Closeup/International Affairs

The enemy grows older

And, if Cuba’s exiles are right, more vulnerable

William Lowther July 24 1978
Closeup/International Affairs

The enemy grows older

And, if Cuba’s exiles are right, more vulnerable

William Lowther July 24 1978

The enemy grows older

Closeup/International Affairs

And, if Cuba’s exiles are right, more vulnerable

William Lowther

Manolo Reyes pushed a loaded .38 across his desk. For a man with his name on a death list he looked awfully confident. “Do you think they’ll take me easy?” he asked. A macho gesture, a touch of cowboy. But the atmosphere in Little Havana that has convinced him to carry a gun is real enough. At 54, the laugh and worry lines mingle in his face. He speaks with a lilting Spanish accent:

“The killings began about four years ago. It was a Good Friday. Jose de la Tórnente was the first one. He was an old man.

They shot him in his own house and left behind a list of 10 names. Since then, six of the men on that list have been assassinated. A seventh committed suicide. An eighth had his legs blown off. There :s only me and one other left on the hit parade. No one has been caught. But all of us, all the men on the list had only one enemy—Fidel. And he has agents here.”

“Here” is Miami, specifically the huge

Cuban ghetto known as Little Havana, home to more than half the 700,000 Cubans who live in exile in the United States. They have been described as the besttrained army of terrorists in the world today, and they possess an enormous potential for violence against the detested Castro regime and its supporters. They have been here for 18 years, since they fled or were forced out when Fidel Castro led his ragged rebel troops down from the Sierra Maestra hills to turn their island into a Communist stronghold. And not since

the death of John F. Kennedy (in which some suggest they played a sinister role) has anyone in a position of real power considered the exiles to have any chance to return. victoriously, to overthrow the “dictator.”

At one time nearly 60 per cent of the Cuban men in the Miami area were in the pay of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and received intense tuition as guerrilla fighters. But that connection ended years ago—they have been on their own for a good decade, their violence and hatred smouldering. They are fiercely anti-Communist, bursting with rage against Castro. The years of frustration since the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco, the abortive, CIA-backed attack on Cuba in 1961. have blinded many of them to reason.

But now, curiously, this society in microcosm believes again that it has a part to play in international affairs. It believes that Castro is overstepping the boundaries of

his power, at home and abroad. The Cubans in exile say that not since the early '60s has the time been more opportune to strike out again against the man they call, with bitter familiarity, “Fidel.”

There are dozens of factions and groupings among the exiles, but basically they fall into two schools. One, led by men like Manolo, wants to combat the Communists through strictly legal political means— through Washington, the United Nations, the World Court. Others believe that diplomatic pressure is a waste of time. They want to attack the Castro regime at home and abroad with violence. They have formed a “secret army” which has conducted literally dozens of bombings against pro-Castro targets. They have kidnapped and murdered Cuban officials. They have blown up an airliner, killing all aboard, and they have launched flotillas of highly armed speedboats to harass Cuban and Soviet shipping in the Caribbean. Even now four men are waiting to stand

trial on charges that they violated the U.S.Cuban neutrality laws by preparing “a military and naval expedition” against the territory and dominion of the Republic of Cuba.

This summer coincidentally, through a set of unrelated circumstances, both the violent and the nonviolent factions in Miami have fresh hope for damaging the Castro regime. They see new ways emerging for them to influence events.

The bearded revolutionary has become vulnerable, they say, as a result of his adventurism in Africa. Cuba, by most estimates, now has well over40,000 soldiers on that continent. For a poor albeit well subsidized country with fewer than 10 million people, it is a huge commitment to foreign wars from which the only gain is likely to be of a spurious ideological nature. Allowing for the difference in populations, the Cuban venture is on the same scale as the United States’ in Vietnam in 1968. It’s fair to say that every Cuban family has a relative or at least knows a soldier in Africa.

Not surprisingly, this is leading to a good deal of quiet dismay and uneasiness at home. At least that is what the exiles in

Miami believe. The intelligence they receive from relatives and sources back on the island indicates that dissatisfaction is growing. But there is no obvious pressure to “bring the boys home.” This is partly because the Communist system is well enough organized to stamp out the fires of rebellion before they catch hold, and partly because of high unemployment at home. Work is scarce and Africa is a chance for promotion and equality. Most Cubans are mulatto or black yet nearly all the top jobs in Havana are held by whites. Colored soldiers, especially junior officers, are far commoner in the units in Africa than in the Cuban forces as a whole. Thus race plays its part.

