An unprecented trip to Havana on Wednesday by American officials from various security agencies, including the FBI, has raised speculation that the United States and Cuba are considering a high-profile prisoner swap: jailed Cuba spy Ana Belén Montes in exchange for longtime American fugitive Joanne Chesimard.
The speculation stems from a report last week by NBC News that Cuban diplomats had recently brought up Montes during talks about possible prisoner exchanges.
Neither the U.S. or Cuba has confirmed that any such action is in the works.
But the State Department did announce that a team of American officials —including representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — would take part in a first-time gathering in Havana with Cuban counterparts to discuss joint efforts in the fight against terrorism.
The alleged Montes-for-Chesimard swap has generated criticism.
“Trading convicted spy Montes for fugitives from American justice will only reward the Castro regime for harboring criminals,” said Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the leading opponents to the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Montes is serving a 25-year sentence after pleading guilty of spying for the Cuban government during the 16 years she worked as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The spy is accused of revealing the identities of four U.S. secret agents to Cuba.
Ros-Lehtinen stressed that Montes had a fair trial despite having jeopardized U.S. national security.
“The Obama administration must secure the return of criminals like Joanne Chesimard, a convicted cop killer, and others unconditionally,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “There are many unanswered questions surrounding this possible deal that should be fully investigated before any action is even contemplated.”
The unconfirmed prisoner exchange report, while controversial, would not be unprecedented.
President Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro surprised the world on Dec. 17, 2014 with the announcement of a spy swap and the release of American contractor Alan Gross.
In fact, the U.S. has publicly stated that it is interested in the return of several fugitives who have found refuge in Cuba, including Chesimard, who escaped from a prison in New Jersey in 1979 while serving a life sentence for the murder of a policeman.
“The United States continues to seek the return from Cuba of fugitives from U.S. justice,” according to a State Department statement issued Wednesday. “The Department repeatedly raises fugitive cases with the Cuban government and will continue to do so at every appropriate opportunity.”
For decades, Chesimard supporters have said the former activist and Black Panther Party member was unjustly convicted.
A new round of calls for the release of Montes have recently taken place in Cuba. Popular Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez even dedicated a song to Montes and called for her release during a concert in Spain.