on from the original ‘Operation Surf’ story. Its a shame both Fink and Guerra couldn’t be a little more honest and straight up about the whole incident. It would make for some entertaining reading.
    Maybe I can help a little.
    Fink did enter Cuba with surfboards and film gear plus an assortment of other items. 12 boards to be exact so I guess it wouldn’t be too hard to hide a few disguised dishes amongst them which he did. This i know!!!!
    Fink entered Cuba for the purpose of wanting to make a documentary about surfing in Havana/Cuba. He planned to film in Baracoa but never made it. Many of the items he smuggled in did not reach there destination because lucky for Fink the Cuban surfers found out what was happening and dumped the items in street bins.

  • May 22, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Exactly, ac.

  • May 22, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Dear Editor,

    Tracy Eaton’s article, “Smuggling Satellite Dishes into Cuba: Revisiting ‘Operation Surf,’” rehashes information about the 2008 U.S.-backed covert operation to smuggle satellite dishes onto the island without sufficiently addressing improvements that have been made to increase Internet and telecommunications access under President Raúl Castro since then. In March 2008, an American, Barry Fink, allegedly disguised satellite dishes as boogie boards in an effort to sidestep the Cuban government’s regulation of media outlets. This scheme, organized by former director of the Internet Freedom Project at Freedom House, Robert Guerra, aggravated the already contentious relationship between the United States and Cuba in the late 2000s. While the author provides a good chronological account of the controversial Operation Surf, he fails to examine the way in which economic liberalization measures on the island in the time since the operation have changed Cubans’ ability to access the Internet. Thus, the article might lead its readers to believe that the Cuban government has not made efforts to revamp access to Internet and telecommunications on the island, while in fact it has done so. As early as 2008, the Cuban government lifted restrictions on computer sales. In November 2010, it announced plans for the installation of a fiber optic cable connecting Cuba with Venezuela and Jamaica, which could lead to a 3,000-fold increase in data-transmission speed, if completed. In 2011, the government unlocked access to blogs. By the end of 2011, 1.3 million Cubans had access to a mobile phone, up from 443,000 in 2009. Such improvements in access to digital technology are symbolic of a rapidly changing Cuba, in which the persisting vestiges of Cold War politics that shaped Operation Surf appear increasingly obsolete.


    Phineas Rueckert

    Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

  • May 22, 2013 at 6:02 am

    Freedom of expression is not the same as democracy. It simply means you can say whatever you want, but there is no obligation to listen to you. Democracy means that what you have to say is taken in account in the political process.

    My point is precisely that even when in US people may have more to say, their words have little to zero effect in the political game and thats why I sad before it barely classifies as democracy.

    The sad truth is that politicians only pay attention to the big campaign donors and interest lobbies. Your vote counts once every four years to select a candidate from a very small pool based on promises that may or may not ever see the light and chances are, only agrees with you in a few points.

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