Spy culture takes toll on exiles' psyche
The recent arrests of two at Florida International University on charges of acting as Cuban agents is one more episode chipping at the Cuban-American psyche. More Miami Cubans are watching their backs.
BY LYDIA MARTIN
Growing up in Miami, young Cuban Americans rolled their eyes whenever the older generation warned there were spies everywhere.
Agents of Fidel Castro who blended into el exilio and reported back to the island? It seemed too dime-store-novel to be true.
But over the years, proof poured in. The latest: alleged Cuban agents at Florida International University. The old-timers have felt vindicated every time a spy is discovered -- just because they were paranoid didn't mean spies weren't out to get them. But just how damaging have those spies been?
Whatever intelligence they may have swiped, their greatest toll could be on the Cuban-American psyche. The 47 years of Castro's rule may have established a well-documented culture of fear and duplicity on the island -- but many say they look over their shoulders in Miami, too.
''Whether it's one spy or hundreds, they contribute to the culture of doubt,'' said Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, which has been infiltrated several times. ``From the early stages of the revolution, Castro has been separating families, creating divisions between friends. And it's happened in Miami, too. You don't always know who to trust.''
SENSE OF MISTRUST
Because they have proof of cloak-and-dagger actions from the island, for Miami Cubans there is often a sense that things are not as they seem on the surface. That means they can mistrust the news and dream up new angles to Cuba-related incidents just when all the angles seem exhausted.
A common whisper in Miami: Luis Posada Carriles, the exile suspected of anti-Castro bombings, is probably a Castro agent himself.
Then again, it was a Cuban artist, the late Antonio Prohias, who created the classic Spy vs. Spy cartoon after he fled the island in 1960. In Cuba, he had drawn cartoons critical of Castro, who in turn accused him of being a member of the CIA.
''I think the cartoon says a lot about what happened to our psyche after Castro took power and established a society based on double morality,'' said José Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, the exile organization infiltrated by a Cuban spy, which led to the death of four of his group's members, shot down in international waters by Cuban MiG fighter jets on Feb. 24, 1996.
Prohias, whose Spy vs. Spy was a cornerstone of MAD magazine, was a mentor for successful Cuban-American artist David Le Batard (Lebo), 33.
''Growing up here, my mom was always closing the blinds because she thought people were looking at the house,'' said Le Batard, who is the brother of Miami Herald sports columnist Dan Le Batard. ``I think it started with the Cuba thing. Think about Spy vs. Spy, . . . the struggle between negative and positive and the fact that neither ever wins.''
In fact, there has long been a mutual paranoia between the island and exile. The flip side of believing spies lurk everywhere in Miami is the notion that the CIA is all over Cuba.
''I've been in line waiting for bread with family, and people around me who know I'm from the United States clearly don't trust me. They ask suspicious questions and accuse you of being with la CIA,'' said New York actress and playwright Carmen Peláez, grandniece of the late Cuban painter Amelia Peláez, who has visited Havana.
In Miami, many look at such incidents as the repatriation of Cuban rafters and subsequent protests of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy as examples of Castro pulling the strings of Miami's Cubans.
Caímos en la trampa, we fell into the trap, has become a frequent groan from Cuban Americans who suspect they are being prodded. ''The level of penetration is worse than people realize,'' Basulto said. ``[Castro operatives] work within Miami's community, creating disinformation, inciting violence at peaceful exile protests to make us look bad in the press.''
There is indeed proof Cuban agents have infiltrated exile protests over the years, U.S. officials said. ''The Cuban intelligence service is among the best in the world,'' said Brian Latell, a former CIA agent who in the early 1990s served as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America. Said Skip Brandon, former deputy assistant director of the FBI who specialized in counter-intelligence: ``On the one hand, we probably tended to give Fidel too much credit that he was behind everything, and on the other, maybe not enough. Many foreign intelligence agencies don't really worry about their émigré communities in the United States. Castro always did, and still does. In the old days, people like [anti-Castro militant] Tony Cuesta were launching raids. It doesn't happen now, but Fidel may not have gotten out of that mind set.''
Some spies, like Ana Belén Montes, the Puerto Rican who was a former senior analyst for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, have posed serious threat to national security. Others have seemed low-rent nuisances.
But in early January, the FBI accused FIU professor Carlos M. Alvarez and his wife, Elsa, a counselor at the university, of operating as covert agents for Cuba -- Carlos since the late '70s, his wife since the early 1980s.
They were entrenched in Cuban Miami in a way other known agents had not been. They were active at St. Thomas Catholic Church, counted Cuban community leaders as part of their circle.
And many of those people are still reeling.
'I have two daughters in their 20s who were acquaintances of [the Alvarezes'] oldest son,'' said Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert and associate provost for the University of Miami. ``That night when the story broke, it was interesting to see all the calls between the younger generation. They really felt betrayed.''
But the Alvarezes did worse than just hurt people's feelings, said Mesa, of CANF.
``They were involved in Catholic retreats where people of faith go for fraternity. Maybe you go there and talk about trouble in your marriage, or about your child's mental illness. There were prominent people at these retreats -- lawyers, judges, exile leaders. Now there is a sense that they know your weaknesses, and they can get you.''
Establishing distrust among friends and relatives is a basic tactic of the Cuban government, said Cuban author Eliseo Alberto, who moved to Mexico in 1990 and shortly after published a book titled Informe Contra Mi Mismo, Report Against Myself, which dissects the psychology of his generation.
``Almost everybody in Cuba, at some point, is approached to inform against a relative or a friend. You never know who to trust. And the Cuban government is trying to create that sickness in Miami, too.''
The doubting has taken a huge toll on the psychological well-being of people on the island, Alberto said.
``You get to the point where you're grateful it's a certain friend that you suspect is your informant, because he's not as bad a guy as so-and-so. I had a close friend who would come over all the time when I moved to Mexico. I was sure he was informing Cuba about the book I was writing. I would invent pages for him to report back on that were never going to be in the book, just to throw him off. But that's how the mind works after so many years in Cuba.''
The mind can work that way in Miami, too.
''They're probably recording this conversation right now,'' Basulto said while he talked on the phone.
Ana Margarita Martinez, who unwittingly married a spy, is also cagey now. She met Juan Pablo Roque at a church function and learned the truth when he disappeared from their Kendall home on a Friday and showed up on Cuban TV on a Monday, bragging just after the Brothers to the Rescue planes had been shot down that he had infiltrated the exile group -- and assuring he'd miss nothing about Miami.
''I'm a lot more watchful. But it's hard to know who to trust even when you think you know better,'' Martinez said. ``I had this friend René González. After Juan Pablo disappeared, René would come over to console me. I trusted him. Until it was found out that he was a member of La Red Avispa [the Wasp Network, convicted of spying for Cuba]. I was shocked.''
Martinez is still affected.
``For a while I did worry that my phones were tapped. But I don't really have anything to hide. So I just live with it. But what's ironic is that my mother took me out of Cuba in 1966 so that I wouldn't be victimized by the regime. I guess we didn't get far enough.''
Coming Thursday: In Miami's exile community, the Cold War is still a hot topic.
MiamiHerald.com | 02/08/2006 | Spy culture takes toll on exiles' psyche