Cuban spy in U.S. for debriefings
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
A top Cuban spy who defected in Panama two weeks ago has been
brought to the United States for debriefings on Havana intelligence operations
Canada, America and Panama, U.S. and Panamanian officials say.
Orlando Brito Pestana, whose identity was previously undisclosed,
was stationed in the early 1990s in Canada, a critical Cuban intelligence
of its access to the unguarded U.S. border.
The FBI later blocked his way when Havana tried to appoint him to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, U.S. officials added.
Brito was accredited as Cuba's commercial attaché in Panama
when he asked Panamanian security officials on March 27 to help him, his
wife and two
daughters defect to America, a senior Panamanian security advisor said.
He was flown to the United States two days later aboard a commercial
airliner, using false travel documents arranged by U.S. and Panamanian
the security advisor said on condition of anonymity.
Brito is believed to be one of the most senior Cuban intelligence
officials to defect in recent years. It is a blow to Havana intelligence
battered by the capture of confessed spy Ana Belén Móntez at the Pentagon last year and several members of the ''Wasp Network'' in Miami in 1998.
Two U.S. government officials with access to intelligence data
said Brito is undergoing debriefings by U.S. intelligence officials that
could last for months,
depending on the value of his knowledge.
But an FBI official who has handled Cuban spy cases warned that Brito may also be a double-agent sent by Havana to misinform.
''Cuba has one of the most aggressive intelligence operations
in the world, and until we know more he will probably be treated as a potential
agent,'' the official said.
A State Department spokesman said he could not confirm Brito's
presence in the United States. The usual CIA procedure is to keep foreign
under wraps while they are debriefed in isolation.
Foreign Minister José Alemán has said the Cuban
Embassy reported Brito's disappearance in mid-March and asked Panamanian
authorities to cancel his
diplomatic identification card and drivers' license.
LINKED TO SCANDAL
The Panamanian security advisor said Brito may have decided to
defect because of a scandal in Panama involving Sunset Group International,
Panamanian firm that has run an auto dealership in Havana and financed part of Cuba's sugar harvest since the mid-1990s.
The firm is wracked by a bitter dispute within the family of
its owners, allegations that it bribed Panamanian Congressmen and reports
that Cuba is
investigating it for corrupting Cuban officials in Havana.
Sunset President Martín Rodin told reporters in Panama
on Tuesday that the Cuban government owed him about $30 million for car
purchases and sugar
''As the commercial attaché here, this guy would have
been up to his eyeballs in this stuff and maybe thought it was time to
pick up and run,'' said the
Panamanian official, who asked that his name not be published.
Panamanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mauricio Benaim said Brito
had not asked for political asylum in Panama. ''It is curious that he simply
disappeared,'' he said in a telephone interview from Panama City.
Brito, believed to be in his early 50s, first came into the limelight
when he served as vice consul in Montreal. On Feb. 13 1994, Canada expelled
another Cuban diplomat for spying.
The Toronto Sun newspaper at the time identified Brito as head
of Cuba's intelligence office in Canada, a key post because of Canada's
ties with Havana and Cuba's use of Canadian territory as a base from which to handle intelligence agents inside the United States.
U.S. officials said they could not confirm whether Brito was the office chief or a lower ranking agent.
''Canada and Mexico are always important Cuban intelligence centers
because of their access to the U.S. border -- in the case of Canada so
infiltrate,'' said Carlos Cajaraville, a former Cuban intelligence agent who defected in 1995.
About two years after his expulsion from Canada, Cuba's Foreign
Ministry notified the State Department that it planned to appoint Brito
to the Cuban
Interests Section in Washington, U.S. congressional officials said.
But FBI counter-intelligence officials persuaded the State Department
to deny Brito a visa, arguing that it would look foolish to accept a Cuban
already branded a spy and expelled by Canada, the aides said.
Brito was named commercial attaché at the Cuban Embassy
in Panama City last year, in charge of monitoring trade links between Cuba
especially with companies in the Colon Free Zone, an area at the Atlantic gateway to the Panama Canal.
Cuba has long used Havana-owned and Panamanian firms in the duty-free
zone to get around the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo and purchase
U.S.-made products, from computers to industrial air conditioners for hotels.
The Cuban Embassy in Panama has declined comment on the Brito
case. But a person who answered the telephone at the mission Wednesday
``we don't talk about traitors.''