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Benes prodded Castro to move away from the Soviet bloc. "I talked to Fidel as if I were a Jew selling textiles," Benes says. "I urged him to get close to the Americans to balance out the Soviets." Benes even commissioned a short film about the factories and businesses that exiles had started in Miami. He told the crew the film was for Spanish investors so it should avoid politics and focus on economics. Benes says the screening had the desired effect. At one point Fidel could scarcely believe that a Miami shoe factory called Suave produced 60,000 pairs of shoes per day. "Benes, it's a mistake, you must mean 60,000 a year," he recalls Castro insisting.
After Benes and Dascal met Castro, State and NSC officials held at least three private conversations with Padron and De La Guardia. The FBI arranged the meetings in Washington, D.C., Mexico City, and Atlanta, according to a Carter administration official and an intelligence source who declined to be named. Three different groups pursued their own agendas in the talks. Benes and Dascal tried to free prisoners and promote the ability of families to visit loved ones on the island. The FBI hoped to learn more about Cuban government activities. State and the NSA wanted to assess the possibility of normalizing relations. "All three moved along in the same direction," says an intelligence source. (Despite the passage of years, most information on the government's actions is still classified.)
Though information is sketchy on the government-to-government conversations, it's clear they dealt mostly with technical issues of bringing prisoners to the United States. But there was more. "[They] went on to talk about other issues informally," admits one Carter administration official.
Any real dramatic change was impossible, the official believes. "Relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union were exceptionally close," he says. Carter's men feared a bad reaction if news of the talks were published. "Even on the American side, to have a government-to-government dialogue with the Cubans might have presented, in the atmosphere of the time, some questions for the president and his senior foreign policy staff," says the Carter official.
By May 30 the State Department was processing the prisoner lists. At a September 6, 1978, press conference, Castro proposed a talk with exiles, when in fact it had already been under way for more than a year. In a conciliatory gesture, he promised to stop calling those who had abandoned Cuba "worms."
Rumors of negotiations to free prisoners spread throughout el exilio, remembers Rafael Huget, a revolutionary who fought against Batista and then fled the island after Castro consolidated power. In Miami Huget helped establish Alpha 66, a paramilitary group, to fight the regime. But he couldn't shake the memory of fellow combatants like Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo who were behind bars in Cuba. So Huget too decided to converse with the enemy. "I went to Cuba because I had an obligation to free my comrades," he says today from the office of his travel insurance business in west Dade. "Others had contact with Cuba, but in reality the one who had the power and the true contacts was Bernardo."
Another participant in the dialogue was Orlando Padron, who owned a Little Havana cigar factory. He was eager to go for the same reasons as Huget. "There are obligations you cannot forget," he says today. "I left [Cuba] and [the prisoners] stayed."
Benes invited exile legend and long-time friend Bobby Maduro, Catholic activist Reinol Gonzalez, and Jesuit priest Guillermo Arias. Dascal for unknown reasons refused to go. Castro allowed several journalists to document his beneficence.
On October 20, 1978, the six men, along with reporters and cameramen, gathered for a Pan Am charter flight to Cuba. Benes had little idea of the price he would pay for the effort. "I was so focused on the two things I wanted to accomplish [prisoner releases and family reunification] that I didn't think of the consequences, positive or negative," insists Benes.
After arriving in Havana, the visitors traveled to the Combinado del Este prison outside Havana, where Gutierrez Menoyo was being held. That meeting would become the exile hardliners' most powerful ammunition in attacking the dialogue.
On the morning of October 20, 1978, Gutierrez Menoyo received a visit from a jailer he knew only by the pseudonym Comandante Andres. The jailer asked the prisoner, who had been living in his underwear as a protest against the treatment of political prisoners, to put on a pair of pants and a shirt. The men walked to a nearby dining hall. "I thought perhaps I was being released," he remembers today. In the cafeteria Gutierrez Menoyo recognized prison officials in civilian clothes. Expecting a beating like the ones that had blinded his left eye and left him deaf in his left ear during thirteen years of confinement, he tensed. Suddenly he heard Huget's voice. "Eloy, it's me, Rafaelito Huget," he remembers. It took him a moment to recognize his old comrade. The two embraced, but Gutierrez Menoyo was still suspicious. Then Huget explained why he was there. "I understood then that my captors weren't planning any violence," says the chain-smoking commander, his chiseled features and white mane belying the torment he endured.