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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Twenty years later long-time dialogue advocate Wayne Smith views the negotiation as a missed opportunity. He faults the United States for not responding to Castro's moves. "It was a gesture that never got [Castro] anywhere." Smith says that in 1980, he and the executive secretary of the State Department, Peter Tarnoff, pledged serious and substantive negotiations with Cuba if Carter won re-election. He lost to Ronald Reagan the following year.

The enmity the exiles hold for Benes has never disappeared. "I can't count the number of times I've put out my hand to shake another and found only air in response," he says. In 1984 Benes sold his share of the bank and parted company with Dascal. "It was a private difference of opinion about business," says Benes, who refuses to elaborate.

"If you would ask me what has hurt the most because of what I did in Cuba, I would answer losing the capacity to do good," he says. He claims that bitter exiles have kept him from leading civic groups. He finds an eerie parallel with his mother, whose charitable days ended when she left the island.

Back at the exile march on SW Eighth Street, tired but still strident members of the Cuban diaspora parade through the heat. "We can't dialogue with [Castro]," insists 64-year-old Gabriel Tubella. "If he releases two [prisoners], he will just jail four more." His friend and fellow retiree, 69-year-old Jose Martinez, agrees. Martinez tries to explain to an outsider the reason for the marchers' passion. "I came [to the United States] for six months and I've been here for 30 years," he bemoans. "Of course we are intransigent. If someone came and took your home, you would be intransigent too."

Tubella and Martinez fall to reminiscing about the paradise they left behind. Back in the old days, one had only to throw a seed on the ground and a tree would grow, they say. Cuba was firmly on the path to development. It was the first Latin American country to have television. The island was so bountiful that it donated food to countries in need. The rosiness of their memories contrasts sharply with the bitterness they have nursed for almost four decades.

The marchers proceed to SW Fourth Avenue, where a stage has been placed across Eighth Street. Perez Roura, with a long sallow face and dressed in a white guayabera, takes to the podium. A few minutes into his speech, a 43-year-old carpenter standing by the barricades at the front of the stage has the temerity to lift a placard into the air advocating peace.

"These are Castro's infiltrators," announces Perez Roura from the stage with a flourish. The crowd moves menacingly toward the front and police quickly spirit the man away. "The Judases that betrayed Jesus today betray the long-suffering [Cuban] people."

Benes realized there was no future for those who disagreed with the regime.
Benes believes his connection with President Jimmy Carter prompted Castro to seek him out.

Benes prodded Castro. "I talked to Fidel as if I were a Jew selling textiles," he says.

Gutierrez Menoyo's remarks were edited, distorted, and amplified.
The rosiness of their memories contrasts with the bitterness they have nursed for almost four decades.

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