By GEORGE TALBOT | Business Reporter | [url=http://www.al.com]http://www.al.com[/url]
An air of conspiracy mixed with the Cuban artwork and rum cocktails Friday as the Society Mobile-La Habana opened its 10th anniversary conference in Mobile.
The fraternal organization, established in 1993 to promote cultural exchanges between Mobile and Havana, was linked by U.S. State Department officials Friday to a Cuban diplomat expelled from the U.S. earlier this year under suspicion of espionage.
Oscar Redondo, former First Secretary for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., was one of seven Cuban officials declared “persona non grata” by the State Department in May because of what it described as “intelligence activities incompatible with their diplomatic status.” The offi cials, who denied the charges, were given 10 days to leave the country.
A State Department spokesman said Redondo was a conspirator in the case of Ana Belen Montes, an employee of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency who said she spied for Cuba for years because she was outraged by American policies toward Cuba.
Group members said Friday that Mobile Society-La Habana had worked closely with Redondo for the past several years in arrang ing a series of visits to Cuba. Redondo helped the group plan its activities on the island, including arranging meetings with Cuban officials, and occasionally joined the group on its trips.
A State Department official who asked not to be identified said the Mobile society “may have strayed from its stated mission as a sister cities group” during some of those visits. Robert Schaefer, the president of Mobile-La Habana, said members of the group were friendly with Redondo but never had any inkling that he was doubling as a spy.
“If Oscar was a spook, he certainly neglected to tell me about it,” said Schaefer.
The State Department official also said that, in making Mobile the first U.S. city to establish a formal, fraternal relationship with Cuba, the Mobile society was believed to have agreed to a series of conditions set by the Fidel Castro regime. Those conditions were said to include a public denouncement of the U.S. government’s policies regarding Cuba.
The comments from the State Department were made just hours after President Bush, in a morning speech at the White House, announced an aggressive initiative to identify and punish Americans who visit Cuba in violation of U.S. laws.
Later Friday, a State Department spokesman said the Mobile society was not suspected of committing espionage or any illegal activity.
“We would not infer that they knowingly engaged in those types of activities,” said Gonzalo Gallegos, a spokesman in the department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. “There were a lot of people engaged with the (expelled) diplomats. We have no reason for increased scrutiny” of the Mobile society.
The Bush speech, and the State Department’s decision to block the travel of Cuba’s top U.S. diplomat to Mobile for this weekend’s conference, gave a charge to what organizers expected to be a low-key, if festive, gathering at the Radisson Admiral Semmes hotel.
Schaefer said in a series of media interviews that the society “would not and has not” worked on behalf of the Cuban government, nor did it make any conditional agreements in establishing its sister-city partnership. He called such allegations “absurd and sad,” and said the society includes among its 225 members a number of prominent Mobilians, among them doctors, lawyers and religious leaders representing a spectrum of political and social viewpoints.
“While many of us may disagree with the policy toward Cuba, we have always obeyed the rules and followed the letter of the law on our visits,” said Schaefer, a political science professor at the University of Mobile.
Schaefer also said that he and other members of the group, including its founder, the Mobile historian Jay Higginbotham, have had their activities monitored at various times by the Federal Bureau of Investigation “so that if we were doing anything wrong, I think they’d have something more than these vague insinuations.”
Ray Zicarelli, a spokesman for the FBI in Mobile, cited federal policy against commenting on matters that may or may not be under investigation. But Zicarelli said the agency “would have no reason to keep track of any group that is simply exercising its Constitutional rights.”
The State Department also Friday clarified its decision not to allow Dagoberto Rodriguez, the Chief of the Cuban Interests Section, to travel to Mobile for the conference. Organizers said Rodriguez last spring accepted an invitation to this weekend’s event.
The movement of Cuban officials in the U.S. has been severely restrict ed since August in retaliation for what the State Department described as “discriminatory treatment” of American diplomats in Havana.
A spokesman for the department said Rodriguez never formally submitted a travel application “but would have been denied if he did.”
Bush said Friday he intended to tighten restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba, including cultural and educational trips organized by groups such as the Society Mobile-La Habana.
“We allow travel for limited reasons, including (a) visit to a family, to bring humanitarian aid, or to conduct research,” Bush said. “Those exceptions are too often used as cover for illegal business travel and tourism, or to skirt the restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba. We’re cracking down on this deception.”
Schaefer said the new restrictions “are clearly being made with an eye toward winning Florida electoral votes in the next election.” He said the Mobile society has been denied Cuban travel licenses three times in the past year, and that the restrictions will hamper the group’s ability “to promote good will between ordinary Americans and Cubans.”
The group has no immediate plans to reapply for a license to visit Cuba, Schaefer said.
“For now, we’re just going to concentrate on building our message here in the U.S.,” he said.
The conference opened Friday with speeches by Mobile Mayor Mike Dow, a leader in the city’s efforts to cultivate ties to Cuba, and by the Alabama historian Dan Brooks.
The conference continues today with a 9 a.m. panel discussion on promoting trade with Cuba and concludes with a 7 p.m. dinner and speech by Wayne Smith, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.