- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

MIAMI - Juan Manuel Reyes-Alonso recalls matter-of-factly how he was recruited to join the ranks of Cuban intelligence, widely considered one of the best espionage operations in the world.

While studying biology at Havana University more than a decade ago, Mr. Reyes-Alonso was approached by members of Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence and asked whether he wanted to become a spy.

“I said yeah, sure,” Mr. Reyes-Alonso told The Washington Times. “Before I joined the intelligence service, I was more leftist than [Fidel] Castro. My friends said even my eyes were screwed to the left.”

He suspects he was singled out because of his military training, education and distinctly “non-Cuban appearance.”

Soon after his recruitment in September 1994, he was immersed in a world where Cuba’s main intelligence target, the United States, loomed large.

For 10 months, Mr. Reyes-Alonso was coached in American English and groomed for his assignment in the directorate’s M6 division: industrial espionage.

His focus was to be on the oil industry and “to actively recruit people from oil companies” to provide intelligence on the industry and the United States.

As it turns out, Mr. Reyes-Alonso never spied in the United States. His spy-school days included training in the counterintelligence division, known as M8, which focuses on domestic intelligence work.

“These are the spies that are planted in Cuban institutions like the National Assembly and certain ministries,” he recalled, noting the fierce suspicion of Cuba’s leadership toward ambitious young officials.

During his years in service, he said, he learned how intensely Cuba’s leaders wanted to learn about the inner workings of Washington and U.S. military capabilities, with spies operating in several U.S. agencies.

One of the most effective was Ana Montes, the former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who was arrested in 2001 on charges of spying on behalf of Cuba for more than 16 years.

“Havana is always interested in penetrating agencies like the CIA and FBI and even Congress, all targets of Cuba since the beginning of the revolution,” Mr. Reyes-Alonso said.

With Fidel Castro having “retired” and the government led by his younger brother, Raul, Mr. Reyes-Alonso and other intelligence specialists think little will change in Cuba’s efforts to spy on the United States.

Mr. Reyes-Alonso said he started to become disillusioned when he was granted a privileged view of Cuban and international affairs available to few others on the communist island.

He could watch uncensored news reports from all over the world, including the United States.

“When you are born in Cuba under the Castro government, you have no source of information other than the ones provided by the government,” he said, recalling propaganda-laced news provided by state-run television and newspapers.

He said news reports often portrayed blacks as being beaten by majority whites.

“They present America so that Cubans think: ‘I may not have food, clothes or shoes, but at least I’m not getting beat up.’ ”

By the late 1990s, Mr. Reyes-Alonso decided he had had enough.

He was sent to spy on an international leftist conference and festival in Cuba and met his future wife, an American citizen.

As a spy, he found escaping the island relatively easy.

Traveling on a false passport, he arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, in August 2000 and headed straight for the U.S. Embassy. There, he said, he was debriefed by the FBI and other officials and then put on a plane bound for Miami.

Mr. Reyes-Alonso spent four years living in the United States before he was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Raleigh, N.C., near his home, on charges he had not told authorities about his intelligence training in Cuba, a claim he denies.

“This man had extensive training and a long career as a Cuban intelligence officer,” said Ken Smith, Atlanta special agent in charge at the time of Mr. Reyes-Alonso’s arrest. “Failing to disclose foreign intelligence activities is a violation of the law. It’s that simple.”

Mr. Reyes-Alonso spent 84 days in jail before he was released and the charges were dropped.

Today, he recalls the affair as a misunderstanding, as he spent months detailing his life as a spy to the FBI, CIA and other U.S. officials.

Looking back, he said the incident probably could have been avoided if he also had informed ICE of his secret past.

Now, the 40-year-old former spy works as a Spanish interpreter at a University of North Carolina hospital.

He said Cuba’s spy network is still active in the United States and is likely to remain so, regardless of leadership changes on the island.

“They have a pretty good representation in the United States,” he said. “I’m sure they want to keep it that way.”

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