Miami Casablanca

by Ana Arana


The Prodigal Son

The trial of Mariano Faget is an example of the wacky turn of events that have become the norm in this city. Detained last February, in the middle of the Elián saga, the veteran Immigration and Naturalization Service employee and son of a legendary anti-Communist official, was found guilty on May 31 of violating the U.S. Espionage Act. He had revealed classified information and lied about unauthorized contacts with Cuban government officials.

Faget faces up to ten years in prison when he is sentenced on August 18, as well as the possibility of losing his annual pension from the INS. He had been setting up a company that was preparing to do business in Cuba and which, he claimed, would begin operations after the U.S. lifts the Cuban embargo. He was arrested after an FBI sting operation.

The Faget case has left the indelible impression among conservative Cuban-Americans that the enemy is everywhere. It happened just as spirits in the community had calmed following the 1998 FBI bust of the largest Cuban government spy-network, La Red Avispa, or Wasp Network. The network was considered the most daring attempt by Cuba to penetrate the U.S.-based exiles, and its dismantling left a hysterical community that mistrusted neighbors, friends and even family members. Several members of the spy group managed to escape to Cuba before the arrests, five pled guilty and five more will stand trial later this year, in what promises to be an emotional trial.

Of course nothing in Cuban Miami is a one-way street. The Cuban government also claims that the exile community is behind many terrorist plots on the island. The best known incident involves the bombing of Havana tourist spots in 1997. Two Salvadorans were tried and sentenced to death by firing squads for the crime. The mastermind in that case was Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile living in El Salvador, who publicly admitted sending the Salvadoran bombers to Cuba. The Cuban government used the trial as a dog-and-pony show of the Cuban exiles’ plots, and attempted to link that case to the staid and influential Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). A group of Cuban exiles even testified that they had been recruited by CANF to promote sabotage in Cuba. Founded by the late Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF is publicly opposed to violence and denied the accusations.

These incidents are only part of the vast spy versus spy dramas that take place in the shadowy world of exile politics in Miami. But they also show that as much as the Cuban exile community is consumed by anti-Castro sentiment, the Cuban government is equally paranoid, and determined to keep close eyes on the exiles. To keep tabs on all the spies, the FBI office in Miami has kept a group of counterterrorist experts who track the activities of both fronts.

Business, Not Ideology

The case of Mariano Faget has a latter-day, post-Cold War twist. An exemplary citizen until his arrest, Faget was the highest government official of Cuban descent in Miami at the time of the arrest. In his defense, he claimed he was not a spy, just a man of poor judgement. But the jury didn’t buy his explanation.

The FBI began to suspect Faget after they saw him at a meeting with one of two Cuban government officials the FBI had under surveillance as suspected Cuban spies. During the sting, the FBI asked Faget to prepare political asylum papers for Luis Molina, saying he wanted to defect. Faget claimed he had met Molina a year earlier at a café in Miami International Airport.

Twelve minutes after receiving the information, Faget called his long-time friend and business associate, Pedro Font, and told him about the future defection. Font later had a meeting with other Cuban government officials. The FBI says Faget was not directly accused of being a spy, but of revealing classified information to an unauthorized person. Government officials said Faget had compromised INS operations because he had top secret access.

But according to the government, Faget was involved for business reasons, not to assist Castro or communism. He and his friend Pedro Font had set up America-Cuba, an investment company that would work in Cuba after the U.S. lifts the embargo. In the trial, Faget has maintained that he only wanted to warn his friend Pedro Font about the defection. And Font, a 57-year-old New York advertising executive who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, has denied any wrongdoing.

But the plot thickens. According to the government’s case, Faget and his business associates had established a company in Panama to buy land in Cuba, build cemeteries, and offer services to transport the bodies of Cubans who died in the U.S. but wanted to be buried in Cuba. He also had set up a franchise with Procter & Gamble, which according to court testimony, wanted America-Cuba to represent them when the embargo is lifted. Faget, according to the prosecution, had spent most of his savings on his childrens’ university education, and was looking forward to working in the company when he retired in a year. U.S. prosecutor Richard Gregorie said Faget’s slip was motivated by greed, not politics. “This case is not about political ideology,” Gregorie told the jury at the beginning of the trial. “We are not talking about communism… this case is about three things: money, information and access.”

The case against Faget stemmed from FBI surveillance of two Cuban Interests Section officials, Luis Molina and his successor Jose Imperatore, whom FBI officials maintain were Cuban spies. Imperatore was expelled from the U.S. soon after Faget was arrested, in a highly emotional exchange. He has denied the spying charges.

Ironically, Faget is the son of Mariano Faget, head of Cuba’s Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities (BRAC), which gained a reputation for brutality in its fight against pro-Castro rebels during Fulgencio Batista’s regime. Faget Sr. was described as “a technician of torture,” who had to leave Cuba early on because he was a marked man. He later was said to work with U.S. agencies, questioning Cuban refugees arriving in the United States in the early 1960s. Faget, Sr. was apparently also working for INS.

