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The encounter took place during Benes's vacation in Panama. Alberto Pons, a friend from Cuba, arranged it. At first Benes refused, but Pons insisted and finally persuaded him to accept. Benes believes his connection with President Jimmy Carter made him attractive to Castro as a conduit. He first met the then-governor of Georgia in 1975 in the offices of Max Lesnik's magazine for Miami exiles, Replica. Just beginning his presidential bid, Carter delivered an impassioned speech on the importance of human rights and of freeing political prisoners in Cuba. Benes would later join the Carter campaign, leading the Hispanic outreach in Florida.
At Club Panamar Benes met two Cuban government officials, Jose Luis Padron and Antonio De La Guardia, for a three-hour lunch. Neither of the men revealed his high government position. The group chatted about everything but politics, all the while taking one another's measure.
Later that evening Benes met Padron and De La Guardia again, this time at Pons's house. They continued talking until early morning. Though nothing substantive was discussed at either meeting, Padron and De La Guardia let it be known they could be reached through the Cuban consul in Jamaica.
After returning to Miami, Benes contacted a friend with the CIA, Larry Sternfield. (Sternfield, now retired, declined to comment for this article. "That's all classified," he said. "Ask Benes, he knows everything.") Eight hours after Benes relayed the names, Sternfield contacted him and identified the two men: Padron was a highly decorated senior military officer. He was among the first leaders of Cuban troops in Angola, where he was injured by a land mine. He also belonged to Castro's inner circle. De La Guardia was a member of the Interior Ministry's "special forces," and Castro's golden boy. "They were portraying themselves as the new breed in Cuba, very tolerant of capitalism," remembers one American intelligence source who declined to be named.
Benes was thrust into the highest levels of diplomacy when Sternfield urged him to continue the meetings. Sternfield promised to inform then-National Security Council head Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Benes was determined to make the talks pay off. Stories of Miami Cubans unable to visit sick relatives and the brutality of Castro's prisons deeply moved him. "I was overwhelmed with frustration to not be able to do anything," he recalls.
Benes contacted U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell, who arranged a meeting with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. "[Vance] worked with Bernardo Benes at my request," reports the 81-year-old Fascell. "Bernardo deserves a hell of a lot of credit. He really put his life on the line."
Vance told Benes the administration approved of his talks. Eventually, the secretary said, the State Department might become directly involved.
"It was something that you can imagine was of interest to us," remembers a Carter administration official. "It seemed that the Cubans had their own agenda. I think they may have felt that it would be possible to, if not divide the Cuban-American community, at least engage it. We were not about to say no to the release of several thousand people."
But the administration itself was divided on Cuba policy, according to Wayne Smith, then-chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. While State was receptive to a dialogue, Brzezinski was not. "[The NSC] didn't want to be perceived as having negotiated with [the Cubans]," Smith says.
Over the next several months Benes held many conversations with the Cubans. He would call the consul in Jamaica and set up a meeting. Then he would inform the FBI and, using thousands of dollars of his own money, he would fly to Mexico City, Panama, or Kingston.
Also attending was Benes's childhood friend Carlos Dascal. The pair had founded Continental National Bank in 1975 and remained close. Dascal's role in the dialogue has never before been reported, but Smith and two unnamed sources confirmed it. Now living an intensely private life in Miami, Dascal refused a half-dozen requests for comment.
The government watched the developments closely. As proof of federal monitoring, Benes cites the time, early in the affair, that he failed to report a meeting in Nassau. Upon return, his FBI contact described his breakfast order.
It wasn't until the third or fourth encounter that Benes brought up the subject of prisoner releases and family reunification. "It came up naturally," he says. After at least a dozen meetings, De La Guardia and Padron proposed that Benes and Dascal meet with Castro.
On February 13, 1978, six months after the first lunch in Panama, Benes and Dascal flew to Havana by way of Jamaica. Benes dubbed the trip and subsequent meetings "Operation Timoshenko" after a World War II-era Russian general. He picked the name as a sly joke: Cuba's Soviet patrons would be upset if they knew of the talks. Castro, dressed in his trademark fatigues, met the men outside his office in the presidential palace. (Later meetings took place at the protocol house of the special national security troops in Havana). "I was not tense or nervous," Benes remembers. "I was convinced that I was doing right."
Conscious of Castro's Jesuit schooling, Benes says his first words were based on an Old Testament story. "I told him I had a mandate from Moses and it had taken eighteen years to come back to the promised land." He then asked Castro to pay him a million dollars for the factory that had been confiscated from his family. He believes the request helped earn him the strongman's respect. "I never hid anything from him," Benes says. "I never felt fearful of saying what was on my mind. You had to establish a relationship of confidence." Benes even described his anti-Castro activity in Miami.