Knight Ridder News
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced Tuesday that it is expelling 14 Cuban diplomats for spying, an extraordinarily large number likely to further inflame soaring tensions between Washington and Havana.
The State Department did not link the unnamed Cuban diplomats — posted both at the Cuban mission to the United Nations and in Washington — to specific acts of espionage.
In general terms, administration officials asserted that the Cuban diplomats were involved in monitoring and surveillance activities and efforts to recruit U.S. civilian and military employees.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker declined to identify those affected, saying only that they include a "range of Cuban diplomats" but not the chiefs of the Cuban diplomatic missions to the U.N. or in Washington.
The Cuban diplomats were given 10 days to leave the United States.
"You're all familiar with the record of espionage by the Cuban regime against the United States. It's a long record," Reeker said.
The expulsions come in the wake of a massive crackdown on dissent in Cuba that has sent more than 75 pro-democracy activists to prison for terms up to 28 years and a surge of global condemnation of the Fidel Castro regime, which has ruled the island since 1959.
For his part, Castro, in a series of recent fiery speeches, has accused the Bush administration of trying to stir up a mass exodus from the island to serve as a pretext for a U.S. invasion of Cuba. He has singled out the senior U.S. diplomat in Havana, James Cason, claiming that under Cason the U.S. Cuban Interests Section was hosting Cuban dissidents and paying them to promote an insurrection.
Tuesday's action marked the largest expulsion of Cuban diplomats in more than four decades of tensions with the Castro government. Previous expulsions — in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1998 and in 2002 — involved a total of 13 diplomats.
Last November, the administration ordered out two Cuban diplomats from Washington and two others based at the United Nations. It linked those expulsions directly to the federal court espionage conviction of Ana Belen Montes, a former senior analyst on Cuba at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Montes, who was sentenced to a 25-year prison term, is the highest level Cuban spy ever caught in the United States.
Both the United States and Cuba are believed to use their respective diplomatic missions for spying, although U.S. counterintelligence officials say the Cubans are particularly aggressive.
A former Cuban chief of mission at the United Nations in 1992-1993, Alcibiades Hidalgo, who defected to the United States last year, said in a telephone interview that Cuban spies act autonomously from those carrying out diplomatic activities.
A first secretary at the Cuban mission in New York, Eva Silot Bravo, and her husband disappeared in early April and are believed to have sought U.S. asylum.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no link between that case and the expulsions.
He said the espionage activities of Cuban diplomats were monitored by the FBI and brought to the attention of the State Department. The FBI had documented incidents of spying beginning three years ago and lasting until early this year, the official said.
The expulsions are likely to curtail Cuban activities at the two missions — at least temporarily. Cuba is authorized to maintain 26 diplomats in Washington, and 37 diplomats at its U.N. mission.
Cuba did not immediately retaliate with tit-for-tat expulsions. The United States is authorized to keep 51 U.S. diplomats at its mission in Havana.
"We think this sent a strong signal of the seriousness with which we take these activities, and we do think that it will significantly disrupt their intelligence activities here that are done under any kind of official cover," the official said.
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