La Red Avispa

The alacrity shown by the FBI in the Faget case came after another case came to trial, involving five men accused of being part of the largest Cuban spy ring. The men were among ten people arrested last September on charges they ran a sophisticated spy ring, La Red Avispa, that targeted the U.S. Southern Command (the military’s Miami headquarters for the Southern Hemisphere), and planted an agent at the U.S. Navy’s Boca Chica Naval Air Station, near Key West. Several members of the group managed to escape to Cuba before the arrests.

Others in La Red joined Cuban exile groups opposed to the Castro government, including Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate), the exile group that was at the center of an international furor in February 1996, when Cuban military jets shot down two of its planes, killing four people. Five members of La Red Avispa were convicted last year on lesser charges, after they agrred to turn government witnesses against the five who will be tried later this year.

The alleged leader of the spy ring, Gerardo Hernández, alias Manuel Viramontes, was indicted in May on charges of conspiring to commit murder, the first criminal count filed in the plane downings.

Federal agents spent almost four years shadowing the Cuban spy ring, which used such traditional spy craft as microdots and code names, encrypted computer disks and hidden compartments. They lived in a world of vintage Soviet-era intrigue. They assumed code names and identities of dead Mexican-American children, and managed to penetrate the Cuban-American community. The ring communicated via a beeper system.

The accused spymaster, Gerardo Hernández, is a captain with Cuban military intelligence. Three of the ring members are still at large; two were double agents, providing information both to the FBI and to Cuba. Only Hernández has been charged with conspiracy to murder the four Brothers to the Rescue pilots — the rest are accused of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government and other lesser espionage-related charges, such as infiltrating exile organizations and attempting to obtain information on U.S. military operations in Miami.

Government officials said the spy ring did no damage to U.S. security. Although some had managed to work in U.S. military bases in Florida, they did not break into classified information or sensitive areas.

As a side note to La Red Avispa, authorities discovered that the group had no money. Spymaster Viramontes, for instance, never paid his rent on time, and others had to work two jobs to make ends meet.

Cuban Exiles’ Alleged Anti-Castro Plots and U.S. Counterterrorism

The discovery of La Red Avispa came as the FBI was beginning an investigation in Puerto Rico of several anti-Castro plots, allegedly planned by U.S. Cuban exiles. That investigation was launched after a federal grand jury indicted seven Cuban exiles in another plot to kill Fidel Castro, in Venezuela in 1997. All the cases are connected to Luis Posada Carriles, according to reports in the Miami Herald. Posada, a CIA-trained explosives expert has lived in semi-hiding in El Salvador, ever since his 1985 escape from a Venezuelan jail while awaiting trial in the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. He was the mastermind behind three years of bombing attempts in which he used Salvadoran and Guatemalan agents to smuggle bombs into Havana.

The end of the Cold War emboldened the Cuban-American community, and by 1991 many Cuban exiles dreamed that the end to Castro’s rule was near. A series of anti-Communist plots began brewing in Miami. Cuban-Americans joined para-military groups in Miami that promoted the overthrow of Castro. The overweight members of Alpha 66, the remnants of Bay of Pigs veterans, along with newly-recruited Cubans, held military games in Homestead, Florida — with plastic guns, to avoid problems with local authorities.

But underneath all the theatrics, several serious plots to attack Cuba were brewing, some of which resulted in bombings and other incidents that took place during the 90s, U.S. authorities have told reporters. As a result, the FBI office in Miami began holding more frequent meetings with counterterrorism agents from Cuba. A few meetings had taken place in the 1980s, but the need to increase the frequency grew with the new flurry of activity. Certain that news of those meetings would be potentially explosive in the Cuban-American community, they were kept secret. At the meetings, officials received information that they used to enforce U.S. neutrality laws and stop conspiracies in the United States, according to newspaper reports. Most of the information received from the Cubans was quite general, to protect the identity of Cuban spies in Miami, according to U.S. authorities. But in one case, according to the Miami Herald, the Cubans told them that they knew about a plot to detonate a bomb near Castro as he delivered a speech in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. U.S. officials sent people to talk to the exiles involved in the plot and the whole thing ended, according to the Herald.

The FBI office in Miami has one Foreign Counter-Intellligence squad with between twelve and fourteen agents assigned to tracking agents from Cuba. Most of the intelligence work by Cubans is industrial espionage or provocation of exile groups.

All the bombings and assassination plots add to the Casablanca atmosphere in Miami today. But parallel to the spying networks, there is a reality that is slowly creeping into the Miami-Cuban espionage atmosphere: Cuban exiles want to do business in Cuba.

Faget is an example of a growing number who are interested in open commerce between South Florida and Cuba, and he was apparently willing to violate the law for it. According to Jorge Salazar, director of Economic Studies at Florida International University, Cuban-American businessmen invest between $20-30 million every year in joint ventures in Cuba. In the end, a common desire to do business might be the one thing that will smoothe the rifts in the exile Cuban community.

Ana Arana is an investigative journalist who specializes in international criminal organizations in Latin America.

© 2000 El Andar Magazine