Twice Exiled

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

Bent on providing his children with the education he never had, Boris Benes sent his son to study at the University of Maryland in 1951. Bernardo couldn't stand the cold; he was home within a week. He entered the University of Havana and had earned degrees in law and accounting by 1956.

A year later Benes joined a student group that was working to topple dictator Fulgencio Batista. He still has a membership card, now yellowed, that marks him as the 50th member of the Revolutionary Directorate of the March Thirteenth Movement (named for a failed coup attempt on that date in 1957). But Benes had other passions at the time beyond politics: baseball and his girlfriend Raquel Gurinsky, whom he married in 1958.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, Benes took a job as a legal consultant in the housing ministry. In 1960 the Castro government began to appropriate property and execute its opponents. Benes's brother Jaime fled the country that year after the state confiscated his company, which was in the business of dying fabric. State security agents soon visited Benes at his office and questioned him. It was then he realized there was no future for those who disagreed with the regime.

He thought his only recourse was to leave his homeland. Because of his job, Benes needed the government's permission. Fortunately, though, he had a friend who worked at the airport; the man helped him slip aboard a Miami-bound plane on November 11, 1960. "It was the saddest day of my life," Benes recalls. Raquel and his eighteen-month-old son Joel followed the next afternoon. Within ten days he had found a job as an internal auditor at the Washington Savings and Loan Association in Miami Beach. The bank was tied to Miami's political establishment: among its board members was U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper. Benes worked at the bank for sixteen years and eventually became vice president in charge of lending.

The guiding force of Benes's life, however, has been a concept from Judaism called tzedakah, a Hebrew word that means charity or justice. He credits his mother with inspiring him. And he says tzedakah motivated him to work for the good of Miami in general and the exile community in specific.

One of the highlights of Benes's charitable endeavors occurred in 1965, a year that saw President Lyndon Johnson invite thousands of Cubans to America in what came to be known as freedom flights. Benes took a plan to Cuban Refugee Center director Marshall Wise: Open a snack bar to serve food and drinks to refugees arriving at the Opa-locka airport. Newspaper clippings show him surrounded by smiling Jewish ladies he had enlisted to dish out the food.

His good deeds earned him prominence. "I automatically became the token Cuban for charity," he says. "Probably some of the people who [later] blasted me were beneficiaries."

That same year he helped organize a baseball game between veterans of two popular Cuban teams: Havana and Almendares. The program, dated October 10, 1965, pictures Major League stars Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva. The game raised $11,000, which was then funneled to exile leader Tony Cuesta, who used the money to launch an ill-fated raid in 1966. Cuesta lost his arm and vision during capture. It would not be the last time Benes and Cuesta would cross paths.

Soon Benes was involved in dozens of civic causes including the United Way. He was also acquainted with an array of powerful people. In 1967 Congress passed a special bill to grant Benes citizenship. The bill, H.R. 492, was introduced by Pepper.

His long-time friend, former Miami News managing editor Howard Kleinberg, likens Benes's easy transition to exile to that of Russian hockey players who enter the National Hockey League immediately after emigrating: "He came here not so much a Cuban as a resident of Miami."

In the years to follow, Benes widened his altruism. In 1969 he helped found an organization to study and improve health care in South Florida -- the Comprehensive Health Planning Council of South Florida. He became chairman of the Dade County school volunteer program in 1971. His letters and editorials frequently appeared in local newspapers. He adapted with gusto to his role as cultural bridge in an increasingly polyglot Miami. One year, for instance, he sent hundreds of his friends and acquaintances a self-produced English-Spanish-Yiddish dictionary.

Also in 1971 Benes led the fundraising effort for a monument on SW Eighth Street to the fallen combatants of the Bay of Pigs. "It started as a very simple idea. People whose relatives died [in the battle] had no place to throw a flower or remember their dead," he remembers. The pictures in the papers on April 18, the monument's dedication day, show a smiling Benes.

Just seven years later, exiles would denounce Benes at the very same spot.

Bernardo Benes still has the bill, more than two decades old and preserved in a plastic sheath, from his first lunch with Cubans working at Castro's behest. Dated August 22, 1977, receipt number 4753 from Club Panamar in Panama City details a sumptuous meal: three lobsters and two bottles of Italian wine served by a waiter named Casares. Though by all appearances an ordinary bill showing little sign of its advanced age, the document represents a turning point for hundreds of thousands of Cubans. It also marks the beginning of Benes's dizzying transformation from civic leader to community pariah.

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