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.

Freed in 1978, Cuesta returned to Miami, but remained dormant for the next decade. By 1990, however, he had become convinced no diplomatic measure would depose Castro, and issued a covert call to arms. Last year, the aging jefe went public, claiming responsibility for eight recent actions, including the Bryant imbroglio and a December 1991 escapade in which three exiles were caught during a nighttime raid. Cuban officials announced the execution of one invader, and sentenced the other two to 30 years.

Such actions have left U.S. officials in an awkward position. While most sympathize with the desire to replace Castro, they must also enforce the Neutrality Act, a 200-year-old law that forbids any armed invasion launched from U.S. soil against a nation with which we are "at peace."

The FBI has made no secret of its attempt to develop Neutrality Act charges against those involved in the latest Comandos L actions. "We've investigated and presented the facts to the U.S. Attorney's Office," says spokesman Paul Miller. "It's now up to them to take action." There is no indication, however, that the feds plan to indict any other members of Comandos L, or to pursue a new indictment of Bryant.

"We have serious concerns about any individuals involved in [anti-Castro] activity," Miller stresses. "And those third parties who may get in the way of situations. Fishermen. Coast Guardsmen. You don't want one of these adventures turning into an international incident."

The Coast Guard's decision to enter Cuban waters to rescue Bryant and company, for instance, could have resulted in a nasty confrontation had a Cuban warship been in the area A especially considering early media accounts, which reported that the commandos had exchanged fire with a pair of Cuban gunboats. (Bryant now denies that claim, saying he took evasive action to escape the hostile vessels.)

What's really amazing, comments Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jim Howe, is that the commando quartet wasn't reeled in by the Cubans. "They used a general distress frequency. So it would have been far more likely for a Cuban vessel to home in on them."

Some officials even suggest that Bryant's "rescue mission" was actually intended as an attack on Cuba. How else, they wonder, would his boat have sustained a gaping hole in its flank? "There's a chance they struck a submerged object in the high seas like they claim," Howe says. "Stranger things have happened. But it's much more likely they were in shallower water."

Federal authorities are sufficiently concerned about exile activity that they have formed an interagency task force to monitor neutrality violations. And prosecutors insist they are serious about enforcing the act A despite having tried only a handful of neutrality cases in the last decade. "We condemn any efforts to use the territory of the United States to prepare or promote violence in Cuba," reads a current U.S. Attorney's policy statement. "The Neutrality Act is the law of the land with regard to Cuba or any other country. Those who violate it will be vigorously pursued and duly prosecuted."

But others insist the law has become antiquated in a world of undeclared wars and covert intervention. "Since when are we 'at peace' with Cuba?" demands John Mattes, a prominent local criminal defense attorney. "We may not be invading any more, but we never made peace. Why are they considered an enemy under the 'Trading with the Enemy' statute? Why don't we have an embassy there? Why do we have an economic embargo against them?"

Recent case law, Mattes contends, only affirms his position. In 1988 he defended an American mercenary for the contras accused of a neutrality violation, by contending that the U.S. was waging a secret war against Nicaragua. Federal Judge Norman Roettger issued an emphatic order of acquittal. "The evidence is overwhelming that the U.S. was not 'at peace with Nicaragua,'" he deemed. "The government's arguments lacked common sense and were meritless."

Indeed, despite the tough talk, prosecutors are plainly reluctant to try a neutrality case in Miami, for several practical reasons. First, a local jury is not likely to accept the premise that the U.S. is "at peace" with Cuba. Second, such a case would supply the defendants an ideal public platform from which to pontificate about la lucha. Most important, there is usually a simpler, safer case to be made from a gun violation A as Tony Bryant's ill-fated case was supposed to have illustrated.

And so it went on January 31, when Coast Guard officials uncovered an armory in the hull of a fishing boat anchored 60 miles north of Cuba, in Bahamian waters. It seemed obvious to federal authorities that the five men on the Angelina planned to transport the munitions to Cuba. One had even been tried last year in the Bahamas for planning an armed invasion of the island. But the exiles were quickly charged with illegal weapons possession.

The men faced up to ten years in prison for possessing A among other goodies A a .50 caliber machine gun, three grenade launchers, and 10,000 rounds of ammo. The quintet quickly devised a surefire defense, courtesy of their comrade-in-arms, Tony Bryant: At a February 1 hearing, an attorney for two of the defendants suggested his clients didn't know the weapons were onboard. Charges against the pair, and two co-defendants, were dropped last week.

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