Gilberto Abascal’s return to the island revived allegations that he worked with both Cuban intelligence and the United States.
By Juan O. Tamayo, jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com
Two years ago, Miami FBI informant Gilberto Abascal was the key prosecution witness in the trial of militant Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles. In 2006, he was the main informant in the weapons conviction of Posada supporter Santiago Alvarez.
Today, Abascal is back in Cuba, building a house with a swimming pool — a rare privilege on the communist-run island — driving expensive rental cars and offering a reward equivalent of two years’ average salary for information about whoever burglarized his home, according to several of his neighbors.
“He came back from Miami and is living in his family’s farm” in the village of La Julia, about 15 miles south of Havana, said a democracy advocate who lives in the nearby town of Surgidero de Batabanó and knows Abascal personally.
Abascal’s return to Cuba reinforced long-running allegations, dismissed by U.S. prosecutors, that he served as an informant for both Cuban intelligence and the FBI in targeting Posada, Alvarez and other exiles in Miami.
“This inferentially validates the conclusion that this was an individual who had a collaborative relationship with Cuban security . . . and casts a shadow on the FBI for its dealings with this guy,” said Arturo V. Hernandez, Posada’s defense attorney.
Abascal returned home from Miami more than one year ago, and has been busy improving and adding to his family’s farm, said the neighbors in Batabanó and La Julia, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation by Cuban State Security agents.
In the money now
Nicknamed “El Cano,” the pudgy, 48-year-old Abascal has bought a tractor for his family’s farm, is building a home with a pool for himself on a dirt street in La Julia, and often rents late-model cars from a government-run agency in Batabanó, where prices start at $500 per week, the neighbors said.
A sign posted outside his La Julia home last weekend offered a 10,000-peso reward — about $400, in an island where the official average monthly salary stands at 470 pesos — for information on whoever burglarized his home. Photos taken by one of the neighbors showed what was described as a security camera over his front door.
One neighbor called him “a known security agent,” and another said his family’s farm is “protected” by security officials in civilian clothes who discreetly monitor passersby.
Abascal has told acquaintances in Batabanó and La Julia that he cannot return to Miami, but gave no reasons, and travels often to Mexico and other countries to buy clothes that he then sells on the island, the neighbors told el Nuevo Herald by phone.
He could not be reached in La Julia for comment for this story, but steadily denied that he was a Cuban intelligence agent throughout the Posada and Alvarez cases. “I have never had anything to do with the Cuban government in my life,” he declared in 2006.
Abascal arrived in Miami on a small boat in 1999, and later that year was intercepted by the Coast Guard as he and a married couple headed to Cuba aboard another boat — carrying photos of a paramilitary training camp in South Florida run buy the anti-Castro group Alpha 66.
“It was highly unlikely that the three adults were Cuban agents . . . [but] they may have been, or could have been, planning to use the photographs to ‘ingratiate themselves’ with authorities in Cuba,” U.S. agents wrote in a report on the interception submitted to court during the Alvarez case.
An FBI informant
By 2001, Abascal was living in Hialeah and acting as a confidential informant for the FBI, according to court documents. The FBI and U.S. immigration officials spent almost $80,000 for his housing, food and “services,” the documents showed. The FBI declined to comment for this story.
Alvarez, a wealthy Miami real estate developer, said he met Abascal in 2002 or 2003 as part of secret contacts with Cuban men who identified themselves as officers in the island’s armed forces and opponents of the Castro government.
The “officers” were real, Alvarez said, but he always knew that Abascal was a Cuban infiltrator.
“He always asked too much. He tried to get into everything,” Alvarez said. “And when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.”
Abascal nevertheless was hired as a handyman at some of Alvarez’s properties, and turned up with Alvarez in Panama in 2004 to voice their support for Posada and three other exiles on trial on charges of plotting to assassinate then-Cuban ruler Fidel Castro.
He also volunteered often as a deckhand on Alvarez’s converted shrimper, the Santrina, and testified that he was aboard when it was used to smuggle Posada from Isla Mujeres in Mexico to Miami in March 2005, after Posada and the others were pardoned on the Panama charges.
Wanted by Cuba and Venezuela on separate terrorism charges, Posada later told U.S. immigration officials that he arrived across the U.S. land border with Mexico. U.S. prosecutors charged the CIA-trained explosives expert with 11 counts of perjury.
As the FBI investigated Alvarez’s role in the Posada arrival, the developer ordered Abascal and another of his handymen, Osvaldo Mitat, to move a cache of illegal weapons to a new hiding spot. Abascal made one call to a Miami woman believed to be his Cuban intelligence handler, then called the FBI, according to the court records.
Facing Abascal’s testimony, Alvarez and Mitat pleaded guilty to the weapons charge, and served 30 months in prison. Unidentified friends later surrendered about 60 other illegal weapons as part of the deal with prosecutors.
Abascal also was the key prosecution witness in Posada’s 2011 trial in El Paso, Texas, which saw U.S. federal prosecutors deny attorney Hernandez’s claims that the witness was a Cuban intelligence agent and was lying about Posada’s arrival on U.S. soil.
‘Like a novel’
Hernandez’s argument “reads like a John Grisham novel,’ ” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerome Teresinski objected during the trial. “’It’s fiction. He wants to put Cuba on trial. He wants to put Fidel Castro on trial. He wants to put Mr. Abascal on trial.”
A jury found Posada not guilty of perjury about how he entered the country and his role in nine bombings of Cuban tourist spots in 1997. Abascal then disappeared from the public eye — until word filtered to Miami that he was back in Cuba.
Still unclear is whether Abascal was sent to South Florida by Cuban intelligence — like the five spies convicted in 2001 and sentenced to lengthy prison terms — or ran into economic problems here and decided to sell his services to Havana and the FBI.
Court documents filed in the Alvarez and Posada cases showed Abascal wanted the FBI’s money and its help in obtaining U.S. citizenship and retaining disability payments for a workplace injury, although he had violated income-tax and other regulations.
“Abascal’s sole motivation was pure, unadulterated greed,” said Chris Simmons, a retired Pentagon counterintelligence expert on Cuba who reviewed some of the documents on Abascal’s background.
But Simmons added that he has no doubt Abascal was “an agent of Cuban intelligence” prior to his arrival in Miami, and was “trained and targeted” against Alvarez, Posada, Mitat and other exiles.
“Havana’s ability to [also] run Abascal as an FBI informant is reminiscent of its past successes,” he added, like Juan Pablo Roque, a Havana spy and FBI informant who played a key role in Cuba’s shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 that left four dead.