When FBI agents recently began knocking on the doors of Cuban exiles in Miami and New York who support normalizing relations with Cuba, speculation inevitably followed: Why would the federal agency be deploying a campaign that many attribute to remnants of the Cold War?
Were the agents trying to gather information about the Cuban exiles who support a dialogue with the communist country?
Were they looking for intelligence on possible Cuban “spies” who might have contacted them?
Or were their inquiries related to an FBI investigation into the mysterious attacks against U.S. officials in Havana, which have sickened 26 people?
None of the above, according to sources familiar with the FBI’s outreach this month. It’s not even about a particular investigation or threat, or even President Donald Trump’s hardline stance against Cuba.
Rather, the agents’ visits had another purpose in mind: to send a clear message to Cuba that the FBI is still watching Cuban spies who might be infiltrating the United States — and that they aren’t just paying attention to Russian threats, said the sources, who are not authorized to speak publicly.
The FBI is not targeting the Cuban exiles themselves, but using the expected publicity surrounding the visits to long-time advocates of normalizing relations with Cuba — who might themselves have contacts with Cuban diplomats — to get the message out to the Cuban government.
“It’s routine outreach,” said one federal law enforcement official. “We do this stuff all the time. We are not pushing a Trump administration agenda.”
The FBI initiative, harkening back to Castro-era stagecraft, is aimed at putting on notice potential Cuban spies who might operate under an official cover in the United States.
For example, the recently appointed president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, plans to lead a large official delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The visit is scheduled for the end of the month in New York. The State Department has granted 18 visas for the Cuba delegation, which is likely to include intelligence agents with diplomatic titles.
The Cuban president is expected to meet with American businessmen and members of the Cuban-American community close to his government or in favor of the policy of “engagement” proposed by former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Some of the Cuban-American activists contacted by the FBI were invited to attend the meeting with the Cuban delegation to the UN, scheduled for Sept. 28 in New York.
The FBI visits to several Cuban exiles’ homes were first reported by the New York Times. But activists cited by the newspaper suggested that the federal agency was singling them out because they support the normalization of relations with Cuba and oppose the harsher rhetoric of Trump.
The Miami Herald reached two activists, but one refused to be quoted for this story.
“I’ve been working on Cuba for 20 years, for normalization [of relations]. Never, in all this time, had the FBI called me,” Elena Freyre told the Miami Herald. “If the motive is political, they are breaking their own laws. The FBI is not supposed to be running after Cuban grandmothers and asking them who they are talking to.“
According to Freyre, FBI agents showed up at her old job and left her a voice message on her cellphone. “I never answered them. I do not have any intentions to talk to them,” she said.
Several activists contacted by the FBI in Miami told the New York Times and the Miami Herald that the agents identified themselves as members of a task force with the name “Abdala,” a play by Cuban writer and independence leader José Martí. Abdala is an intelligence task force that has existed for years.
Officially, the FBI in Washington, D.C., issued a statement speaking generally about its outreach efforts but declined to talk about any actual Cuban espionage threats.
“In the course of our duties, the FBI regularly and openly interacts with members of the communities we serve to build mutual trust around combating potential criminal activity and possible threats to the American public,” the statement said. “The FBI has always relied on the cooperation of the American people to keep our country safe, and maintaining open lines of communication helps the FBI to be more responsive to community concerns.”
Some of the Cuban exiles contacted by the FBI met with the American Civil Liberties Union in Miami early this month. Thinking that the FBI’s outreach was political in nature, the ACLU suggested they file a Freedom of Information Act request for any FBI files on them.
Other Cuban activists in Miami believe the FBI could be responding to a request from Congress to devote more attention to the possible presence of Cuban spies in the United States.
Those activists had a name: U.S. Sen. Bob Menéndez, D-N.J. His efforts succeeded in persuading the FBI to include Joanne Chesimard, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 1973 killing of a New Jersey policeman and later escaped to Cuba, on the list of most-wanted terrorists.
But the senator’s office denied that he had anything to do with the new FBI campaign to reach out to Cuban exiles. His staff said they were as surprised by the story as most Cuba observers.
It is difficult to know the real dimension of Cuban government espionage in the United States.
According to estimates by ex-captain and Cuban Interior Ministry defector Enrique García, Cuba could have more than 3,000 intelligence agents operating in the United States, cultivated over six decades. In addition, there are around 1,600 “agents of influence.” But these projections are based on the levels of “intelligence relations” in 1989, when García defected.
Resources allocated by the Cuban government to espionage in the United States could have changed significantly.
Headlines about Cuban spying activities have been rare over the past decade. Previous notorious cases included the Wasp Network (1998), the Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Ana Belén Montes (2001), Florida International University professor Carlos and Elsa Alvarez (2006), and the spouses Walter and Gwendolyn Myers (2009).
But security agencies continue to identify Cuba’s intelligence services as a threat to the U.S., even as the two nations have reestablished diplomatic relations.
In 2014, the FBI released a report warning that the Cuban espionage services wanted to recruit supporters within U.S. academia.
In 2016, the then-national director of intelligence services, James Clapper, said the intelligence services of “Russia and China represent the greatest threat, followed by Iran and Cuba, on a smaller scale.” Appearing before the Senate, Clapper said Cuban intelligence “continues to see the United States as a primary threat.”