The Look of a Warrior

Tony Bryant is a black militant, a hijacker, a survivor of Cuban prisons, and a Castro-hating commando. And don't you forget it.

Prosecutors, already hours into the composition of a closing argument for the jury, were dumbfounded. To them, Bryant's credibility was the central issue, and they felt his story held water about as well as the sinking vessel he had captained. He and his attorney couldn't even agree on who had supplied the guns. What's more, Bryant made no mention of the weapons being hidden onboard when interviewed by Sandoval, though his discovery of them must have come as a jolt, given that he testified that this was the first time guns had been used in one of the group's monthly raft-rescue operations.

Prosecutors also had hoped to stress physical evidence that cast doubt on Bryant's story. During the trial they had called a Coast Guard radio expert, who noted the limited range of the tiny VHF radio aboard Jaws. Bryant's distress call had reached the Coast Guard's Key West headquarters, the expert explained, only because of their 200-foot antenna. By contrast, the crew of the rescue cutter was unable to pick up Bryant's radio signal until the Coast Guard vessel was within seven miles of Jaws. The implication was clear: If Bryant was 30 to 45 miles offshore when he spoke with Cuesta, as the defendant testified, his friend would need a Olympian antenna to establish contact.

The commandos' homemade video also appeared to conflict with Bryant's scenario. Bryant told Sandoval that he set off from a small key north of Marathon between 7:00 and 7:30 p.m., and testified at one point that he spoke with Cuesta "an hour to an hour and a half" later. The footage showing Bryant with a gun, then, would have to have been shot after the conversation with Cuesta, between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. at the earliest. Yet the video appears to have been taken at least a half hour before sunset, which on that July day was 8:19 p.m.

Perhaps most revealing, none of Bryant's shipmates was called as a defense witness, though presumably each could have exonerated the captain with eyewitness testimony.

Ever fearful of offending a federal judge, prosecutors refuse to comment publicly about King's ruling A which they cannot appeal. Even privately, they prefer to roll their eyes or shrug, making no mention of the judge's capriciousness. King himself, who recently received from Bryant his very own inscribed copy of Hijack, declined comment for this article.

Not five minutes after his acquittal, Tony Bryant stood on the front steps of the federal courthouse, encircled by microphones. A thicket of remote antennas rose behind the wall of jostling reporters. "A victory for freedom, a victory for Cuba!" a defiant Bryant declared. In the weeks that followed, he used the English-and Spanish-language media to exhort his comrades. No boob prosecutor, he made it plain, was going to dictate when Comandos L could launch a raid, or how, or from where. He even promised to implicate Castro as a drug smuggler.

The prosecutors, who had hoped the Bryant case would extinguish the fire of anti-Castro activists throughout South Florida, sighed like unwitting bellows.

Bryant's stock took a further leap three weeks ago, when several media outlets reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration was indeed targeting Raul Castro A Fidel's brother and heir-apparent A for a possible narcotics-trafficking charge, A la Manual Noriega.

Cuban exiles, however, aren't holding their breath for a U.S. invasion. They learned that lesson 30 years ago, on the blood-soaked sands of Playa Gir centsn, where Castro's forces massacred a band of CIA-trained insurgents after President John Kennedy refused to supply them with air cover. Their pride wounded by the Bay of Pigs disaster, tired of hollow CIA promises, exiles have long since assumed as their own the crusade to oust the Communist leader.

And while anti-Castro agitation has been a staple of South Florida life since the Sixties, the recent collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has mightily reinvigorated the unofficial militias that once dotted the Everglades with none-too-secret training camps. If power brokers such as Jorge Mas Canosa hope to lay the groundwork for a bloodless transition to a Cuba libre, militant exiles demand a violent overthrow A retribution for Castro's betrayal of the revolution and for the decades of diaspora.

"There is a feeling that Castro is ready to tumble," observes Jorge Vi*as, a reporter at La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140) and veteran exile watcher. "All he needs is a little push."

Until his death two months ago at age 66, the recognized leader in this renewed effort was Tony Cuesta. A onetime member of Castro's army, the towering revolutionary fled Cuba in 1959, when Fidel revealed his Communist leanings. In 1962 he broke away from the CIA A which trained Cuban rebels but refused to let them stage raids A to form Comandos L. (The L, naturally, stands for Libertad.) In the next four years, Cuesta claimed he led more than twenty incursions. The last, in 1966, ended with the loss of his eyesight and his left hand, after he bellyflopped on a grenade to avoid capture by gunboats patrolling off the coast of Cuba. He spent more than a decade in Castro's meanest prisons, where he befriended Tony Bryant.

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