A self-described Cuban double-agent, who says he duped Washington spymasters for years but has now renounced communism, was ordered freed on bond Thursday in San Diego, despite objections from U.S. authorities, who maintain he is a security risk.
U.S. Immigration Judge John Williams ordered the release of Juan Manuel Rodriguez Camejo on $7,500 bail after rejecting U.S. government claims that Rodriguez poses a threat to U.S. security and should remain in jail.
The decision is the latest twist in the perplexing case of a prospective defector who is clearly not being welcomed by U.S. officials, despite his acknowledged affiliation with Cuban intelligence services and his proclaimed conversion to capitalism and democracy after being a strict adherent of Cuban-style communism and authoritarianism.
Rodriguez, who U.S. authorities say remains a Cuban agent, is expected to be freed today from federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego.
Rodriguez has portrayed himself as the product of a worldwide democratic tide, contending that he is now a sworn enemy of Fidel Castro, the Cuban president, whom he once idolized. He says he faces certain death if returned to Cuba and now seeks to defect to the United States, adopted home of his wife's father, Inocente Montes de Oca, a wealthy, Cuban-born businessman who lives in Beverly Hills.
"Fidel must go," an exultant Rodriguez, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, declared in an impromptu interview shortly after the judge's decision. "We are seeing the collapse of communism everywhere. . . . I am part of this movement."
Federal authorities vowed to appeal the decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals and to the U.S. District Court.
Rodriguez, 40, described himself in court papers as a Cuban counter-intelligence agent with two decades of experience who was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency as a double agent, in 1979 or 1980. He said he remained with the CIA in Havana until 1987, but actually worked to rid Cuba of CIA influence and "foreign interference," using his knowledge of the agency's extensive Cuban networks.
CIA officials have declined to comment on his story, but an attorney for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service said in court Thursday that Rodriguez is still an unreformed "agent" of Cuba.
"Being in the United States would be an excellent cover for him," said Joseph Ragusa, the U.S. immigration service attorney who argued, unsuccessfully, that Rodriguez should remain jailed while his application for asylum in the United States is being adjudicated.
Rodriguez and his attorney, Judith L. Wood of Los Angeles, have suggested that the CIA has a grudge against him because of his activities against CIA operatives in Cuba, thus explaining the unreceptive posture of the U.S. government. Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman in Langley, Va., declined to comment.
U.S. immigration authorities have rejected Rodriguez's initial bid for political asylum, contending that he is still a Cuban spy and has not demonstrated the likelihood of persecution if he returns to Cuba. The case could drag on for a year or more.
The latest chapter in Rodriguez's saga began to unfold on Oct. 21, when Rodriguez, his wife and his 6-year-old daughter presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego. They requested safe haven on U.S. soil. Immigration officials and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation questioned Rodriguez. But authorities initially rejected his request, and Rodriguez and family were escorted back to Tijuana, according to court testimony.
A week later, Rodriguez, his wife and child illegally entered the United States from Tijuana and were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol officers. Rodriguez, saying he feared Cuban intelligence agents in Mexico, had grown a beard as a disguise and had his daughter's hair dyed orange, according to his attorney.
The family's efforts to enter the United States began in Europe last spring, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said he approached U.S. consular officials in Hamburg, Germany, in May, unsuccessfully seeking U.S. political asylum. By then, he stated in court documents, suspicious Cuban agents were monitoring his moves, and he and his family were harassed and threatened.
Rodriguez said he was in Germany working for a pharmaceutical company. The U.S. government maintains that was a cover for his spying.
Rodriguez described himself in the interview and in court papers as a onetime Communist hard-liner who has come to see the error of his ways and who even began to plot against Castro's leadership, drawing the suspicion of Cuban security forces. He contends he was part of a much-publicized 1989 conspiracy to oust Castro, an effort that led to the executions of several high-ranking Cuban officials implicated.
Since 1988, Rodriguez said in a court declaration, he has sought to leave Cuba, along with his wife, Mimna Montes de Oca Aldavert, 30, and the couple's daughter, Paola Rodriguez Montes de Oca.
But the opportunity to leave did not present itself until Oct. 17, when the three flew to Mexico City with the intention of defecting to U.S. authorities in California, according to Rodriguez.
"I plan to continue fighting for the freedom of my people," Rodriguez told reporters after the judge's decision, explaining that he seeks to join the swollen anti-Castro ranks in the United States. "Now democratic forces are very strong; he (Castro) has lost the battle."
Judge Williams made his decision to set bond for Rodriguez after recessing court for 15 minutes and returning to his chambers to review a secret, eight-page U.S. document presented in support of the government's contention that Rodriguez should remain jailed. The report was not persuasive, the judge said.
Rodriguez's wife and child were previously freed from detention on $2,000 bond each.
The would-be defector's wealthy in-laws in Beverly Hills hired a public relations firm to put a positive light on Rodriguez's plight. The firm scheduled a noon press conference Thursday outside of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego, but Rodriguez never showed up.
"Inmates just do not call press conferences," said Ron Roberts, warden of the 850-prisoner federal jail, where Rodriguez was being held. "If we allowed inmates to have press conferences, can you imagine what kind of a madhouse I would have?"