The U.S.-Cuba deal heightens the spy threat

Yleem Poblete and Jason Poblete in The Wall Street Journal:

The U.S.-Cuba Deal Heightens the Spy Threat

In May 2003, 14 Cuban diplomats were expelled by the U.S. for ‘unofficial activities’—espionage.

In addition to freeing three Cuban spies on Dec. 17, President Obama announced additional concessions and sanctions-easing proposals as part of his effort to “normalize” relations with the Castro regime in Cuba. Perhaps most troubling is his administration’s desire to upgrade the U.S. and Cuban diplomatic posts to embassy status and restore full recognition to the dictatorship.

Since at least the 1980s, a number of Cuban nationals accredited as “diplomats” at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., as well as Cuba’s United Nations Mission in New York, have been expelled for “hostile intelligence activities” against the U.S., according to the State Department.

More recent expulsions have been due to “a pattern of unofficial activities deemed harmful to the United States.” These continuing pursuits by Cuban agents should provide sufficient reason for any responsible policy maker to refrain from normalizing relations. May 2003, 14 Cuban diplomats were declared persona non grata by the State Department and expelled from the U.S. for “unofficial activities,” which is diplomatic speak for espionage. One was the first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section, Jose Anselmo Lopez Perera. His wife, Josefina Vidal, also a first secretary and known Cuban intelligence officer, left with her husband. In exchange for her “heroic” exploits on behalf of the Revolution—yes, they still talk this way in Havana—the Castro regime rewarded Vidal by placing her in charge of North American Affairs or the “United States Division” as Cuba’s Foreign Ministry refers to it.

In her capacity as chief anti-American operative, Vidal traveled to the U.S. in May 2014 to meet with State Department officials. Her interlocutor? Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, whom President Obama has chosen to lead a high-ranking delegation to Havana this month for normalization talks.

With elevated diplomatic status comes enhanced capacity and flexibility for these regime operatives to engage in hostile activities. The new Congress, specifically the House and Senate committees on foreign affairs, should re-examine this issue, cross-reference and study cases, and assess the president’s decision to restore diplomatic ties in context by considering the range of regime activities against U.S. interests.

As Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last month after the release of the three Cuban spies in exchange for Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development jailed in Cuba since 2009: “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government. There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies.”

When President Dwight Eisenhower officially severed ties with Havana on Jan. 3, 1961, he issued the following statement: “There is a limit to what the United States in self-respect can endure. That limit has now been reached.” Havana’s communist guerrilla leaders had violated the rights of Americans, directly threatened U.S. interests, and defied international legal and humanitarian standards. This could not be allowed to continue without a firm response from the U.S. The same is true today, possibly more so.

Has there been a fundamental change in the behavior, policies and actions of the Castro regime in Cuba? No. Has it done anything to merit reversal of the Eisenhower decision? No. (On Monday, news emerged that Havana had finally honored its recent agreement to free 53 individuals whom the U.S. considers political prisoners. But the U.S. appears to have no way of ensuring that their future dissent will not result in imprisonment, as countless others languish in jail for their pro-democracy advocacy.)

Is there a different leadership in Cuba—one that espouses freedom and no longer threatens the U.S. or undermines its interests and objectives? Absolutely not.

Under the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 and which could be viewed as also codifying the Eisenhower decision to sever ties with Cuba, the legal criteria for normalization of relations, including the political reward of full diplomatic recognition, have clearly not been met.

It is incumbent upon Congress to be the responsible party and focus on U.S. national security and foreign-policy priorities that have been lost in the euphoria over access to Cuban beaches, cigars and rum. It must act swiftly and resolutely—using all statutory, legislative, oversight and funding tools at its disposal.

Only then can the members of the House and Senate hope to prevent the further erosion of American dignity and self-respect that President Eisenhower sought to preserve and that has been damaged by the Obama administration’s recent actions.

Mr. Poblete is an attorney and former co-chairman of the National Security Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law. Ms. Poblete is former chief of staff of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee and a fellow at The Catholic University of America.