In the back bar of Centro Vasco, Little Havana’s classiest restaurant, a Bay of Pigs veteran explained: “You see Fidel, he has this charisma. He is a genius. We don’t deny that. A genius, but an evil genius. He holds the people under a spell. The spell could be broken by his death. There is no one of stature to succeed him. No one can take his place. If we could kill him now it would be possible to rally the people to revolt. With all that is happening in Africa, the time is right for action. We must let the Cuban people back home know that we are still ready and prepared to help them.”

The world is a very different place viewed from the neat, narrow streets of Little Havana. Ideas that seem absurd elsewhere take on new reason when explained over café cubano in the crowded sidewalk bars. You can easily believe that you are in the real thing, the real Havana, and forget that it’s a transplant. Virtually no English is spoken in the shops and cafés. The Spanish culture thrives. Stores with statues of saints, stone-studded crosses and religious paraphernalia flourish. Old men gather in dusty little squares to play dominoes. The gourmets agree that Little Havana restaurants serve Cuban food superior to those “back home.” Black bean soup and variations on paella are the specialities.

Back of the main street—the Tamiami Trail—are bright rows of white and pastel stucco houses. There is a safe and secure air. It looks like a good place to bring up the kids. It’s hard to believe that it’s also a hotbed of plots, counter-plots and conspiracy. But it is.

For the last few months, a fragile peace seems to have fallen over the area. There have been no bombings, murders or kidnappings in the Cuban community. The list with Manolo’s name on it would appear to have been put on the shelf. And the state and federal anti-terrorist squads who keep a close watch on the community believe they know why it’s so quiet. In offthe-record talks, police officers acknowledge that Castro does indeed have agents in Miami. They were all working—Manolo still is—to tackle Castro through such international organizations as the UN and World Court. Those who favor terror tactics see what might be called the “Manolo faction” as a waste of time, a hindrance.

They want to discourage that approach at any price.

Eighty per cent of the 100 and more bombings and killings in the Miami area since 1974 remain unsolved. Congressional hearings, grand juries and the like have been markedly ineffective. However, when arrests are made or convictions handed down, the persons involved turn out to be known members of the community with long records of anti-Castro activity. So the current lull in terrorism has been caused, the police believe, by two factors. First, several exile leaders with records of violence are now awaiting trial on a variety of terrorist charges and police say their sympathetic colleagues are lying low so as not to prejudice the cases. Second, and equally important, there are indications that the pro-attack group is concentrating its efforts directly against Cuba, 110 miles away. Buoyed by the belief that the people are fed up with Castro’s Africa policies, the exiles want to make the most of what could be a passing opportunity.

“I really would put absolutely nothing past them,” says one leader of the state’s anti-terrorist squad. A Cuban himself, he adds: “These people are very intelligent and quite fanatical. They are prepared to lose their lives, to become martyrs for the only cause that means anything to them.”

Their record is quite extraordinary. The four men now awaiting trial on charges of violating American neutrality laws—Armando Lopez Estrada, Pedro Gil, Juan Arce and Isidoro Pineiro—were arrested after police found a weapons cache and three powerboats they said were to be used in a naval raid on Cuba. Among weapons in the haul: a 20mm cannon, a 50-calibre machine-gun, a 30-calibre machine-gun and five AR-15 automatic rifles. They have claimed that in conducting raids on Cuba

they were “pursuing a legitimate goal of the U.S. government.” The prosecutor in turn argues that the United States does not sanction private armies. “Fifteen years ago. perhaps, the U.S. did give approval for raids,” he said. “Now there is no authorization and this amounts to a recruitment of a private or secret army.” It is reflective of the atmosphere and mood of Miami however that up to this point the legal system, as applied locally, has tended to work in favor of the Cubans and turn a blind eye to raids into the Caribbean. Even now the betting is that the four will eventually have their case dismissed on some legal technicality.

The naval expeditions are aimed at keeping the Cuban authorities disturbed and on edge. A couple of random examples: On February 12, 1976. when the Soviet freighter Dzhordano Bruno was sitting

motionless 35 miles off Cuba’s north coast, a small boat raced up and raked it with heavy machine-gun fire. The Soviets said no one was injured. About two months later, two Cuban fishing boats were similarly attacked. This time, one fisherman was killed.

