Exile on Main Street

A thorn in the side of both el exilio and the regime, Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo waits for U.S.-Cuba relations to thaw even as his assets are frozen

On a recent afternoon on the busy central Havana street known as La Rampa, Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo ducks into the back seat of a taxi, one of the plethora of boxy old Russian-made Ladas that careen through the Cuban capital. The pudgy driver, who barely fits into the tiny vehicle, turns to ask for his passenger's destination but recoils, starstruck. "Oh! I'm very honored, very honored," the driver says to Menoyo, noting that he saw his passenger on television in August. That is when Menoyo, president of the Miami-based pro-democracy group Cambio Cubano, ended a vacation to the island with a stunning news conference at Havana's international airport. With CNN, Reuters TV, and Associated Press TV rolling tape, the former revolutionary commander, political prisoner, and exile announced he was staying in Cuba to work for peace and reconciliation and to claim a "legal space" for his organization. Back in Miami some hard-line anti-Castro folks derided Menoyo's move but most preferred simply to disregard him ("Our Man Back in Havana," August 28, 2003).

Cuba's national media, all still government-controlled, have also chosen to ignore Menoyo, who just turned 69. In the seven months since his relocation to Cuba they have made no mention of it. So how did this taxi driver see foreign television reportage of Menoyo's airport news conference? By watching CNN en Español, Univision, or Telemundo via satellite dish, commonly referred to as a parabólica. The dishes are illegal in Cuba but seem as widespread as the old Chevrolets and Ladas that rumble through Havana's streets.

While Menoyo is enjoying the traction of his newfound minor celebrity status, his message isn't exactly sticking. "Pardon my curiosity," the taxi driver says, the Lada now rattling up La Rampa, "but you came back to join the opposition?"

Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo looks at a photo of Cuban 
revolutionaries from the Fifties
Steve Satterwhite
Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo looks at a photo of Cuban revolutionaries from the Fifties

Menoyo leans forward from the back seat. "I've come to start the new revolution," he happily clarifies, adding that he hasn't received a negative word from anyone in Havana. Rather, many Habaneros, including ex-colonels and other retired officers of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces, have encouraged him. The driver does as well. "Usted se ha comportado en una manera tan vertical!" he exclaims. "You have conducted yourself in such an upright manner."

"I know he is here," says one aging woman, a former revolutionary militant whose clandestine activities four decades ago included hiding dynamite for use against the Batista dictatorship. At first she says she heard of Menoyo's presence by word of mouth, but later admits she also has an illegal satellite dish on the roof. "There are many facets of him I don't know," she cautions. She is not sure that Menoyo would be a strong enough figure to fill the void that Fidel would leave behind. "I'm not sure he has the charisma to get through to the people," she says. But then she doesn't think anyone on Cuba's political stage does, except Fidel, whom she thinks should have retired years ago. "That's our dilemma," she adds.

Menoyo has dilemmas, too. He will open a Cambio Cubano office only if it's legal, but in Cuba opposition parties are illegal. To grow as a political figure he needs to be on state television, but opposition leaders are only on state television when they are arrested or exposed as CIA agents. He must also contend with official history, which tends to overlook certain facts about him. Like this one: As an anti-Batista revolutionary, Menoyo formed the Second Front of the Escambray in November 1957. A year later Fidel Castro, then-commander of the July 26 Movement in the Sierra Maestra mountains, deployed Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos to the Escambray Mountains two months before the Batista regime fell on January 1, 1959. This past November government-organized ceremonies across Cuba marked the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Front of Las Villas by Guevara and Cienfuegos. There was no mention of Menoyo. "If we could, we'd be celebrating the forty-sixth anniversary," Menoyo grumbles. "The winners write history. But they distort it in their own way, too."

But Menoyo has unique name recognition among Cubans old enough to remember one of his earlier returns from exile in 1964, as leader of a group of Alpha 66 commandos intent on igniting an insurgency against the Soviet satellite state the Cuban dictator had by then engineered. Menoyo was captured and spent 22 years in prison. After his release he renounced violence and embraced dialogue and peaceful change, saying reconciliation was the only path to democracy in Cuba.

Also going for him: In 1995, while in Havana with hundreds of exiles for a conference to discuss migration issues, Menoyo met with Castro for three hours. Then, as now, Menoyo had come to demand "legal space" for Cambio Cubano in a land where all opposition parties are illegal. He is still waiting.

He has submitted a request with an official from the Ministry of External Relations (MINREX) for permission to open a legal Cambio Cubano headquarters, but so far that has been denied. Shortly after Menoyo's July surprise, the Castro government offered him a 90-day visa, then a two-year multiple-entry visa and a house. He refused all of them. Accepting a house from the regime would be political suicide for an opposition leader. Because he is a citizen of Cuba, the Cuban government should not require him to have a visa, he argues.

So far, Menoyo says, his contacts with the government have been limited; he speaks with the MINREX official regularly, usually on the phone. Once Menoyo chanced upon the official in a restaurant and they simply exchanged pleasantries. "We're studying each other," Menoyo says of his relationship with the regime.

For now his strategy is to take very small steps. His next goal: to obtain an identification card and a food ration book, just like every Cuban citizen. Like many of his island compatriots, he now subsists on money sent from friends and relatives in the United States.

Since his arrival Menoyo has stayed at the homes of friends in various Havana neighborhoods. His leisurely schedule is punctuated by appointments with old friends and acquaintances, including men who fought alongside him in the Escambray. He has also met with "five or six" ambassadors from European and Asian embassies (which he declines to identify). At one reception at the Spanish Embassy he mingled with other opposition figures, including Oswaldo Payá, whose now-defunct Varela Project called for a plebiscite on electoral reforms. But he will avoid launching formal political activities of his own until Cambio Cubano is legal.

Seven months in Havana limbo has given Menoyo plenty of time to analyze Cuba's bleak economic situation and hone his message. "The nation requires that you liberate the creativity of the people," he declares. He would start by allowing free enterprise and "good salaries, not the hunger salaries like those of today." What else would be on a Cambio Cubano platform? "Peace, freedom, social justice," he replies.

With the help of friends, Menoyo has also done some opinion polling in Havana, Pinar del Rio, Las Villas, and Matamoros. According to these "limited surveys," he says, a little more than 80 percent are aware of his arrival. He can also tell when he's entered a Havana neighborhood that has a lot of satellite dishes because more people come up to greet him.

"I still haven't encountered anyone who has given me a look of disgust or rejection," he marvels.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with executives at Ocean Bank, who looked askance at Menoyo's move and froze Cambio Cubano's $10,000 bank account last October. Miami-based Ocean Bank acted on instructions from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, according to a statement signed by a bank vice president. "It's a dirty trick," Menoyo says. "What animals."

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