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.

So maybe you're sick of the snowbound Canadian winters. Maybe it's time to swoop south, like the geese. And maybe, just maybe, that Cuban Ministry of Tourism brochure A the one with blue sea lapping at unspoiled beaches and the lights of Old Havana twinkling A is beginning to look tempting. Why not? you figure. Considering the bargain rates, Cuba might be just the ticket. Where better to escape the hurly burly of modern capitalism than that beckoning finger of tropical communism?

There's but one snag in the itinerary, dear tourist. His name is Anthony Garnet Bryant, and he'd just as soon see you dead.

Dead as a doornail.
Dead as old man Lenin in his creepy tomb.
Or at the very least, spooked to high heaven.

The second you lay down one red cent in Castro country you're Tony Bryant's sworn enemy. And something worse: you're his target. "I've warned these tourists repeatedly," he sighs. "Repeatedly. Those who go down are taking their lives into their hands. If the Cuban people cannot enjoy those hotels and beaches, nobody's going to enjoy them."

Bryant knows a little something about Cuba. Back in 1969, he'll tell you, he viewed Fidel's kingdom as the solution to life in the United States of Whitey. An end to the racism, the never-ending dope charges, the Man. So he took a .38 revolver and chartered his own flight to Havana. But the Communists betrayed Bryant, threw him in prison, and tortured him for twelve years. He returned to the blessed soil of America a certified member of Miami's defiant exile community. He lectured, penned memoirs, dabbled in anti-Communist zealotry, and a year ago took up la causa around the clock.

His timing was exquisite. With Soviet Marxism buried, Fidel teetering, and rampant rumors of a pending drug indictment against brother Raul, Castro's paunchy paramilitary exile enemies have roused themselves from hibernation and commandeered the headlines. And to the Little Havana patriots who can recite his history, the 54-year-old Bryant A ex-drug-pusher, pimp, and Black Panther A has become a most unlikely chieftain.

As mouthpiece for the anti-Castro troop Comandos L, he has jacked the rhetoric to new heights, vowing to lead attacks on Cuba and virtually daring the U.S. government to bust him for Neutrality Act violations. The FBI blustered about just such a prospect months ago, but its probe of Comandos L has so far yielded no indictments. Last fall federal prosecutors did try Bryant for illegally possessing a gun during a Fourth of July Comandos L foray into Cuban waters. They failed, laughably, and the case merely emboldened the defendant, who now broadcasts his intentions to fell El Tirano by targeting the tourist resorts that subsidize Cuba's starving economy.

"I don't feel bad if these people who support my enemy, mankind's enemy, are hurt or killed," Bryant insists quietly. "We're at war. This is not a game." He straightens his official Comandos L beret, the one with the silver star for Justice. He slips on a pair of oversize sunglasses, and behind these his eyes search A as they have all his strange life A for the reverent gaze afforded a true warrior.

The 50th skyjacking in U.S. history began just after 2:00 a.m. on March 6, 1969, when a lone gunman burst into the cockpit of a National Airlines 727 and demanded that the plane change course to Havana. The pilot, bound for Miami from New York and cruising at 35,000 feet, was in no position to argue. Particularly with a .38 revolver to his temple.

Tony Bryant was, by his own account, "black and bitter, armed, desperate and dangerous, at war with the United States." And he was losing, badly. An ex-con at 31, already he had been arrested a dozen times on charges ranging from armed robbery to narcotics possession. Bright and sensitive, a natural musician, he'd been a good student during his youth in San Bernardino, California, outside Los Angeles. But he'd also borne the brunt of his parents' bitter divorce, spending a year in foster homes before returning to live with his father and new stepmother. Bryant dropped out of high school as a junior and at seventeen, joined the air force where he was introduced to the joys of mainlining heroin. He was discharged at nineteen. From there the crime spiral began. He spent most of his twenties behind bars, suffered a broken marriage, made too little money playing jazz sax and flute, and became involved with the San Francisco Bay Area's raging Black Power movement.

