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The Family of the CIA Operative Released in US-Cuba Prisoner Swap Has No Idea Where He Is

Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban citizen, spent 20 years in jail for providing intelligence to the CIA. His ordeal was a last vestige of the Cold War between the US and Cuba.
December 19, 2014, 10:50pm
Photo by AP/Ramon Espinosa

Buried among Wednesday's surprise news that the US and Cuba were putting an end to half a century of hostilities, and that US contractor Alan Gross was on his way home after five years in a Cuban prison, was also the announcement that the US had swapped the three members of the 'Cuban Five' who were in its custody in exchange for an unnamed intelligence operative who had been sitting in a Cuban jail for two decades.

In his statement addressing the sweeping changes, President Obama described the man — whose existence was news to the US public — as "one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba," crediting him various contributions, including gathering information that allowed the US to capture the infamous Cuban agents, whose release was announced as part of the deal.

But who is this man who sacrificed 20 years of his life to provide intelligence to the US from a country that, by the time he was arrested in the mid-1990s, was isolated and impoverished? And where exactly is he now?

Gracias al cubano agente de la CIA Rolando Sarraff Trujillo se pudo destruir una red de espionaje castrista en USA. — Team AntiRojos ® (@Team_AntiRojos)December 18, 2014

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Obama didn't name him, but other US officials have said the man was Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban citizen who worked as a cryptologist in Cuba's Directorate of Intelligence. His ordeal, a last vestige of the Cold War, is the tragic product of what Obama called an "outdated approach" to US-Cuba relations, more a result of political obstinacy and war of principles than any true threat.

US officials hailed Sarraff's release as a "fitting closure" to the Cold War between the two countries.

"This man, whose sacrifices were known only to a few, has spent nearly 20 years in a Cuban prison due to his efforts on behalf of the United States," Brian Hale, from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a statement, noting most details in the case remain classified. "In light of his sacrifice on behalf of the United States, securing his release from prison after 20 years — in a swap for three of the Cuban spies he helped put behind bars — is fitting closure to this Cold War chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations."

Sarraff, who was an expert in the codes used by Cuban spies abroad, was a Cuban intelligence official but helped the US take down a Florida-based Cuban spy ring known as the "Wasp Network" — which included members of the Cuban Five.

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But the ordeal, at least for Sarraff's family, is not over. His parents, who regularly visited him at the maximum security facility at the edge of Havana where he was held, said they have been looking for him since his release was announced.

When he failed to make his regular afternoon call to them, they went to the prison, where officials told them that he was taken away and that it was "for the better."

"This is not a moment of happiness — it's panic," Mr. Sarraff's father, also named Rolando, told the New York Times. "I have gone three days without knowing the whereabouts of my son."

The older Sarraff, a retired lieutenant colonel in Cuba's army and a former journalist, said he had known his son was convicted for being a CIA spy, but that he had not known of his son's work for the Americans before. He told the Associated Press that he raised his son to be a "revolutionary" — supportive of Cuba's communist government.

"But my son is my son, he could be a thief or whatever and I am never going to abandon him," he added. "I'll never turn my back on him."

Speaking from Spain, Sarraff's sister Vilma told the Times that "they did not say where they had taken him."

"How is it possible that they take my brother out of the country without telling his parents?" she asked. "My parents are at the point where my father is likely to have a heart attack!"

She added that her brother always maintained his innocence, but that "If what they are saying is true, fine, he paid that debt with 20 years in prison."

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Sarraff, who is 51-years-old today, went to work in 1995 and never came home. His sister said he was held in solitary confinement and not allowed to paint — with poetry, one of his passions. He also has a daughter, who was 7 years old at the time of his arrest.

Chris Simmons, who worked on Cuban counterintelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1996 to 2004, told the Times that Sarraff was probably spared execution because his parents worked for the Cuban government.

At the time, Simmons worked with another Cuban intelligence officer and a childhood friend of Sarraff — José Cohen.

Cohen, who escaped Cuba on a raft and was sentenced to death in absentia because of his work for the CIA, denied that he or Sarraff had sold intelligence to the US.

"What I did, I did because I admired the values of this country, and because what was happening in Cuba was a farce," he told the Times. "They sentenced me to death and then sentenced him to 25 years to serve as a lesson for everybody else."

"Here's what I can tell you about Roly: He is a person who loves liberty. He was jailed unjustly," he added. "He sacrificed his life. When he gets here, he will tell his story."

Sarraff is presumably on US soil by now. "I don't care where he is, just that he's in good health," his mother, Odesa Trujillo, told the AP.

The beginning of a "new chapter" in US-Cuba relations was slammed by critics as a concession to the regime and hailed by some as a belated righting of five decades of failed policies and. But it also shone a spotlight on those policies and their logic.

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"There were a number of people in the Cuban government who were valuable to the U.S., just as there were a number of people in the U.S. government who were helpful to the Cubans," Jerry Komisar, head of the CIA's clandestine operations in Cuba during the 1990s, told the New York Times.

But by the mid-1990s when impoverished Cubans were fleeing the island on rafts in droves, and when Sarraff was arrested, isolating Cuba was more a point of pride than anything else, and the country had not posed a real threat to the US since the end of the Cuban missile crisis, more than three decades earlier.

Still, Sarraff paid a huge price for his role in providing the US with intelligence.

"You have to ask yourself," Komisar told the Times. "To what end?'

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi