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Posted February 04, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Human Rights

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By Ann Louise Bardach | Special to the Star-Telegram

Elizardo Sanchez

After the Cuban government rounded up 75 dissidents and writers last spring, Cubaphiles were abuzz over the curious omission of one of the country’s most famous dissidents, Elizardo Sanchez.

Then we found out the reason: Cuban intelligence had cooked up an even more delicious humiliation for him than prison.

In August, two writers closely allied with government authorities published a slender book titled El Camajan, a term that can mean a type of chameleon but usually refers to an opportunist or person who cannot be trusted. The book described Sanchez as an informant for state security.

Sanchez, 59, a self-described socialist democrat who heads the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, seemed as shocked as everyone else by the news. Vehemently denying the charge, he said, “You can believe the totalitarian regime or believe me.”

And there are many reasons to believe him, not least of which is the decade he has spent behind bars in Cuba. Since his release in 1991, his home, phone and contacts have been under constant surveillance.

When the incendiary charges of El Camajan met with skepticism, the Cuban government released more evidence: a 1998 videotape of a colonel in the Interior Ministry embracing Sanchez and pinning a medal on him.

Sanchez was quick to concede that he had fallen into a trap, perhaps owing to too many cocktails. Still, he offered a credible explanation: He had been meeting with government officials to facilitate his human rights work—as do many dissidents, reporters and diplomats.

No matter what the facts may turn out to be, the book had precisely the impact that the master schemers at the Ministry of Interior had in mind. It has sown distrust and suspicion among dissidents and ordinary Cubans in general.

This is the corrosive legacy that will far outlast the other failures of the ailing Fidel Castro, who on Jan. 1 commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

Once celebrated by more than a million exultant Cubans dancing in the streets, the anniversary has become, with each passing year, more of a somber reckoning than a celebration.

Cuba is not the first authoritarian state to dabble in the smoke-and-mirrors disinformation game. Unable to make dissent vanish, such regimes invariably seek to discredit the dissidents instead.

The apartheid government of South Africa and the Stalinist elders of East Germany were peerless in this art. In fact, the Cuban intelligence apparatus is reportedly modeled on the Stasi, the nefarious East German security organ.

Spying and deception have a curious history in Cuba. Even before the reign of dictator Fulgencio Batista, informers were known as chivatos, or stool pigeons, the term still used today.

The Castro government fine-tuned the tradition with Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), local watchdog groups that specialize in neighbors informing on neighbors.

Typically, the offenses involve petty infractions, such as black market trading, and the accusations are often motivated by envy. But since the loss of Cuba’s Soviet patron, the committee system has lost much of its clout because virtually every Cuban—CDR officials included—is doing something on the sly to survive.

In other areas, infiltration continues. Jack Devine, a 32-year CIA veteran who ran the agency’s Latin America desk for years, says that the “Cuban intelligence [service] has always been very effective. I suspect that all of the exile groups have been infiltrated. In the mid-1970s, we tried to recruit some [exile] agents. They were all bad”—meaning they were Cuban double agents.

During a reporting trip to Havana in 1994, I visited a renowned santero, a Santeria priest popular with the Cuban intelligentsia. Santeria priests, like their Roman Catholic counterparts in the confessional, are expected to keep confidences well, confidential.

A week later at a dinner in Miami with some newly arrived Cuban friends, I mentioned my evening with the santero.

“Oh, yes, I know him very well,” one of them said. “My mother [an officer with the Ministry of Interior] used to debrief him every Friday about his sessions.”

Not even visiting heads of state are safe from surveillance.

Furious over Mexico’s vote to condemn Cuba’s human rights record at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 2002, Castro called Mexican President Vicente Fox “a liar” and then released a tape recording of Fox that contradicted the official Mexican account of a meeting between the two leaders.

Defending the surreptitious recording of his guest, Castro told Cuban television: “A conversation between two heads of state is not a love letter. It is a political exchange. It is not a secret of the confessional.”

Dissidents, of course, are priority targets of such tactics. Perhaps the most chilling revelation of the quickie trials of the 75 dissidents conducted last May was the discovery that 12 of the most esteemed members of the dissident community were, in fact, informers for state security.

