Cuban spy in U.S. for debriefings
A top Cuban spy who defected in Panama two weeks ago has been brought to the United States for debriefings on Havana intelligence operations in 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 post because 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 officials, 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 operations already 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 double 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 defectors 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, a 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 harvest loans.
''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 him and 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 strong commercial 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 easy to 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 diplomat 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 and Panama, 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 said, ``we don't talk about traitors.''