By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Bryant was jailed, his idyllic notion of Cuba dashed. Cuban officials indicated the move was an attempt to stem the tide of air piracy. He insists it was punishment for robbing a passenger who turned out to be a Cuban double agent. In either case, the trial didn't last long. Although he didn't understand a word of the proceedings A not even his court-appointed attorney's ten-word defense A he was sentenced to twelve years.
The only detailed account of Bryant's time in Cuba is his own: a 432-page opus published by Fort Lauderdale-based Freedom Press International in 1984 under the title Hijack. Written in florid prose, the book is a curiously gripping compendium of jailhouse cliches. Bryant casts himself as a prisoner of indefatigable spirit, who constantly outwits the guards. He endures cells slathered with feces and, perhaps understandably, leads countless hunger strikes. While serving as a prison orderly, he brings a stabbing victim back from the dead by administering heart massage. Using little more than a three-inch hacksaw Tony el Americano escapes from Guanajay, Cuba's toughest pen. He then manages to confound a murder plot devised by Castro's diabolical apparatchiks. All the while, Bryant pens poetry and grows to loathe communism with the fervor he once reserved for the bourgeoisie. He even finds God.
In October 1980, the ordeal ended. He and 33 other U.S. prisoners were released from prison as part of a futile bid by Castro to buoy Jimmy Carter's re-election chances against Ronald Reagan. Bryant returned to Miami in shackles, facing twenty years to life for air piracy. He wasted little time publicizing his ideological metamorphosis. His first words in court: "Communism is humanity's vomit! Wipe it out!"
Despite his lengthy criminal record, Bryant was released on bail at his next appearance, after a series of witnesses vouched for his good name. Most influential was Tony Cuesta, a former Cuban political prisoner who had served time with Bryant. The revered anti-Castro warhorse and his black American friend spent most of the next five months together, making a series of hyper-patriotic public appearances around Dade County.
The following March, after entering a plea of guilty, Bryant came before federal Judge Eugene Spellman, again with a busload of advocates in tow. Spellman sentenced him to five years' probation, a stunning act of legal benevolence that Bryant reciprocated by dedicating Hijack to the judge.
The account took three years to write, but it made Byrant something of a celebrity. His saga A the ex-Black Panther turned born-again Christian by Castro's evil empire A proved irresistible in Reagan's America. He chatted amicably with fundamentalist TV hosts Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker, and became a spokesman for the John Birch Society. "I even lectured for the Moonies," he recalls. "Anyone who wanted to hear me, because the message was always the same: Anything that enhances the human condition is good. All that detracts from that condition is evil!"
If Bryant learned anything in Cuba, it was that the human condition has no greater detractor than Castro and his communism. As he notes in Hijack, even the black community in Miami "was ripe for Communist infiltration. [Here] the result of the Communist effort was horrible. Girls ten and eleven years old were already seasoned prostitutes." He off-handedly endorsed the slaying of Communists and spoke glowingly of Joseph McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting senator from Wisconsin.
Such extremism made Bryant a fixture in the exile community during the Eighties, star of a radio and TV show (both of which were titled En blanco y en negro) with his friend Cuesta. He won local notoriety for assorted campaigns to unite Miami's fractious black and Cuban populations, traveled to Europe, fell in and out of love, and eventually settled in an exclusive Delray Beach neighborhood called the Hamlet. In 1991 he married Margaret Carson, his longtime benefactor and an ardent supporter of his endeavors. Sixteen years his senior and the heiress to a Canadian luggage fortune, Carson provided Bryant with financial security.
But the world beyond anti-Castro fanaticos had mostly forgotten Bryant until this past July 4. On that auspicious date he and three fellow commandos were found aboard a sinking speedboat bobbing helplessly seven miles off the coast of Cuba. From afar the situation was comic: four middle-age men who set off to rescue a Cuban rafter wind up ankle-deep in seawater, hollering for the Coast Guard to rescue them.
But when their boat Jaws was towed back to Key West, officers conducting a routine search discovered four guns stashed below deck, along with ammo, knives, ski masks, face paint, and anti-Castro propaganda.
Bryant maintained that the weapons were brought along for self-defense purposes, not to raid Cuba. Nonetheless, four months later he found himself staring down the barrel of two charges for illegal gun possession, each of which carried a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. The ship's captain, Bryant was the only commando indicted; as a convicted felon he is barred from possessing a firearm.
He retained as his attorney the theatrical litigator Ellis Rubin, who immediately took to the media, branding the indictment "nothing more than a political trial to pacify Castro's government." Rubin soon announced the establishment of a Tony Bryant Legal Defense Fund. Indignant chatter pervaded the cafes and living rooms of el exilio, and Tony el americano slipped into the role of revolutionary martyr like a well-worn bathrobe.