Shadow Government

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Why Obama’s nomination of Aponte is stirring old fears of Cuban espionage

The Obama administration has resurrected a controversial Clinton-era nominee for an ambassadorial appointment in the Western Hemisphere and in doing so has reignited concerns about Cuban espionage in the United States.   Mari Carmen Aponte has been nominated by President Obama to be ambassador to El Salvador, but her nomination has been held up by ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Obama administration has resurrected a controversial Clinton-era nominee for an ambassadorial appointment in the Western Hemisphere and in doing so has reignited concerns about Cuban espionage in the United States.  

Mari Carmen Aponte has been nominated by President Obama to be ambassador to El Salvador, but her nomination has been held up by Senate Republicans who want a fuller accounting of an episode that derailed her bid for another diplomatic post under President Clinton.

Aponte once had a personal relationship with a Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban American whose ties to the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington -- a wholly owned subsidiary of the Cuban DGI -- had caught the attention of the FBI.

In an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 17, on her re-nomination by President Obama, she shed more light on the relationship, testifying that she was involved romantically with Tamayo, that he had "some contacts" with the Cuban mission, and that they socialized "on occasion" with Cuban officials.

The Obama administration has resurrected a controversial Clinton-era nominee for an ambassadorial appointment in the Western Hemisphere and in doing so has reignited concerns about Cuban espionage in the United States.  

Mari Carmen Aponte has been nominated by President Obama to be ambassador to El Salvador, but her nomination has been held up by Senate Republicans who want a fuller accounting of an episode that derailed her bid for another diplomatic post under President Clinton.

Aponte once had a personal relationship with a Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban American whose ties to the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington — a wholly owned subsidiary of the Cuban DGI — had caught the attention of the FBI.

In an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 17, on her re-nomination by President Obama, she shed more light on the relationship, testifying that she was involved romantically with Tamayo, that he had "some contacts" with the Cuban mission, and that they socialized "on occasion" with Cuban officials.

In 1993, she said she was contacted by the FBI to discuss Tamayo. Several months later, the FBI asked her to take a polygraph. She refused, but did agree to set up a meeting between agents and Tamayo. According to Aponte, "They met, and shortly thereafter the relationship ended, and I never saw him again or saw anybody from the Cuban Interests Section again."

Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of spycraft — and Cuban methods — would conclude this was a likely recruitment operation in progress. Now, being targeted by a foreign intelligence is not a crime, but what’s mystifying is why Aponte did not lay this issue to rest when given the opportunity by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), who asked her point-blank if she thought she was being recruited.

Instead of admitting that it was possible, and defusing the issue by perhaps saying she could think of no reason why and it was a huge miscalculation if the Cubans thought they could get any useful information from her, she answered:

My contacts with the Cuban Interests Section personnel were of a social nature. They never asked me questions about my law practice. They never asked questions that were suspicious or that would lead me to believe that they were trying to recruit me. I never felt that I was approached."

It is precisely that sort of lawyerly non-answer that keeps the issue alive. And Republican senators are right to press for more answers for two important reasons.

First, the Castro regime continues to aggressively recruit Americans to do its dirty work in the U.S. Witness the recent cases of Ana Belen Montes, a DIA analyst; State Department official Kendall Myers and his wife; and the attempted recruitment of a Naval War College professor. In addition, numerous Cuban agents have been rolled up in Miami in recent years. If an ambassadorial nominee cannot recognize if she is being recruited, then that’s a problem.

Secondly, Aponte is not being proposed for the Bahamas, but El Salvador, a key U.S. ally over the years in which the U.S. has invested heavily to help build a viable democracy.  Today, the country is in the midst of a crucial moment as the guerrilla-movement-turned-political-party FMLN was voted into power. President Mauricio Funes has tried to carve out a moderate image for himself but is surrounded by hardened ideologues who once thought nothing of shooting their way into power. Also lurking about is Hugo Chavez, who is still smarting over the deposing of his crony Manuel Zelaya next door in Honduras.

Whoever is handling the Aponte nomination for the administration is in serious need of a course correction. The incident in Aponte’s life does not automatically disqualify her for an ambassadorial appointment, but how she is handling it does matter. These are important questions for anyone who values security and stability in our hemisphere — and they deserve straight answers.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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