Bryant says he diverted the plane to Cuba on orders from higher-ups in the Black Panthers. His mandate was to convey a request for heavy arms to Celia Sanchez, Fidel Castro's personal secretary and confidante. Thus would begin the violent overthrow of White America. Bryant believed hijacking an American jet would make him a hero in Cuba, toasted by diplomats, and allotted his own harem. Such was the scuttlebutt among his radical comrades.

And as he stepped down from his hijacked plane, all elements of the fantasy appeared to be in place. A line of military personnel greeted him on the tarmac of Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. The sergeant-at-arms threw his arms around Bryant in an embrace frozen for posterity by a dozen flashbulbs. Then the hijacker was led away from the floodlights and into the shadows, where two beefy officers hammerlocked him and wrestled his gun away.

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.

Bryant's trial began, six months to the day after his voyage into Cuban waters, with typical Ellis Rubin flourish. "May it please the court," the lawyer commenced. "Ladies and gentlemen, this case started 34 years ago this week, when a man calling himself Robin Hood came down from the mountains in Cuba and declared himself the new leader of their society."

Federal prosecutors Julia Paylor and Andrew Oosterbaan, who had filed a pretrial motion to curb such rhetoric, quickly objected and Rubin acceded. But the defense lawyer continued to hammer at the case's supposed broader motives, at one point blithely asserting that the indictment A which was in fact sought by a Republican administration A had to be political, because it was unsealed the day after the presidential election.

The tack was hardly unprecedented. A staunch foe of communism, Rubin served during the Fifties as assistant attorney general of Florida in charge of anti-subversive activities. Not only is he Comandos L's general counsel, but for years he has represented members of Miami's anti-Castro fringe, becoming the lawyer of first resort for many embattled exiles.

This popularity, in fact, nearly got Rubin disqualified as Bryant's counsel. Back in early November, prosecutors issued a grand jury subpoena for Alejandro Perez, one of Bryant's shipmates. When they learned Perez subsequently had called Rubin for legal advice, prosecutors insisted a conflict-of-interest hearing be held, since both Bryant and Perez A a potential witness at Bryant's trial A identified Rubin as their attorney. Four days after the November 12 hearing, U.S. Magistrate Ann Vitunac issued a scathing Order to Disqualify, in which she suggested that Rubin had violated the Florida Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct.

Federal Judge James Lawrence King later allowed Rubin to re-enter the case, after Rubin filed a lengthy brief emphasizing Bryant's constitutional right to choose his own counsel. (Perez invoked the Fifth Amendment and was never called as a witness.)

King's ruling was one of several that pleased the defense. Earlier the judge had freed Bryant from jail for an afternoon so the defendant could pay a well-publicized deathbed visit to his ailing mentor, Tony Cuesta. Cuesta died two days later. In early December, King released Bryant altogether, voiding a $15,000 bond. Then he granted a defense motion to move the trial from Key West to Miami, Bryant's home base. (King argued that wintertime hotel rooms for the jurors, witnesses, and officers of the court would be just too expensive on the chic island.)

Still, prosecutors were confident as the trial opened on January 4. Their key witness was U.S. Customs agent Leo Sandoval, who had interviewed Bryant two weeks after the mission. According to Sandoval's handwritten notes, "Bryant said that the weapons did not belong to him, however, they were given to him for use on this trip. He was told that they were legal and took them in the event he would have to defend himself." The prosecution also showed the jury a videotape, taken by one of Bryant's crew members at the outset of the journey, that showed Bryant holding a shotgun and staring regally into the horizon.

In his opening statement, Rubin claimed that Eugenio Llamera, another commando, placed the weapons onboard without telling Bryant. He assured jurors that his defendant only learned of the guns on the high seas, outside the twelve-mile limit that marks United States territory. Bryant's supposed "confession" to Sandoval, Rubin explained, was nothing more than a noble attempt to protect his friend Llamera.

On the second day the prosecution rested, and Rubin entered a motion requesting the judge issue an acquittal, rather than sending the case to the jury. King allowed the case to go forward, promising to rule on Rubin's motion after hearing the defense. But he also said he remained unconvinced that Bryant had "knowingly possessed" guns in U.S. waters.

