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Steve Thomas

FBI Quietly Contacting Cubans

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Since I can’t read NYT articles free, what’s the gist?

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  • Sept. 12, 2018
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Julio V. Ruiz, a 71-year-old retired psychiatrist with a long history of participating in talks with the Cuban government, tried to ignore the persistent knocking at his door by two strangers when they showed up uninvited one afternoon last week.

The rapping on the door went on for 15 minutes. It was the F.B.I.

“Everyone tells you not to speak to them and to call your lawyer,” Dr. Ruiz said. “But you get scared. I was measured in what I said, and gave them a brief history of Cuba going back to the 19th century.”

At least five Cuban-Americans in Miami, including Dr. Ruiz, who have opposed a trade embargo with Cuba and promoted better relations with the communist government in Havana, said they received surprise visits in the past week from federal agents.

The law enforcement representatives were vague about their intentions, gave only their first names, and asked questions that seemed intended to learn about contacts with Cuban diplomats, Dr. Ruiz said.

 

For many, the questions triggered decades-old concerns dating back to a time when ideological divisions in the Cuban exile community were more pronounced, and sometimes were coupled with law enforcement scrutiny.

Those contacted were among a large group of exiles who came to the United States as children in the early 1960s, fleeing the Castro dictatorship. As adults, they supported engaging with the Cuban government, even when doing so was deeply unpopular in South Florida and often caused them to be ostracized.

Some of those contacted said they feared that they were being targeted as part of President Trump’s moves to curtail travel to Cuba and roll back new openings with Havana that had been enacted by the Obama administration.

The meetings come in the wake of a series of bizarre ailments, which some suggested could be linked to possible sonic or microwave attacks, that afflicted more than three dozen American diplomats and family members in Cuba and China. The incidents in Cuba resulted in a diplomatic rupture between Havana and Washington, and the U.S. embassy in Havana is down to a skeleton staff.

But there was no sign that the recent meetings were connected to any investigation of those reports. A brochure the agents left with one of the men suggested that the agents were trying to alert him to the possibility that he was being targeted by spies.

 

The brochure, also published on the F.B.I.’s website, describes the process of “elicitation,” which it says is “a technique used to collect information that is not readily available and do so without raising suspicion that specific facts are being sought.” The pamphlet appears intended to train people on how to spot warning signs.

Miami has long been a hotbed for Cuban spies. It’s not clear if the F.B.I. had specific information on attempts to infiltrate the activist groups and wanted to warn them.

“In the course of our duties, the F.B.I. 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 agency said in a statement. “The F.B.I. has always relied on the cooperation of the American people to keep our country safe, and maintaining open lines of communication helps the F.B.I. to be more responsive to community concerns.”

Only two of the five activists contacted by law enforcement officials actually spoke to the agents. The others either refused or were unavailable when the investigators showed up.

It is unclear whether more people were visited around the nation or in South Florida.

“I think it borders on harassment, because it isn’t illegal to talk about stuff with the embassy of the country where you were born,” said Elena Freyre, 70, president of ForNorm, a foundation that promotes the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana. “And it’s kind of weird to have the F.B.I. asking questions about that.”

Ms. Freyre said agents went to her former place of employment last week and did not find her there. An agent later left a voice mail message, identifying himself only as Ian. The agents who visited Dr. Ruiz identified themselves as representing the F.B.I. and briefly flashed badges, but said they did not have business cards. One of them wrote her name and phone number on a piece of paper: Susy.

 

The phone number she left rang unanswered.

Among those reportedly approached last week was Silvia Wilhelm, the founder of Cuban Bridges, a Cuba exchange program. When a Florida International University professor was arrested on suspicion of spying for Cuba in 2006, the F.B.I. said he had used the exchange program to try to find recruits.

Two years later, Ms. Wilhelm sued a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who had publicly accused her of spying for Cuba. Federal court records show the case was settled out of court.

Ms. Wilhelm declined to comment, but she described the approach to several of her acquaintances. They said she had refused a meeting.

One of those interviewed said the agents told them they were part of a task force named “Abdala” — the name of a poem by Cuban patriot José Martí, and also an extremist Cuban exile group from the 1970s.

One man let the agents in and spoke to them for hours, Ms. Freyre said. The man, who described the conversation to Ms. Freyre but asked not to be publicly identified, “was left with the impression that they were trying to recruit him,” she said. “He turned around and said, ‘I am not a snitch.’”

The activists had an emergency meeting over the weekend with the American Civil Liberties Union, which encouraged them to file Freedom of Information Act requests for their F.B.I. files. One of the people approached said he was presented with his F.B.I. file, complete with photos.

My perspective, and over decades of dealing with issues of political surveillance, my concern is the F.B.I. is supposed to operate with a pretty firm line between investigating criminal activity and investigating political activities,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Florida. “It is not a crime in America to be pro-normalization, pro-dialogue with Cuba.”

 

Several academics said that, decades ago, it was routine to be visited by the F.B.I. after returning from a trip to Cuba. They would ask whom one had met with and what was talked about, said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University who wrote a book on U.S.-Cuba relations.

“Obviously when U.S.-Cuban relations are bad, one of the ways that manifests itself is greater attention by the F.B.I. to counterintelligence issues,” Mr. LeoGrande said.

María de los Ángeles Torres, a Cuba expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she has had visits from federal agents about her contacts in Cuba, but not for the past 15 years. She never met with them, she emphasized.

“It’s a Cold War atavism,” she said. “A throwback.”

 
 

Adam Goldman contributed to this report from Washington.

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