HAVANA -- Lt. Col. Juan Pablo Roque wore his Rolex with pride — the unique pride of a Cuban double agent who once worked for the FBI.
But now the man who was once one of Cuba’s most illustrious spies is out of cash. And he wants to sell his prized watch and his house in Havana.
“I need the money,” Roque said in his most extensive interview in more than 15 years.
His story illustrates the uncertain life that awaits Cuban spies whose covers are blown. But it’s also a reminder of the extent and success of Cuban spying even now, 21 years after the Cold War’s end.
Roque, a former fighter pilot with Hollywood good looks, staged his defection from Cuba in 1992, swimming to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay and declaring opposition to Fidel Castro.
He became a pilot for Brothers to the Rescue, a group dedicated to searching for rafters in the Florida Straits. But then he stunned everyone in 1996, slipping back into Cuba the day before Cuban MiGs shot down two civilian aircraft flown by members of the exile group.
Now 57 and living with his girlfriend in a cramped Havana apartment, Roque said he’s sorry four people were killed in the Feb. 24, 1996, incident.
“If I could travel in a time machine,” he said, “I’d get those boys off the planes that were shot down.”
The four dead included Carlos Costa, Mario de la Peña, Pablo Morales and Armando Alejandre Jr.
Alejandre’s sister, Maggie Khuly, said justice was never done.
“Speaking for the families, my family in particular, we’re looking forward to the day when Roque faces U.S. courts on his outstanding indictment,” said Khuly, a Miami architect.
Spy for spy
The shoot-down drove U.S.-Cuba relations to a new low and prompted then-President Bill Clinton to sign the Helms-Burton Act, which ramped up economic sanctions against Cuba.
Since then, U.S.-Cuba relations remain as chilly as ever. President Barack Obama loosened some travel restrictions to Cuba after taking office, but has done little else to ease the tension. In fact, U.S. officials have worked steadily to undermine the socialist government, spending more than $200 million on Cuba democracy programs since 1996.
Cuban spies in Miami and Havana watch these efforts carefully, sometimes foiling U.S. plans. In 2009, Cuban authorities arrested Alan Gross, a development worker from Maryland. He was a subcontractor for the Agency for International Development and was caught smuggling sophisticated satellite communication gear into Cuba. Cuban authorities slapped him with a 15-year prison term in 2011.
Cuban authorities say they’re willing to trade Gross for Cuban agents arrested in Florida after the FBI broke the so-called Wasp spy network in September 1998.
Four of those agents remain in American prisons. A fifth spent 13 years in jail and is now free, but can’t return to Cuba until he serves three years’ probation in the United States.
The agents are known as the Cuban Five. For 14 years, they have been at the center of a massive Cuban propaganda campaign. They are celebrated as heroes who were defending their homeland. They are household names in Cuba and their likeness is plastered all over signs, billboards and buildings.
Roque’s spying exploits were as dramatic as any of the Cuban Five, but he returned to the island to live a life of obscurity.