The sole defense witness then entered the courtroom. A compact man, outfitted in a brown suit and brown suede shoes, Tony Bryant spoke so faintly that Rubin had to prod him to speak up. Asked about his various Comandos L activities, Bryant told jurors he hoped "to send a message of hope to the Cuban people, asking them to remember they are not forgotten." Shoulders hunched in a posture of humility, he recalled how he and his departed friend Tony Cuesta had lectured all around the nation "on the necessity of blacks and whites to work together." In sum, Bryant came off about as menacing as Mary Poppins.

During cross-examination the next day, the defendant insisted that Cuesta A not Llamera A had supplied the guns and informed him by radio that the weapons were onboard. Bryant said he had no idea he was committing a crime. "If I had," he reasoned, "I would have thrown the guns overboard" before the Coast Guard arrived.

The judge concurred. As the defense rested, King stunned courtroom observers by granting Rubin's motion for an acquittal. In a long, rambling explanation King emphasized that Bryant had not behaved like a criminal. "The legal issue," he concluded, "is whether or not there has been any proof of knowing possession. I find that there is none."

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.

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.

The caller had hoped to hate Tony Bryant, hoped to ambush him with the telephonic vehemence that makes talk radio tick. "I sat here listening to you and I was really trying to find something to attack you on, because many of us in the black community feel you've betrayed us. But I've got to say I was honestly humbled. You have your reasons."

Seated in the studio at WMBM-AM (1490), Bryant bows slightly toward the microphone. His eloquent exposition on black/Cuban relations has clearly won over this skeptic. "Thank you," he says, smooth as silk. "As I've always said, I'll focus on the community here as soon as blacks in Cuba have the same rights as we do. What African-Americans have to realize is that now is the time to forge bonds with Cubans, to embrace the economic opportunity offered by a free Cuba, to pool our money so we can maybe buy a hotel down there."

Interviewer Mike Thompson moves on to the next topic (the evils of the welfare state) and Bryant, a born radio personality, matches the arch-conservative host point for point. Talk turns to Malcolm X, and the ex-hijacker recites a poem dedicated to the slain leader from the thin volume of verse he self-published in 1983. Thompson throws in a plug for Hijack, but with half the show left, Bryant indicates it's time to leave.

This is the way it's gone since the court victory. Bryant's days are hectic, his beeper constantly sounding off. Comandos L duty has him working overtime, not counting a three-hour round-trip commute from Delray to Miami. "Since Tony Cuesta passed, and we were such good friends, it was sort of assumed I'd take over most of his responsibilities," explains Bryant, who officially shares central command leadership with four other commandos.

On the Monday after his Friday appearance on WMBM, Bryant's schedule begins with a noon meeting at Davis Restaurant in Liberty City. He is here, amid the sizzle of pork chops and the howl of Sly Stone, to discuss an unspecified "fundraising opportunity" with an unspecified "black leader." As he awaits the rendezvous, Bryant sips edgily at an Orange Crush and mulls his ongoing media campaign against tourism. "Like I said the other day on radio, this is going to be a revolution of matches. I've given word to those on the inside: just take a match and set a place on fire. If he loses tourism, Castro falls within 30 days." Bryant proudly notes a strike this past October in which fellow commandos dusted a hotel 60 miles east of Havana with gunfire. "The next day all but ten of the guests left," he beams. "Which is exactly what we wanted."

Bryant ducks off to a pay phone. He returns lambasting his legal antagonists. "Our nation bases its own freedom on the right to bear arms and depose tyranny," he declares. "How can they deny that right when it's a known fact that Castro is a tryant, a dictator, a murderer?"

He leaves to make a second phone call. When it becomes apparent he has been stood up, Bryant heads outside to the faded Plymouth Horizon Cuesta bequeathed him.

Next stop: Mandy's Auto Sales, a North Dade garage that has agreed to donate a truck to Comandos L. Greeted with a round of hugs and machine-gun Spanish, Bryant is led like royalty to the four-wheel-drive Cherokee. Mandy, a jolly nine-volt battery of a man with skin the shade of a coffee stain, pops open the hood. "Needs a little tinkering," he offers, rooting around with a wrench. "But it should be ready by tomorrow."

