On the lookout
Miami has too many Cuban intelligence agents who are on the lookout for people like Alvarez, Fernandez said, and too many exiles so intent on doing business with the island that they could be easily tempted to report to Havana on any interesting new arrivals.
What’s more, the Miami office of the FBI, the agency in charge of debriefing Cuban defectors and spotting its spies, is widely viewed as being more experienced in island affairs than the Tampa office, according to U.S. intelligence community analysts.
“The FBI in Miami is sharp, all business. But they are under a lot of pressure because of the large Cuban intelligence presence there. Tampa is also smart, but friendlier,” said one South Florida anti-Castro activist who has dealt with both on Cuba defectors.
Also keeping low profiles in Tampa and elsewhere are defectors whose membership in Cuba’s Communist Party or Communist Youth, government jobs or family relations with senior government officials could complicate their U.S. immigration status, Allen noted.
Defectors are asked about those sorts of links during their initial interviews with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. Some may not reveal them, afraid they will be detained for further questioning instead of being immediately paroled. But the questions can come up again when they try to adjust their status from parolees to U.S. residents.
Allen said three recent Cuban arrivals living in the Fort Myers area sought his counsel on their status adjustments, but did not hire him when he started asking too many questions about their work and memberships in Cuba.
And if the defectors keep a low enough profile, and above all make no public statements even hinting at any criticism of the Cuban government, they may win a Havana permission to return to the island to visit relatives.
Pedro Alvarez and Glenda Murillo have made no public statements. Neither has Ernesto Andollo, the son of a top Cuban army general, found to be living in Tampa in July after he posted a Facebook photo of himself “strangling” a wax museum figure of Fidel Castro.
Also reported to be living quietly in Tampa is a nephew of Ramon Castro, older brother of Fidel and Raúl Castro. A brother of one of Raúl Castro’s sons-in-law and a former girlfriend of one of Fidel Castro’s sons are living in Naples.
Although Tampa has a long history of ties to the island that go back to the 1800s and the cigar industry here, the city today does not have much of a Cuban presence. The 2010 census showed the Tampa Bay area had 65,000 residents who called themselves Cuban.
No Little Havana
Tampa has avenues named Habana and Republica de Cuba, but no neighborhood so densely packed with Cubans that it’s known as Little Havana.
What it does have are two key U.S. military headquarters within the MacDill Air Force Base — Central Command, in charge of all operations in the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan; and the Special Operations Command, in charge of all elite units, such as Seal Teams and Green Berets, anywhere in the world.
An official in the George W. Bush administration who was regularly briefed on Cuba intelligence operations said that’s why U.S. security agencies have been particularly concerned about the presence of island defectors in the Tampa area.
“Any increase in the number of Cubans living near any U.S. military facility is cause for concern,” said the official, who asked to remain unidentified, “specially if they had high-level jobs in the government or were members of the [Communist] Party.”
Nearly 100 suspicious Cubans were spotted settling near U.S. military installations in the late 1990s, he added, and one of them applied for a job as an air traffic controller in an Air Force base in North Carolina.
One of the five Cuban spies convicted in a Miami trial in 2001, Ramon Labañino, was living in Tampa and reporting to Havana on airplanes landing and taking off from MacDill before he arrived in Miami, according to trial evidence.