By Chuck Strouse
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When the reporters who had accompanied the exiles heard of Gutierrez Menoyo's presence, they rushed into the room with cameras and notebooks. A WLTV-TV (Channel 23) reporter named Nirso Pimentel asked the guerrilla commander for his opinion of the negotiation. He said there was no need for a dialogue; the Cuban government could release prisoners whenever it desired.
Benes assured Gutierrez Menoyo: "We didn't come here to oblige you to say anything."
Gutierrez Menoyo, still tense and confused, replied: "I won't allow you to."
The story would travel quickly to Miami, where Gutierrez Menoyo's remarks were edited, distorted, and amplified. Radio reports and exile tabloids proclaimed the news: One of Castro's most respected foes opposed the dialogue despite Benes's attempts to win his support.
Gutierrez Menoyo's comments, along with a picture of Padron giving Castro a cigar, became hardliners' tools for attacking the dialogue. Yet today Gutierrez Menoyo says he was misinterpreted. "When I was prisoner, the extreme right here in Miami used my words for their own convenience." When Castro heard of the controversy he was furious. "He thought I had set him up," recalls Benes. Later a prison official took responsibility for the media's presence. Gutierrez Menoyo believes he was scheduled for release that day but that Castro held him for another nine years in part as retribution for his words.
The neighborhood around Orlando Padron's West Flagler Street cigar factory was once a thriving center of el exilio, but it has been in decline for years. Former residents have fled to Kendall, Broward, and other suburban enclaves. Yet Padron refuses to abandon the property out of loyalty to the roots of his success. Interviewed in his office at 9:00 a.m., the small man with a ready but often rueful smile is already down to the stub of his first cigar.
He is happy to talk about the oft-published picture that earned him the enmity of much of Cuban Miami. Padron says the photo, which shows him giving the Cuban leader a cigar, is misleading. Padron recalls that he was smoking a stogy when Castro entered the room. "We had been talking about the release of the prisoners. Just as we were finishing and the press was coming in, Fidel said, 'Padron, I hear you are making good tobacco in Miami. Why don't you give me one?' So I gave him one." An Associated Press photographer, sensing a story-defining image, snapped a shot that would appear in exile newspapers for months under headlines like the one in El Expreso de Miami on Friday, October 27, 1978: "The red-headed Benes and the cigar maker Padron in loving conversation with Fidel."
Below the picture, El Expreso offered its idea of the Cuban leader's words at the meeting: "Well, here we have Bernardo Benes, who has been very obedient to the orders we have given him since the beginning of the war in Indochina, when he prepared the pickets in front of the White House." (For the record, Benes says he never protested the Vietnam War).
On Saturday, October 20, Castro formally agreed to release 46 prisoners. Along with 33 family members, they would be allowed to depart for Miami. The group arrived in Miami the next day. When six plainclothes policemen met them at the airport, the gravity of the situation became apparent. Three buses from the Archdiocese of Miami ferried the group to the back door of the Dade County Auditorium, which was filled to capacity with joyful family members. The prisoners were introduced on a stage against the backdrop of a giant American flag. The largest and most sustained applause came for Tony Cuesta.
"It was the most emotional scene I've ever been in during my whole life," says Howard Kleinberg, who attended the event for the Miami News. "I wept openly."
The day after the ceremony members of several exile groups, including Alpha 66, began to picket Benes's bank. (Benes says Castro laughed only once during their discussions: when he showed pictures of the picketing.) Radio commentators and columnists virulently attacked the dialogueros. One of the most strident critics was Armando Perez Roura, dean of the broadcasting school of Cuba-in-exile. "I opposed it from the beginning," says the 67-year-old, who today is director of Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710). "These people went there without authorization from anyone. We were not opposed to the release of political prisoners. We were opposed to the manipulation of sentiment."
Benes didn't expect this response. After all, exiles had negotiated with Castro and the U.S. government had paid a ransom of medical supplies in 1962 to gain the release of 1113 fighters captured at the Bay of Pigs. "Why was it acceptable then and not later?" Benes wonders.
In November and December 1978, Benes and other exiles went to Cuba twice to discuss prisoner releases. Within a year all 3600 were freed. Castro also allowed exiles to visit their families for the first time. In the first three months of 1979, 22,000 people made the journey. Thousands more visited their loved ones in the following years.
Exile hardliners never accepted the dialogue. Bombs were planted at Padron's factory. Most were disarmed, but one exploded, damaging the building's exterior. Few of the freed prisoners defended the dialogueros. Some even condemned Benes and the others. "There are those who bite a hand when it is offered," says Padron philosophically.