Inside the shop, Bryant spots a picture of himself in full military regalia, clipped from a recent news story and taped to Mandy's wall. The headline reads: "Nobody can tell the exile when, how, or from where to attack Castro." "Ay Fidel," laments an elderly secretary. "What's to be done?" The departing Bryant wheels around and answers her in pantomime, drawing a furious index finger across his neck.

Half an hour later he pulls into the parking lot of a Coral Way office building. "Hey Tony!" Two men in a blue luxury car call him over to crack a grim joke. "They told me I'm gonna get shot walking around alone," Bryant reports. "They're right. But that's the life I've chosen. Last week I had my car tampered with. The brakes."

He heads upstairs to a small, unmarked suite. "Oh Tony! You have so many calls," cries a matronly receptionist. "All the ladies have been calling you." Bryant grins sheepishly, makes a bit of small talk, and heads to his desk with a stack of messages.

As Bryant speed-dials half a dozen numbers, it becomes readily apparent that Comandos L is not the only organization using this space. Across from Bryant's desk, a walker and a set of leg braces stand against fake wood paneling. Behind Bryant looms a large office with certificates dotting the walls. Gradually it emerges that the office houses two businesses, a medical equipment rental outfit, and a private investigative agency. Bryant is borrowing his headquarters from the president of both firms, Willy Chavez, Comandos L's head of intelligence and a candidate for county commission.

"Willy screens all our applicants," Bryant notes. "You pay 25 bucks for membership, but not just anyone joins. We do a thorough check." He stresses the point for an understandable reason. Ever since the highly publicized revelation three months ago that the military head of Alpha 66, another exile cabal, was a Cuban spy, rumors of infiltration have run wild.

The paranoia has only been fueled by the conspiratorial murkiness that envelops the netherworld of anti-Castro activism, and the infighting that plagues South Florida's assorted factions. "It's a matter of someone wanting leadership and not accepting anyone else," Bryant explains. "It has a lot to do with courage, also. It's easy to talk. It's another thing to go across that 90 miles of water and be for real. Comandos L has done more on that front than anyone. And I'm not denouncing anyone. I'm just stating the record."

With this he returns to his message stack, regaling fellow commandos with news of a proposed pro-Castro rally, and a memorial service for Tony Cuesta to be held in New York.

As part of the service, in fact, Bryant has taken it upon himself to create a Comandos L video, and his next stop is a photographic studio on Red Road where he is to oversee editing.

Curiously, the footage for this work is drawn directly from the videos of his July 4 quest A in other words, the evidence viewed at his trial. Bryant meets with the proprietor and pops the first video in a VCR. The Florida Straits appear, as seen from the deck of the speedboat Jaws in early evening. The camera pans chaotically, but Bryant is recognizable in his trademark beret, his hand on the muzzle of a rifle. The action skips to a night scene. The camera zooms in on a blob of light.

"A freighter," reports Bryant, seated a few feet from the screen. He won't say if his crew attacked the vessel, though he hints at the possibility. "I don't care what it is," he says. "If it's bringing money to Castro, if it's in Cuban waters, it's a target." A few minutes later a distant glow appears onscreen. The Cuban coast. "We ended up further in because we had to escape two Cuban gunboats," Bryant explains.

The next segment, this one shot by the Coast Guard, shows a cutter roaring toward Jaws. Soon the disabled boat is being towed out of Cuban waters. Back at the Key West dock, the camera captures Bryant, in tropical shirt and shorts, translating Miranda rights into Spanish for two of his glum-looking companions. All that can be seen of the fourth commando is a set of feet jutting from behind a nearby boat. At an officer's request, his cohorts shake him awake. He lumbers upright, clearly intoxicated, and lists dangerously close to the edge of the dock, righting himself just as he seems destined for a plunge off the pier.

"Borracho," his friends mumble on the video soundtrack. "He has been dismissed from Comandos L," Bryant snaps, reviewing the spectacle in the editing room.

The Coast Guardsmen begin their search of the boat, aided by Bryant, who wanders around the area determined to ingratiate himself. Then an officer asks him about the damage to Jaws. "That's the only hole, right? On the starboard side," he inquires.

