It felt like Havana deja vu.
Request denied. Request denied. Request denied.
When Miami immigration officials shot down his petition for U.S. citizenship three years ago, the world-famous Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval got a familiar feeling.
Crazy as it might sound, he had a hunch the hand of Fidel Castro somehow was involved in the decision.
I remember Sandoval, frustrated and bewildered, venting his suspicions in 1997. What other explanation could there be for snubbing the jazzist, a multi-Grammy winner whom Dizzy Gillespie himself honored like a son?
The official explanations -- that he was rejected because he had been a member of the Cuban Communist party for three months -- weren't convincing.
Here was a guy who had been tagged "pro-Yankee" in Havana, a guy who had performed at the White House, at the presidential inauguration, at the vice president's home, at half time during the Super Bowl. He had been welcomed by red carpet to the most exclusive venues in the country. And yet he couldn't get past the bureaucrats in Miami?
It didn't make sense.
Not until last week, when a senior immigration official was nabbed by FBI agents as an alleged spy for Castro.
Now Sandoval is taking a measure of vindication from the spy scandal that is rocking the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Miami.
The arrest of Mariano Faget, a 34-year veteran of the INS, has added a new dimension to the story of how Sandoval hit roadblock after roadblock in his quest for U.S. citizenship. Sandoval is not certain Faget is the official who interviewed him. Nevertheless, Faget was the INS supervisor responsible for overseeing decisions regarding the naturalization of immigrants, including defectors.
"I said it many times, although I had no proof against any one individual -- something very strange was going on in the Miami office. I suspected someone could be representing the Cuban government in all of this," said Sandoval, who was on tour in the Midwest Sunday.
The mere implication that the Cuban-born Faget could have influenced the trumpeter's naturalization petition -- and that of other high-profile Cuban defectors -- proves again that truth never fails to be stranger than fiction when it comes to Cuba.
This spy story broke as I was in Los Angeles, serving as a consultant for an HBO film inspired by Sandoval's life and defection. Even in Hollywood, the wire reports read more spectacularly than any movie script.
What was a high-ranking U.S. official with access to confidential files on Cuban defectors doing calling the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., or meeting with Castro intelligence operatives in Miami hotels?
Whatever the explanation, Sandoval points to one fact that bolsters the spy allegations. The rejection of his American citizenship hit the perfect note for Castro's propaganda machine.
"They had a feast with this case," recalled Sandoval's wife, Marianela. "The rejection of Arturo gave them more spectacular headlines: `This is how the U.S. pays the traitors and rats.' "
Outside Miami, Sandoval found even U.S. officials were stunned by his rejection. One night, as he played Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., he ran into the U.S. embassy official who had granted him asylum in Rome in 1990.
"He asked, `Arturo, what happened to your case, man?' " recalled Sandoval.
Good question, Sandoval came back.
Shortly thereafter, the INS ordered a review of the file, turning up some disturbing details, says Sandoval. By then, the case had become an ongoing news story.
"Part of the file was missing," said Sandoval, who was later told key points of his testimony had been twisted.
As a result, the INS asked him to testify again -- this time in front of a court reporter, a tape recorder and a video camera.
Shortly thereafter, in December 1998, Sandoval's citizenship was granted.
Curiously, however, out of the public eye, the requests of his son and his father, both named Arturo Sandoval, were denied. Sandoval's father was denied outright. His son was told he had failed to show up for an interview, for which he never received notice. To this day, neither one is a U.S. citizen.