Pop morality quiz: An organization with offices in the United States has assassinated a foreign spy in that agent's homeland, or tried to do so. This is: A) right, B) wrong, C) legal, D) illegal, E) the kind of activity U.S. and Cuban authorities should be investigating.
If you live in Miami there's a good chance your head is already swirling with questions you want to ask before responding. For example, was the target a spy for Tony Blair or that tyrant Fidel Castro?
Comandos F-4 chief Rodolfo Frometa answers "A" because the target was Juan Pablo Roque, post-Soviet Cuba's most notorious spy. Roque is the debonair pilot who is now reviled in el exilio for marrying a Miami girl, Ana Margarita Martinez, then dumping her in an extreme example of putting his work before his relationship. Their matrimony was part of Roque's cover identity that enabled his infiltration of Brothers to the Rescue, the men who flew Cessnas over the Florida Straits in the early to mid-Nineties to spot hundreds of Cuban rafters trying to ride the Gulf Stream to freedom, or at least a free-market economy. Roque split for Havana in February 1996 just a few days before a Cuban MiG destroyed two Brothers to the Rescue planes over the straits, killing four of the group's members. An FBI investigation found that Roque had provided information to his superiors in Havana related to the Brothers' flight plans.
The alleged hit on Roque, according to Frometa, occurred this past December 16 near the intersection of Ayesteran and Boyeros in the El Cerro section of Havana. It was carried out by several F-4 members based in Havana. A policeman named Luis Ramirez Echeverria died in the shootout, as did one Ramon Sosa, a 32-year-old member of the F-4 hit squad. Roque was severely wounded and hospitalized. "I can't assure you that he is still alive," Frometa said last week. "He could be dead already."
Frometa, a brooding 56-year-old with a black mega-goatee, and his peppy blond-haired wife Teresa Diaz de Frometa were happy to have New Times pay a visit last week to the F-4 headquarters in Little Havana. She typed into a computer while he answered phone calls in their two-room office, up a dingy flight of stairs from a parking lot at the corner of West Flagler Street and SW Fourteenth Avenue. The place resembles a low-end travel agency, except for the montage of several dozen color snapshots that cover most of one wall. In the middle is a picture of Roque. His visage is surrounded by photos of men and women clad in combat gear and wielding machine guns and pistols. In one Teresa is taking aim with a hefty 9mm Beretta. Another shot shows a man (with Wite-Out painted over him to conceal his identity) standing next to a Havana pay phone on which he has just placed stickers containing F-4 propaganda. There is also a photo of an apartment building where, according to Frometa's island operatives, Roque resided until recently. A typed address (Calle Paseo 1, #201, Apt. 33) is attached to the photo. "Everyone who lives there works for the Cuban government," Frometa notes. And a policeman guards the entrance.
In March 2001 Frometa testified at the federal trial of five colleagues of Roque's who were arrested in 1998 for spying on exile groups and conspiring to obtain classified information from U.S. military bases. Frometa agreed to testify as a hostile defense witness at the trial and acknowledged F-4 was engaged in acts of violence in Cuba, including an arson attack on a bus. But the jurors didn't buy the defense attorneys' basic argument -- that their clients' presence in Miami was justified in order to monitor guys like Frometa. A jury convicted them in June 2001 and found one of them guilty of first-degree murder for complicity in the 1996 shootdown. They are serving sentences ranging from fifteen years to life.
Despite his group's dedication to the goal of offing Cuban police, spies, and anybody affiliated with the Castro regime, Frometa has a warm, even childlike, demeanor. It is easy to imagine him playing with his nine-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. There they are on the wall, sporting black berets and F-4 T-shirts, marching down a street with their dad during a Little Havana demonstration. (His other three offspring are now adults.)
Frometa also thinks "C" (legal) is a valid answer. He maintains he has done no wrong under U.S. or Florida law because he had no prior knowledge of the December 16 attack and played no role in it. He was only the messenger, he asserts. At least Frometa hopes "C" is correct since the FBI is aware of his claim. He's almost certain his phone is tapped and office bugged. If true, it shouldn't be surprising. In December 1994 a federal judge in Miami sentenced him to three years in prison for trying to buy a Stinger missile, three anti-tank rockets, and a grenade launcher from an undercover FBI agent posing as a U.S. Army supply sergeant. Frometa said he planned to use the weapons to kill Castro.
Despite such operational failures, Frometa remains proud of his status in the Cuban exile, signified by a 1991 visit to the U.S. State Department and Radio Martí, regular appearances with Radio Mambí talk-show host Armando Perez-Roura to advocate armed action against the Castro regime, and letters he's received from the likes of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Gov. Jeb Bush, and Bill Clinton.
In a letter dated July 8, 1996, Ros-Lehtinen wrote to Frometa: "You told my aide, Yildris, that you are thankful for all of the efforts that I and my staff have done on your case. You also feel that, overall, I have done a great job in this year's Congress and in the past. It is always a pleasure to hear such kind words and such positive encouragement from a person such as yourself.... I am glad that I have been able to satisfactorily serve you."
