Twice Exiled

Bernardo Benes helped free hundreds of Cuban political prisoners twenty years ago. Hardliners in Miami hate him for it.

It is a humid fall afternoon when close to 5000 Cuban Americans gather for the 1998 march of patriotic intransigence. Toward the front of the procession is a flatbed truck carrying a bell, a replica of the one Cubans struck 130 years ago on the very same date, October 10, to begin a rebellion against their Spanish overlords.

But the march has less to do with history than with current events. It comes amid signs that a four-decade-old effort to isolate Fidel Castro's Cuba is weakening. Indeed, a late April visit to the island by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and public questioning of the U.S. embargo helped instigate the gathering. The mood of participants milling along the thirteen-block parade route on SW Eighth Street is both festive and angry.

It doesn't take long to find an outlet for the anger. A plane flying overhead trails a banner that declares in Spanish: "To support the blockade against the people of Cuba is terrorism." Enraged people shout and shake their fists at the words.

Although the marchers' passion is undiluted by the passage of time, they are not as spry as they used to be. The average age seems to be in the midsixties. Signs of advanced years are everywhere: receding hairlines, thick glasses, canes, wheelchairs. As a man walks through the crowd wearing a T-shirt that promises "Freedom Is Near," many acknowledge they might not live to see it.

The marchers wait patiently to begin. Most stand in formation behind Cuban flags and signs that blast Castro. Others gather on the sidewalks. Many of the exiles' most venerable groups are there: Alpha 66, the Cuban American National Foundation, and veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Brigade 2506. An organization of former Cuban political prisoners carries a banner: "Martyrs' corpses are the most beautiful altar to honor Marti."

Eusebio Reyes, wearing the black shirt that identifies ex-prisoners, is among the intransigent. Reyes is obviously happy to be free after nine years in a Cuban prison, but he laments that he was forced to leave the island. He believes he could do more to free Cuba if he lived there. "If we had all stayed, maybe Castro wouldn't be in power," he speculates. Still, the gathering of like-minded compatriots has eased his feeling of powerlessness. "I'm old and I'm fucked," he exclaims angrily, "but I can still do something for my country."

The 77-year-old Reyes was released in 1978 along with hundreds of others as the result of highly controversial negotiations between the U.S. government, Cuban Americans, and Castro. The Cuban government freed the first batch of prisoners twenty years ago in October. In all, 3600 prisoners were freed. Also a product of the discussions: Thousands of exiles were allowed to visit their families on the island.

But even before the talks had concluded, hardliners rallied. They focused their rage on six exiles who became the center of the negotiation. In fact, Reyes doesn't think much of those who helped gain his release. "I consider that those people don't have morals," he says. "It's possible they were accomplices of Fidel."

The documents stacked on Bernardo Benes's living room table are evidence of his role as both architect and victim of the dialogue that freed Reyes and the others. Benes is using the faded newspaper clippings, notes, and letters in writing his memoirs. He hopes the book will help to clarify his motivation and restore his name. "None of this is known," he says, motioning to the pile. "I was so busy doing things I think I was perhaps bad at public relations."

At age 63 Benes no longer looks like he did during his fourteen meetings with Fidel Castro. His red hair has thinned with the years and is now the color of pale straw. He struggles to rein in an expanding waistline. And he no longer has the sense that he can control the course of events as he once did. "People who don't know me think I am a manipulator, but really I'm Mr. Magoo," he says. But unlike the myopic cartoon character who bumbles through extraordinary adventures only to emerge victorious and unscathed, Benes paid a heavy price for his role in a remarkable story.

Benes's tale is a nonfiction thriller chock full of intrigue, high-stakes diplomacy, and betrayal. It includes not only numerous meetings with Castro in Havana, but scores of other encounters with lesser Cuban officials throughout Latin America. For Benes, though, in the twilight of his life, the story is primarily personal -- he was exiled first from his native land and then again from the community where he settled. Many of Miami's Cubans, including quite a few of those who marched down SW Eighth Street last month, despise him.

Because of his Jewish heritage, Benes has always differed from most of his countrymen. He was born December 27, 1934, in the province of Matanzas. His family was one of only fifteen Jewish households in the area. His father Boris had come to the island from Russia eleven years before with only twenty dollars. Boris Benes proceeded to earn a fortune. He started a textile factory and, in Bernardo's fifth year, moved the family to Havana, where the Beneses took their place among the wealthy.

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