"I wouldn't know starboard from a Starburst," Bryant replies. "I just know the boat has a front, a back, and two sides. I don't even know how to swim." Bryant laughs at his image on the screen, assures his fellow viewers that the Coast Guard actually bought his clueless-landlubber routine. "I didn't want them to even suspect I was an actual commando," he explains.

The final tape is a compilation of TV reports about Bryant's arrest. The editor's assistant, who has just come into the room, recognizes the black man in a beret on TV as the black man in a beret sitting two feet away from him. "Did you guys get in trouble?" he asks innocently. Bryant sneers. "Man, don't you watch the news? I was in jail."

The video ends. Bryant opens his briefcase, pushes aside three different brands of cigarettes and two daily planners, and pulls out a satchel of news clippings. He points to an artsy photograph of Cuesta, the rebel's profile swimming in a sea of black. "I want the title of the film here," he tells the editor. "La lucha, el dolor, y la victoria[The struggle, the pain, and the victory]."

After a few more minutes of creative consulting, he zips off, ready for dinner at Habana Vieja, a favorite spot just down the street from the radio station where he is expected as a guest at 7:00 p.m.

As he waits for his bistec de palomilla to arrive, Bryant elucidates a few of his more radical views. "Reagan and Bush were traitors," he declares. "They gave aid and comfort to Castro because he caused enough fear to drive the market for U.S. arms in Central America." He frets over the United Nations' growing role in global politics. "We're becoming foot soldiers for the U.N. and their one-world government," he explains. "And what it's going to produce is a George Orwell 1984 nightmare. That's where it's leading. Don't you ever wonder why the U.N. Security Council is always headed by a socialist?" Hollywood's cultural elite are no better: "They wouldn't dare to make my book into a film. Even though it has all the elements of an American classic. They'll make film after film about Vietnam, but you come up with a story that's pro-American, that shows the tyranny of communism, and everyone gets scared to death."

Bryant's food arrives and he requests silence. After the meal, he is contemplative. "I know I will live to see a free Cuba," he explains. "Because I made a little deal with my Heavenly Father. He does things for me, to reward my efforts. After we hit those rocks, with the Cuban gunboats after us, how did we escape that? It was a miracle."

This, he says, is why he classifies the July 4 debacle as La victoria. "The victory is the attitude," he stresses, picking steak threads from his teeth. "The perseverance. For God to take a situation like that and turn it into a fantastic display of His power. Talk about supernatural."

There are those, of course, who take a slightly less Christian view of the Bryant legacy. "Tony Bryant is nothing but a small-time car thief trying to make something out of himself," mutters Ed Buscher, the man forced at gunpoint to fly Bryant to Havana in 1969.

Buscher, a 70-year-old former fighter pilot who lives in Fort Lauderdale, spent less than two hours with his assailant on that night 24 years ago. But he speaks of the hijacking as if it took place yesterday. "Scared? Shit no. I'dve killed the fucker, but the damn dumb stewardesses wouldn't get out of the way. Bryant was so damn nervous I was afraid he was gonna shoot somebody by mistake.

"I sat there and talked with him for an hour," Buscher recalls. "He didn't have no note for Castro. He was strictly a guy in trouble who thought he was going to the land of milk and honey. I told him he was crazy, that he was gonna get his ass thrown out into a sugarcane field. He says Castro threw him in jail because he robbed some Cuban agent on the plane. Hell, that's something he thought up in the cane field. The guy he robbed was a little Jewish man from New York."

So why does Bryant routinely describe Buscher as a "good friend"? "I've been on a TV show with him, and I went to his wedding," the aging airman concedes. "But that was out of respect for Tony Cuesta. He's a real warrior. All this stuff Bryant talks about, about being some bigshot Black Panther, is a figment of his mind, just like him dressing in that pseudo fucking beret with a star on it. I'd like to kick his phony ass."

As with many of his claims, it's virtually impossible to document whether Bryant was a member of the Panthers. If he was, it was likely on the periphery of the movement; his name is not listed in any of the intelligence files compiled by San Francisco and Oakland police during the group's heyday. ("Who cares if I was a Black Panther?" is Bryant's only comment. "I could care less. It happened to be one of the things I was. But it's not who I am now.")

