HAVANA, Cuba — The Cuban government held its own version of an Oscar party last weekend, lavishing praise on the work of actor Carlos Serpa, otherwise known as Agent Emilio.
Only Serpa is not a movie star, but an undercover Cuban security official. As he revealed in a special broadcast on Cuban state television, Serpa has spent the past 10 years masquerading as an opposition journalist, moving among the island’s small dissident groups and filing reports for U.S. government-funded Radio Marti.
The television program, “Pawns of the Empire,” features interviews with Serpa and another undercover agent, Moises Rodriguez (dubbed Agent Vladimir). Wiretapped conversations allegedly show ties between the island’s dissident leaders and anti-Castro militants in Miami whom the Castro government deems terrorists.
Serpa describes in detail how he met with U.S. officials, posed as an “independent librarian,” and worked for small groups supported from abroad with names like the Union of Free Cuban Journalists and the National Front of Resistance and Civil Disobedience in Cuba. He even duped his own family to play the part.
“There will always be an Emilio,” Serpa proudly declared, with a double-edged phrase that seems intended to both stoke the patriotism of government supporters and send a clear message to any would-be Castro opponents that their comrades can’t be trusted.
Still unclear is why the government chose to pull back the curtain now, the first time Cuba has outed one of its undercover agents since 2003, when other prominent dissidents unmasked themselves to testify in trials that resulted in the imprisonment of 75 opposition activists.
One possible explanation for the timing is that most of those 75 prisoners have been let out of jail early over the past eight months, as part of an arrangement with the Spanish government and the island’s Catholic Church leaders. Only five of the original 75 are still behind bars, according to activists on the island.
Nearly all of those released have opted to leave Cuba for Spain, but several freed in recent weeks are staying and promising to keep up their fight. The undercover agents appear to form part of a new campaign to discredit them as paid stooges of the U.S. government.
Rodriguez, who said he spent 25 years working undercover, details how he traveled to the United States and met regularly with U.S. officials in Havana, saying that Washington channels money to the island’s dissident groups through Cuban exile organizations in Miami.
“The more you say what they want to hear, the more they pay,” Rodriguez said this week in an interview with Granma, the communist party’s daily newspaper. The television program shows that Rodriguez now works as a Cuban customs agent at the Havana airport.
At one point in the television program, Serpa demonstrates for the cameras the ease with which he was able to plant false news reports on Radio Marti. He calls the Miami-based station on his cell phone, waits for a producer to call back, and proceeds to file a report alleging abuse that never happened. The radio station then appears to air his recorded dispatch, which Serpa presents as “proof” of the organization’s low standards and clear anti-Castro agenda.
Serpa was denounced this week as a turncoat by the Ladies in White, the group of women who march after Mass each Sunday along Havana’s Quinta Avenida in the only tolerated act of public protest on the island. The group has faced extensive harassment from pro-government mobs in recent weeks whenever they have attempted to stage demonstrations outside the bounds of their usual Sunday ritual.
By posing as a journalist, Serpa said he was able to extensively record their activities, even serving as an informal spokesman for the women and giving interviews to Miami's El Nuevo Herald newspaper. The group’s leading members said they believe Serpa isn’t really a long-time agent, but a weakling who was pressured into turning against his fellow dissidents.
“(Cuba’s) State Security has a lot of tactics, and maybe they scared him,” said Laura Pollan, one of the group’s leaders, in a statement to Europa Press.
Pollan is featured extensively in the television program, speaking warmly at one point with Honduras coup leader Roberto Micheletti in a presumably wiretapped phone call, and in another episode apparently exaggerating threats to the group from Cuban authorities. Ladies in White members said they don’t think Serpa could have been a government spy because they saw him take beatings from Cuban security agents.
But the Cuban government has presented it on national television as all part of the act. It has honored Serpa and Rodriguez as heroes in an extensive media blitz, hometown public ceremonies and tributes from the University of Havana.
“I met Carlos Serpa once when he came to my house, saying he wanted to start a blog,” opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote after the programs aired, saying that when she saw him on television, he appeared to her as a “pathetic” figure.
“As the credits rolled, I sent a brief message to his cell phone,” she wrote: “Rome pays the traitors, but it despises them.”