Today Frometa is still waiting for President George W. Bush to respond to a letter he sent him last spring. The F-4 comandante said he was "worried" that he wasn't among the exile leaders the White House invited to sit onstage behind GWB during the president's speech last year at the James L. Knight Center. "I have had the honor of being invited by your brother Jeb Bush to participate in different political appearances and I was in Coconut Grove supporting your campaign when you were aspiring to the presidency," Frometa wrote. He noted a previous letter he sent to the president the day after 9/11. "Comandos F-4 was one of the first organizations to place itself at your orders to fight alongside the armed forces of this great nation. It is for this reason that I don't understand how we were overlooked for an event that was so important for we who fight tirelessly for the liberation of our Fatherland." But, he assured, he and his F-4 colleagues would continue to be Republicans, friends of the Bush family, and supporters of Gov. Jeb Bush.
Frometa had also sent a copy of the letter to Jeb, who responded five months later as he entered the final four weeks of his re-election campaign, which counted on Miami-Dade's legions of excitable anti-Castro voters. "I have received the correspondence that you wished to send to President George W. Bush and have forwarded it to his office," Governor Bush wrote to Frometa in a letter dated September 30, 2002. "If there is anything further I can do to assist you, please let me know."
If Frometa seems crazed, or a "nut job" as one knowledgeable U.S. government source describes him, it could have something to do with several traumatic experiences involving the Cuban revolution. Frometa had fought against the Batista dictatorship as a teenager but quit the Revolutionary Army in 1963 when the Castro regime planned to send him to Moscow for military training. Frometa finally fled Cuba in 1968, via the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo, and settled in New York. He promptly joined the Alpha 66 paramilitary group and volunteered to fight in Vietnam, but the U.S. Army never called him up.
His rage propelled him to fly from New Jersey to Havana, legally, in 1981 to find recruits for armed sleeper cells on the island. "My idea was to create opposition inside Cuba," he explained, "to organize opposition against Castro inside Cuba because I understood that when operations were attempted from outside they didn't succeed because there was always an informant and Castro would be waiting." But there were informants inside Cuba too, and the Castro regime jailed Frometa for ten years.
He was further traumatized by the deaths of one of his sons, his brother, and his father, for which he holds the Castro regime responsible. According to Frometa, the son was killed in 1985 by fellow soldiers after he disobeyed an order to pick up and fire a gun. Government agents ran over his brother with a car in 1986 after he threatened to publicly denounce the torture of Rodolfo by prison guards. His father, he says, died of a heart attack in 1987 after learning that Rodolfo was in the "Rectangle of Death" in Havana's Villa Marista prison, which Frometa describes as a rat and insect-infested hole without toilets where prisoners were tortured and forced to live without water for days at a time. (New Times could not independently confirm Frometa's account.)
After he almost died during a 124-day hunger strike in 1991, the Cuban government deported Frometa to Miami, where exile leaders welcomed him as a hero. Three years later he was arrested for the attempted Stinger-missile purchase.
In order to better adhere to the U.S. Neutrality Act, which, among other things, prohibits the transport of weapons from the United States to Cuba without a license, F-4 policy has changed since his 1994 bust. "At that time I did plan to go blow the head off Fidel Castro," Frometa admits. Now armed operations are planned and executed by cells on the island. "This work has to be done by the F-4 national directorate inside Cuba without physical contact with me. They plan everything they are going to do and after they do it -- they don't even explain to me how they're going to plan it -- they give the report so that I can make it known to the press. Nowadays I function as the spokesman of F-4 in the United States. So the leader who gives overall orders is in Cuba."
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The Castro regime has denied the F-4 hit took place on December 16 or any other day. But Cuban officials believe that "B" and "D" (wrong and illegal) are the correct answers. On January 16 the president of Cuba's National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, called a press conference to lambaste the FBI for not acting on "abundant and detailed information" about activities terrorists in Miami were planning against Cuba. He noted that two FBI agents received the documents during a visit to Havana in June 1998. Two months later the information was provided to the New York Times, which Alarcón criticized for never publishing any of it. The following month, adding insult to injury, FBI agents arrested fifteen Cuban agents that Havana maintains were in Miami precisely to monitor anti-Castro terrorists.
"The FBI is committing a crime by not detaining terrorists, not investigating terrorists, and not putting an end to terrorism," Alarcón fumed. A day after the press conference the Cuban government delivered a diplomatic note to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The note was prompted by Frometa's announcement of the alleged Roque hit, Alarcón advisor Miguel Alvarez told New Times. It was filed to protest the "impunity that these Miami-based terrorists enjoy," he added.
A spokeswoman at the FBI's Miami-Dade field office said the agency could not comment on Frometa's claim. Nor would she comment on whether it was the kind of thing the FBI would investigate.
Pop morality quiz question 2: An anti-exile group assassinates a Cuban-American CIA agent in Miami, or tries to do so. The head of the anti-exile group's Havana branch breaks the news but insists he had no prior knowledge and no role in the attack. Cuban government authorities remain silent. Such an attack would be A) right, B) wrong, C) legal, D) illegal, E) something that U.S. and Cuban law enforcement officials should be investigating.