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On Feb. 17, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Mariano Faget, a Cuban-born Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) official in the south Florida district, and charged him with spying for Cuba. The government also said Jose Imperatori, vice consul at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, conspired with Faget and others to transmit sensitive information to Havana. The diplomat was deported and is now in Canada.

Faget, 54, was soon to retire after 35 years with the INS, but was caught in an FBI sting operation called False Blue. Following a yearlong surveillance, the FBI asked Faget to prepare asylum documents for a Cuban intelligence officer who wished to defect. Within minutes, Faget called Pedro Font, a wealthy New York businessman, and disclosed the supposed defector's name. Cuban officials said Faget was told the defector was Imperatori.

The sting operation came after an FBI investigation revealed that Faget had made telephone calls to the Cuban Interests Section and may have met with Imperatori and another diplomat from the Cuban mission in a Miami hotel. On Feb. 19, the State Department declared Imperatori persona non grata and ordered him to leave the country.

The FBI said that Faget and Font were partners in the firm America-Cuba, which could have been used to relay secret information to Cuba. But Faget said he made the call because Font was about to meet with Imperatori on matters connected with business plans. He said that he and Font intended to invest in Cuba through their company after Faget's retirement from the INS.

Faget is charged with violating national security laws and giving confidential information to an unauthorized person. The maximum penalty for the offense is 10 years in prison. A Miami judge denied bail to Faget on grounds that he might flee.

Cuba refuses to recall diplomat

The Cuban government refused to recall Imperatori and ordered him to remain in the US, challenging the US to prove its allegations. Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban parliament, called on the US government to back up its charges and to defy the anti-Castro Miami exile organizations, which he said were behind the accusations.

"It is time for them [the US] to stand their ground and stop accepting the blackmail and pressure of unscrupulous criminals," said Alarcon.

Alarcon called the charges "a smokescreen" to divert attention away from the Elian Gonzalez case. On the next working day after Faget's arrest, federal Judge William M. Hoeveler was scheduled to hear arguments concerning the repatriation of the six-year-old Cuban boy who was rescued at sea last November (see NotiCen, 2000-02-03).

The Cuban government acknowledged that some of its diplomats had contacts with Faget, but denied the purpose of the contacts was espionage or to recruit spies. These contacts were all related to investment in Cuba and discussion of immigration problems.

If the US could prove its charges, not only would Imperatori be recalled, said the Cuban government newspaper Granma, but "we will also try him in our courts for grave and compromising acts of indiscipline." It is the US Interests Section in Havana that "conspires as it pleases," said a Granma editorial. If the Cuban government expelled all personnel at the US mission who are involved in conspiracies, the mission would be almost empty, the editorial said.

Linking the spy case to the Elian Gonzalez controversy, the Cuban government said in a televised statement that the sudden illness of Judge Hoeveler was "very strange." Hoeveler was hospitalized with a stroke shortly before he was to hear a petition that could have decided whether Elian will be repatriated or given a political-asylum hearing.

In an open letter "to the American people," Imperatori announced his resignation, saying he was giving up his diplomatic immunity and would go on a hunger strike until his name was cleared. Denying he had engaged in any act of espionage, Imperatori said Faget was also innocent, and suggested the accusations were linked to the Elian case.

"This arbitrary action comes as a devastating blow to the prestige and authority of the INS commissioner [Faget], who has recognized the legitimate right of full parental authority to the surviving parent who lives in Cuba with the child's four grandparents."

Imperatori's refusal to leave and Havana's refusal to recall him placed the US in the unusual position of having to decide whether to arrest and try an accused spy who refused to go home. US officials were clearly surprised by the Cuban response because governments traditionally recall diplomats declared persona non grata. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Imperatori's refusal to leave the country "unprecedented." State Department spokesman James Rubin said no one could remember a case where a government refused to comply with such as request.

A Miami Herald report said the US had tried to keep the spy case and the Elian case separate, though the timing of Faget's arrest would seem to make that impossible. Not only was Faget an important INS officer in Miami, where the Elian story is playing out, but Imperatori accompanied Elian's grandmothers during their visit to Miami last month. He was at the airport when the women arrived from Washington and was heard talking on a telephone to a Sr. Alarcon, presumably Ricardo Alarcon. He then accompanied the grandmothers back to Washington.

Following Faget's arrest, lawyers representing Elian's Miami relatives asked Attorney General Janet Reno to delay the federal-court hearing on Elian and investigate whether Faget had any influence on the case.

Finally, on Feb. 26, the FBI detained Imperatori and deported him. Arriving in Montreal on a two-day transit visa, Imperatori refused to continue on to Havana and announced that he would continue his protest and hunger strike in Canada. He took refuge in the Cuban Embassy in Ottawa while the Cuban government asked for an extension of his stay. But Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy demanded that Cuba "live up to its responsibilities," and said Imperatori had to leave Canada. A government statement criticized him for a "publicity-seeking attempt to remain in Ottawa."

But Imperatori, still on his hunger strike March 2, refused to leave the diplomatic compound, and Canada was caught in the middle of the Cuba-US quarrel.

Imperatori's deportation eliminates any immediate chance for him to face his accusers in court, although Rubin left open the possibility that he could be recalled to testify in the case against Faget. If he did return to the US, Imperatori could be jailed for espionage. [Sources: Granma (Cuba), 02/22/00; El Nuevo Herald (Miami), Reuters, 02/24/00; United Press International, 02/25/00; CNN, 02/26/00; Department of State daily briefing, 02/22/00, 02/26/00; The New York Times, 02/27/00; The Washington Post, Notimex, 02/23/00, 02/27/00; Deutsche Press Agentur, 02/28/00; Agence France-Presse, 02/22/00, 02/28/00; Associated Press, 02/26/00, 02/28/00; The Miami Herald, 02/18/00, 02/22/00, 02/29/00; The Ottawa Citizen, 02/29/00, 03/01/0]
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Publication:NotiCen: Central American & Caribbean Affairs
Date:Mar 2, 2000

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