Head of anti-Castro paramilitary group insists agent was hurt
By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
HAVANA – Juan Pablo Roque is one of the most notorious – or the most successful – Cuban spies who has ever lived, depending on your point of view.
So when a Miami paramilitary group last year claimed that agents had shot him in a murder attempt that reportedly left two other people dead, it made headlines around the Americas.
But on a recent afternoon in Havana, Mr. Roque emerged from the patio of his mother’s house, showing no signs of injury.
“I’m fine,” he told a reporter who showed up unannounced. “Can’t you see?”
All of which raises a question: Did the much-touted assassination attempt really occur?
Rodolfo Frometa, who has served jail time for trying to buy high-powered weapons to attack Cuba, insists it did.
He heads a group called Comandos F-4 and has a storefront office along West Flagler Street in Miami. He said Cubans linked to his group tried to kill Mr. Roque at 2 a.m. one day in December.
As he tells it, the would-be assassins shot Mr. Roque, wounding him seriously. A gunbattle followed, and a police officer, Luis Ramírez Echeverría, and an F-4 operative, Ramon Sosa, were killed, he said.
Asked about the supposed attack, Cuban officials decline to provide evidence one way or another.
Instead, they ask why U.S. authorities seem to pay so little attention to Cuban exiles who are mixed up in assassination attempts.
The FBI has said it has no proof the attempt occurred.
And Fidel Castro, who has ruled Cuba since 1959, said he is not afraid of his U.S. foes.
If “Miami mercenary groups” attack, “they will last about as long as a snowball in hell,” the Cuban president said.
In the meantime, Mr. Frometa continues asking for donations from Cuban-Americans and others willing to contribute to his cause – the toppling of Mr. Castro.
He sells bumper stickers – “bonds for the liberty of Cuba” – for $10 each.
“With your donation, you are actively participating in the liberation of Cuba,” the stickers read.
On his office walls, Mr. Frometa displays photos of his group’s activities, which include the slapping of bright yellow F-4 stickers on trash bins outside such attractions as the Tropicana nightclub in Havana. F-4 makes “an energetic call to the Cuban people, and especially the peaceful opposition,” the stickers say.
More than a few Cuban-Americans say Mr. Frometa is an eccentric, one of the few paramilitary leaders left in America who is still trying to overthrow a foreign government.
But Cuban authorities take him seriously. They consider him a potential threat.
At the same time, they say he may be involved in anti-Castro activities for less-than-noble reasons: to make money.
Mr. Frometa, 56, denies that.
As a teenager growing up in Cuba, he said, he opposed dictator Fulgencio Batista. After the rebels’ victory, Mr. Frometa soured on the revolution and defected to the United States in 1968.
He joined Alpha 66, then one of the most active paramilitary groups, and ventured into Cuba in the 1980s to recruit members.
Cuban authorities nabbed him, and he served a decade in Mr. Castro’s prisons.
After his release, Mr. Frometa returned to Florida. He had a dispute with Alpha’s leaders and in 1994 founded his own group, Comandos F-4.
That same year, American authorities said he tried to buy a Stinger anti-aircraft missile, plastic explosives and anti-tank rockets from an undercover FBI agent.
His intention, U.S. officials say, was to attack Cuban tourist resorts, an important source of hard currency. Mr. Frometa was convicted and sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison.
Now free, Mr. Frometa said he still believes that violence is the only way to remove Mr. Castro. But he said he does not break U.S. law and does not order assassinations.
He does, however, believe in F-4’s supporters in Cuba.
“They’re fighting for the freedom of Cuba from within Cuba.”
Mr. Frometa denies that the purported Roque assassination attempt was a stunt aimed at bringing in more funds. And to bolster his argument, he played a tape recording from a man he identified as Argeo Caballero, the supposed chief of F-4 operations in Cuba.
In the recording, a man’s voice says the group “will continue working to assassinate traitors and killers of the Cuban people.”
Mr. Frometa’s claims have not been verified.
On the walls of his office, Mr. Frometa has plastered photos of paramilitary exercises that his group conducts in South Florida’s Everglades.
In one photo, he appears with U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., a longtime foe of Mr. Castro.
Other photos show Mr. Roque, the spy.
Mr. Roque, in his 40s with salt-and-pepper hair, was at the center of the so-called Wasp Network, a group of Cuban agents who infiltrated anti-Castro groups in Miami in the 1990s.
One group, Brothers to the Rescue, flew U.S.-provided Cessnas into Cuban airspace more than a dozen times. Cuban authorities called it a provocation. And in February 1996, Cuban MiGs blasted two of the group’s planes out of the air, killing four civilians.
For that, U.S. prosecutors indicted Mr. Roque on conspiracy to commit murder and other charges. He was linked to the case because he had infiltrated Brothers and knew their flight plans, prosecutors say.
But by the time the shootdown occurred, the elusive secret agent had slipped back into Cuba, leaving his life in Florida behind.
Mr. Roque declined to comment about his activities in South Florida, saying he didn’t want to do anything that might hurt the case of five Cuban spies now in prison in the United States on espionage-related charges.
He declined to be interviewed unless higher-ups gave him an OK – and they did not.