By GILBERTO FIRMAT
Havana and Washington stood eyeball-to-eyeball in an unprecedented diplomatic confrontation at the end of February, and the Americans blinked.
On Feb. 26, FBI agents picked up Cuban diplomat Jose Imperatori and put him on a plane to Montreal. Cuba had dared the United States to let him stay so that the FBI could try to prove Imperatori was a spy before an American court.
By forcibly expelling him, the U.S. government implicitly admitted Cuba’s charge that the spying accusation against Imperatori and his predecessor at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington is a brazen frame-up.
The charges against the Cuban diplomats came in an internationally-televised press conference by the Miami FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who had arrested Mariano Faget, a 34-year-veteran of the INS, as a Cuban spy.
Cuba said this was a fabrication designed to torpedo the repatriation of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, who has been held against his father’s wishes by distant relatives in Miami since he was found in the high seas in mid-November.
Faget’s arrest was made public on the last working day before a federal court was to have taken up Elian’s case. (The judge handling the boy’s case suffered a stroke after the spy charge became public, and the hearing was postponed.)
Initially Cuba tried quiet diplomacy in Elian’s case. But after Cuba’s diplomatic notes were ignored for a week, Fidel Castro, speaking informally to reporters, said that if the United States did not begin acting responsibly within three days, Cuba would scandalize the U.S. government from one end of the world to the other.
In doing this, the Cuban leader was expressing the growing outrage of people in Cuba, who for a week had been listening to the right-wing Miami radio stations vowing that the boy would never be returned to his family.
In the event, the Cuban people did not wait; mass protests began in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana the next day, and the week-long series of marches that followed were the largest in the history of the revolution, doubling and tripling the expected turnout. Since then Cuba has maintained a constant campaign demanding Elian’s immediate repatriation.
The main form these protests have taken in Cuba are “open tribunes” or teach-ins. Psychologists, teachers, labor leaders, students, lawyers, and many other trades and professions have held meetings, many broadcast by Cuban television, bringing to bear their professional tools or experiences on Elian’s kidnapping, the U.S. policy of promoting illegal immigration, and Cuba’s position that socialism can only be built by free women and men, and that those who want no part of creating a new society are free to go.
The battle that the Cuban revolution has waged has been tremendously successful. After six weeks of stalling, in early January the Immigration and Naturalization Service was forced to concede that the boy should be returned to his family, and both Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton ratified the decision.
And the latest opinion polls indicate that an overwhelming two-thirds majority of Americans support this ruling, compared to a 45-45 split in early December.
Despite this, the U.S. government hasn’t lifted a finger to actually carry out what it claims to have decided. Instead, they have invited the right-wing Cuban exile groups to tie up the case in court, even though under both U.S. and international law, any challenge to the father’s custody has to be brought before the authorities of the child’s “habitual place of residence,” which is Cuba.
Thus, it was widely anticipated by legal experts that at the Feb. 22 hearing in a federal court in Miami, the challenge mounted by lawyers for Elian’s Miami relatives to the boy’s return to his father would be summarily dismissed.
“Spy” story doesn’t ring true
It was in this context that the FBI and INS entrapped and arrested Mariano Faget, the highest-ranking Cuban American in the Miami immigration service. That Faget is not a “Cuban spy” is obvious from reading the information the government filed to justify his arrest.
On Feb. 11, Faget was asked to prepare political asylum papers for a Cuban defector. (Ordinary Cubans, of course, do not need such papers; they are automatically entitled to stay in the United States under the Cold-War-era Cuban Adjustment Act, but this law doesn’t apply to Cuban government officials.)
And just who was the alleged “defector”? Why, none other than one of the two members of the Cuban Interests Section that Faget had been in contact with, who were, according to the FBI, his control agents from Cuban intelligence.
Now imagine a spy has been told his control agent is about to defect. There are two possibilities. If the information is true, it means he’s about to be exposed. If it is false, it means he’s been found out and is the target of a sting. Either way, there is only one possible course of action: make a run for it.
What did Faget do? He called a life-long friend and business associate who was about to meet with people from the Cuban Interests Section, and who had put Faget in touch with the two diplomats originally, to give him a heads-up report, since he was afraid his friend and their common business interests might get caught in the middle.
According to the FBI, this individual was Faget’s conduit to Cuban intelligence.
But REAL spies do not make such phone calls using their own cellular phones from their government office. And they do not follow them up with a second phone call from their home phones.
And after having made these phone calls, Faget spent a quiet weekend at home and went back to work the next Monday!
Apparently, even the FBI didn’t really believe Faget was a spy. Because even if Faget was slow as molasses on a cold winter’s morning, he had, under the FBI’s theory, dutifully passed on the information, which meant that even if Faget didn’t realize he had to make a run for it, undoubtedly someone else in Cuban intelligence would have put two and two together.
Mass outrage in Cuba
Yet the FBI waited until the evening of Feb. 17, six and a half days after telling Faget his supposed spymaster was an American agent, to pick up the hapless immigration bureaucrat. They waited, in fact, until the last possible moment before the Elian Gonzalez court hearing to set off the stink bomb.
This is why Cuba reacted with such outrage, and such audacity, to the slander against its diplomats. On less than a day’s notice, nearly a quarter million people marched in front of the U.S. mission in Havana to demand an end to the lies and freedom for Elian.
And the two Cuban diplomats accused of being Faget’s spymasters, with their government’s support, are demanding the U.S. government let them come back to U.S. territory even without diplomatic immunity, so they can clear their names and testify on Faget’s behalf.
Faget himself took the unheard-of step of taking the stand at his preliminary bail bond hearing. He wanted to make clear he was neither a Cuban spy nor sympathetic to the revolution, that his interest in Cuba was purely commercial. Procter and Gamble, he said, had assigned to the corporation set up by Faget and his partner the right to represent them, once trade with Cuba opened up.
U.S. working people have a direct stake in both Elian’s case and the spying controversy. If an interloping great uncle is allowed to take this boy from a loving family, what’s to stop other rich uncles or complete strangers from going to court to take away our children because we’re socialists, or send them to the wrong schools, or don’t have enough money for Disneyworld vacations?
And Faget’s case, among other things, is clearly an attempt to intimidate people from associating with Cuba and its diplomats.
It is meant to punish two would-be entrepreneurs for doing what countless others are also doing, preparing for (and in many cases even pressuring for) a lifting of the U.S. economic blockade against the island.