As for his feats as a prisoner in Cuba, several exiles who knew Bryant in prison agree that he withstood harrowing living conditions heroically.

"Tony was loved by all prisoners, especially the political prisoners," says Felix Zuaznabar, who spent about five years with Bryant in Cuba's Principe prison. "Whenever there was an injustice to others, he'd set his cell on fire. Actually set it on fire. They'd send guards to beat him up. But he would always fight hard." Bryant was such a hellraiser, Zuaznabar remembers, that prison authorities made him an orderly just to mollify him.

But Zuaznabar, a jack-of-all-trades who lives in Wynwood, doesn't buy the story that Bryant escaped from Guanajay, Cuba's highest security prison. "Oh no, no one escapes from any of the prisons in Cuba," he laughs. "Perhaps this happened after I left Cuba, in 1976. But I seriously doubt it."

In fact, former inmates would have a hard time assessing any of the anecdotes in Hijack because the book, inexplicably, was never printed in Spanish. "I'd be a millionaire if it had been," fumes Bryant. "But the damn publisher never got around to it. He printed a version in French for the European market." Freedom Press International subsequently went out of business, leaving Bryant to peddle the book on his own. He estimates 44,000 copies from the 50,000 printing have been sold.

James Bryant could never bring himself to read Hijack. "Finished the first page and screamed," confesses Tony Bryant's 81-year-old father. "For a kid to get into such trouble and tell the whole world A I just sealed it up with tape." The elder Bryant is lucky he never read more. The book characterizes him as a religious zealot who drove away his wife and beat his children mercilessly.

On the phone from his home in San Bernardino, the retired maintenance worker and church deacon certainly doesn't sound like a monster. In fact, he weeps inconsolably when discussing his youngest son's life. "I still remember when he was a little boy, just eight or nine, a minister up in Palo Alto [California] predicted Tony was going to grow up to be a minister, and each day we prayed on that."

Instead, he says, Tony turned away from religion and family, and wandered into a shady world of vice. "There's so much we didn't know about," James Bryant laments. "He just wouldn't talk to us. Then one day a fella called to tell us he hijacked a plane and I got so sick I couldn't eat."

Bryant, who with his second wife raised Tony from age four to seventeen, still doesn't know much about his son's life, though Tony calls most Sundays. "It makes me sick, too, because what he's doing now is dangerous. Any minute we could get a call and hear he's dead. This last arrest almost killed us. We love him very much, but we just can't reach him." The old man's voice, dry and faint, breaks into a convulsive sob.

"I understand that when me and his mama got divorced, that hurt him. He was just a little kid. But we tried so hard to raise him right," James Bryant says. "He was such a friendly boy. So good in school...."

The voice returns, finally, like an unwilling decision. "Tony's very good at a lot of things," his father decides. "But he gets with the wrong crowd and that's the thing that ruins everything."

Tony Bryant is live on La Cubanisima, inflaming the tinderbox hearts of el exilio. Speaking softly, in Spanish that sounds Havana-native, he is telling radio host Jaime de Aldeaseca of the war on Cuban tourism.

"We will be making attacks against the tourist hotels and parks, because it is our belief that the Cuban people own that land. If they cannot enjoy them, then tourists do not deserve that luxury."

As the hour wears on, Bryant grows more insistent. "With me it is an obsession to see Cuba free," he proclaims. "It is my work to see that Castro is eliminated, physically."

The show peaks as he recounts the real story behind his July 4 raid. God was at work in that patch of choppy water off the coast of la isla. Prosecutors tried to obscure His work A the escape from Cuban gunboats, the odds-defying Coast Guard rescue. "But these things were clearly miracles," Bryant stresses. "What else can you call them?"

Even the show's engineer, a codger who rarely pays any attention to the voices pouring through his headphones, listens raptly, staring at the storyteller through soundproof glass.

Down in the lobby after the show, Bryant wedges a final moment from his crowded schedule. "One day I hope to sit on the beach in Cuba and watch the ocean, the waves, with two pretty little ladies on either side. That's the dream, man, the reason for it all." He leers, self-indulgent for a moment.

Within a blink, the warrior gaze has returned behind the dark glasses, daring the enemy A any enemy A to deny his dream.

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