But it is the exile community’s more visible acts of terrorism that get the publicity. Perhaps the most noted came in October, 1976, when a Cubana airliner was sabotaged en route to Cuba from Barbados. Seventy-three people were killed.

But as the police point out it’s not just those who serve Castro but also those who oppose terrorist actions in general who fall victim to the renegades. Emilio Milian. news director of Miami’s most popular Spanish-language radio station, had his legs blown off when he turned on the ignition of a car—shortly after broadcasting an editorial pleading for an end to terrorism. It happened two years ago but although several known terrorists have been questioned (one of them failed a lie detector test) no one has been convicted.

Leaders of the terrorist bands are hard to identify. However a pediatrician, Dr. Orlando Bosch, has emerged as a major figure. He was caught firing a bazooka at a Polish ship in Miami harbor in 1968 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released on parole after four years, he returned to the movement and is now under arrest in Venezuela charged along with three other men in connection with the Cubana airliner bombing.

Many of the pro-violence Cubans have connections with the Bay of Pigs Fighters Association Assault Brigade 2506. formed by invasion veterans. To a man they are fiercely anti-Castro.

In a dimly lit barjust off a Little Havana side street, two of the men who once worked for the CIA and conducted raids against Cuba talked into the early morning hours recently about their hopes. Roberto Carballo—a dramatic, dashing individual with thick black wavy hair, shirt opened to show an ornate silver cross—said: “I don’t believe that the present Cuban regime can exist without Fidel. He controls everything. If he were gone, if he were killed, all that he has done would crumble. Have you seen the pictures of him lately? He has a big fat paunch now. And he is one of the biggest liars alive. I was at the Bay of Pigs invasion. I was the only member of the bri-

gade to escape after we were captured. You know there were only 1,260 of us landed, 106 were killed. Fidel said that we killed only 92 of his troops but that was a lie. We killed about 800 of them. I myself saw them carrying the bodies away in trucks.”

Urbano Menendez, a big man with a gentle face, added: “It is so easy to fight Fidel in Miami. All you have to do is talk about it and nothing else. But it will be another thing if the real chance is presented again for us to invade the island. We are always asking ourselves how many of the Cuban men here would really stand and fight. Of course it depends on.who blows the horn. In the end you can only really know for yourself. Many of our people have done very well in America. They are successful and wealthy businessmen. Would they give that up to go back to Cuba? We can’t turn back the clock. Things have changed a great deal.”

Indeed. Things are still changing. Manolo Reyes put away his gun. We were talking in his plush little office—refrigerated bar and mirror-fronted desk—on the third floor of the hospital where he works as vice-president in charge of com-

munications and patient relations. A selfpromoter, he has testified 12 times in the last eight years before Congress as a “leader of the Cuban community in exile.”

His schemes for bringing down Castro through complex arguments and unlikely power plays in Washington and New York are trotted out with over-practised fluency. It’s not from these dubious ploys that Manolo will ever hurt Cuba, rather it’s from one of his other pursuits—the welfare of the exiled community. For he has led a drive to persuade the patriotic Cubans to take out American citizenship. “I decided that as a special tribute to the United States I would convince my brothers to become Americans. Does this mean we are renouncing our roots, our country, our history? No. You love and always will love the mother who gave you your body and soul, but you also love the woman who helps you raise your children. You cannot compare them. Cuba is our mother, America is our wife.”

In 1976, when Manolo started his drive, 30,000 Cuban exiles became Americans. Last year another 22,000 took the oath of allegiance. This year at least as many are expected to follow suit. The result is that for the first time since they went into exile the Cubans have become a voting political force. They are gathering clout in Congress. Their ballots can be relied upon to elect anti-Castro candidates who will, through the committees and caucuses, fight against any Washington-Havana reconciliation and recognition.

It is at least partly as a result of a national sentiment against Cuban troops in Africa that President Jimmy Carter is now taking the hardest line of his own administration to label the island as a Soviet satellite totally under the Kremlin’s thumb. In so doing. Carter has rejected the friendship overtures Castro has been making with increasing frequency this year. This latest development has come as a sweet relief to Little Havana. Forthe president started his regime with moves towards Cuba. Diplomats were swapped, treaties signed, agreements reached on fishing and freedom of passage. Now, with the impasse over Africa, relations again look ready to slump.

Last word from Manolo: “The Cuban people are not Communists at heart. What are Cuban boys doing fighting in Africa? Cuba is famous for rum. the conga and maracas. We are not warriors.