The writer Marta Beatriz Roque was sent to prison based on the account of her voluble assistant, whom she trusted even with her computer password. Other dissidents learned that the waiters who served them when they dined with visiting diplomats were Interior Ministry agents.

Veteran Cuba watchers puzzled over why a canny strategist such as Castro would blow the cover of a dozen agents—a significant loss to any security apparatus.

Perhaps Castro wanted to needle the United States. Many of the informers had become welcome visitors at the office and residence of the chief of the U.S. interests section, James Cason, who at the behest of the Bush administration has encouraged dissident activity since taking the post in September 2002. Evidently Castro needed to gloat and tell the United States: I fooled you again.

But Castro was also warning Cubans and visitors: Be careful what you say—we might have compromising data on you.

In the late ‘90s, I met Patricio de la Guardia, a former Interior Ministry colonel who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in the infamous 1989 drug trials and whose brother Tony, also a colonel, was one of four men executed.

By 1998, Patricio was allowed occasional home visits to see his ailing mother. One afternoon, he noted impassively that many ears were listening to our conversation, even though we were chatting in his backyard. He nodded toward the trees. “They’re bugged,” he said, with a dark laugh. “I know. I installed the same system many times.”

Whenever the post-Castro years finally arrive, Cuba will undergo a process similar to that of East Germany, where the files collected by the Stasi on East German citizens leaked out like time-delayed explosions years after the Berlin Wall came down.

Among Cubans, reconciliation may prove equally difficult. Because so many of the files contain malicious disinformation, the truth may never be entirely clear.

A unique permutation in the Cuban version of this strategy is the export of suspicion and denunciation from Cuba to the United States. Ironically, some Cubans who fled to escape the tyranny of such a culture have instituted a similar system in Miami.

In pockets of south Florida, some exiles have mimicked the revolutionary committees back in Cuba by reporting neighbors, acquaintances and enemies to the police, FBI, U.S. Customs or the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for illegal travel or excessive remittances to Cuba.

For years, many Miami hard-liners have trashed Sanchez and another leading dissident, Osvaldo Paya, as being insufficiently anti-Castro. This is really succession politics: Paya and Sanchez are threats to some exile leaders who dream of replacing Castro themselves.

In Miami, exile radio has played a particularly divisive role with ceaseless speculation about who is, or is not, a spy—almost the mirror image of Castro’s apparatus.

In the Cuban media, exiles are rarely mentioned without the epithets of gusanos (worms) or “the Miami Mafia.” Likewise, Miami Spanish-language radio offers up a daily menu of withering denunciations of those who disagree with the views of hard-liners.

“Miami radio stations are the most inquisitorial and lengueteras (acid-tongued) of the entire world,” observes the exile writer Rene Vazquez Diaz. “There is gossip, persecution, lies and the lowest politicking at a rhetorical level.”

While it’s undoubtedly true that there are Cuban agents in Miami, those denounced by Miami radio are generally not spies. They are simply dialogueras, exiles who favor negotiations to settle the Cuban stalemate.

Although recent polls show that pro-dialogue exiles are now in the majority in the United States, they remain marginalized by the Miami exile power structure.

Among the most popular broadcasters is Armando Perez-Roura, Radio Mambi’s director, who worked for Batista and then Castro before setting himself up as the Walter Winchell of Calle Ocho, the main avenue of Miami’s “Little Havana.” Perez-Roura has long called Sanchez and other dissidents “mercenaries.”

Back in Cuba, most dissidents continue to respect and work with Sanchez. Vladimiro Roca, another well-known dissident who was released from prison as a condition of Jimmy Carter’s trip to Havana, says: “In the worst of cases, Elizardo was a government agent; but in that case he obviously didn’t do the work the government wanted him. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have done what they did.”

It’s hardly an overwhelming vote of confidence, but amid the intrigue in Cuban society, there’s always a bit of doubt.

Ann Louise Bardach is the author of Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana. This essay appeared previously in The Washington Post.

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