Senators grill Obama nominee Mari Carmen Aponte’s ties to Cuban officials

Gautham Nagesh Contributor
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Republican lawmakers pressed President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to El Salvador Wednesday over her former relationship with a Cuban national who may have had ties to Cuban intelligence.

Mari Carmen Aponte denied having had any contact with Cuban intelligence but admitted to socializing with Cuban officials and refusing to take a polygraph in April of 1994 when inconsistencies emerged from her conversations with the FBI.

Aponte appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, where she faced questions over her eight-year relationship with Roberto Tamayo, who allegedly provided information to Cuban intelligence while co-habitating with Aponte in Washington during the 1980s and early ’90s.

According to a recording of the hearing, Aponte said she fraternized with Cuban officials but said the contact was purely social.

“Between 1982 and 1994, I was romantically involved with a Cuban American. It was a romantic relationship. In the course of that relationship, he had some contacts with the Cuban Interests Section that arose out of volunteer work that he did for Cuban Americans, who like himself, wanted to travel to Cuba to see relatives,” Aponte said

“Because we were dating, were a couple, on occasion we would go out with other couples from the Cuban Interests Section who helped him and facilitated the paperwork. They were all social contacts. There came a time when the relationship was not working out. We finally broke up in 1994. In 1993, in the Clinton administration, I was visited by the FBI who wanted to discuss the relationship with me,” she said.

The Miami Herald reported Aponte broke up with Tamayo when he insisted on visiting Cuba over her objections. Aponte said she was visited around the same time by the FBI and cooperated fully until they asked her to take a polygraph test. She refused.

“In April of 1994, I received a call out of the blue from one of the agents asking me if I would take a polygraph test. He indicated that there were some minor inconsistencies in some of the dates that we had discussed at our meeting five or six months before,” Aponte said.

“I was confused. I didn’t understand how a polygraph would solve minor inconsistencies. Then I consulted one of my law partners, and he advised me not to take the polygraph. I did want to continue to help. Accordingly, I wrote a letter to the agent, and I declined to take the polygraph.”

Aponte said she attempted to follow up with the FBI over their questions and they dropped the issue of the polygraph, instead asking her to arrange a second meeting with Tamayo.

“They asked instead to meet with Mr. Tamayo at a second location, and they asked if I would set up the meeting. I did. They met, and shortly thereafter the relationship ended, and I never saw him again or saw anybody from the Cuban Interests Section again.”

When directly asked by Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming if there were attempts to recruit her, Aponte stopped short of a complete denial.

“My contacts with the Cuban Intersection personnel were of a social nature. They never asked me questions about my law practice. They never asked questions that were suspicious or that would lead me to believe that they were trying to recruit me. I never felt that I was approached,” she said.

South Carolina’s Jim DeMint questioned Aponte over the reasons for her withdrawal from a similar nomination under Clinton.

“When the newspaper articles first came out, it became clear to me that the personal attacks were part of an agenda to embarrass the administration. I withdrew voluntarily for that reason,” she said.

DeMint also repeated his request for the vote on Aponte’s nomination to be delayed until after the Easter recess to give the minority staff more time to locate a confidential memo from 1998 that was allegedly given to Sen. Jesse Helms detailing concerns about Aponte’s background. James Risch of Idaho asked Aponte several times if she knew of the memo or where it could be found. She denied any knowledge of it.

“I had some serious concerns about the nominee going into the hearing, that’s why I joined my colleagues to request more time to review her record. Unfortunately, her answers in the hearing did not ease those concerns. Additional time is needed to thoroughly vet and look into the questions raised about this nominee,” said Senator Jim Risch.

Listen to a portion of the confirmation hearing here.

Paul Conner contributed to this article