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The lobby of the exclusive Big 5 Club in Fontainebleau, on SW 92nd Avenue near Calle Ocho, glowed under an eight-tier chandelier and was decorated with Oriental rugs and silk flowers one night last week. About 100 invitees — Bay of Pigs veterans, former guerrilla leaders, and Ana Margarita Martínez, the former wife of a Cuban spy — mingled there.
They wore guayaberas, grandma-helmet hair, and high heels while chatting in Cuban-flavored Spanish and English and settling into overstuffed couches.
About 40 paintings, mostly landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, lined the walls behind them. There was one oil painting of a blood-splattered José Martí; another of a boy and an old man hawking lottery tickets; one of a papaya; another of wine and fruit placed on a table; and a fifth of a fishing village.
But this was not just any art opening. Thirty of the cuadros were created by 79-year-old Luis Posada Carriles, whom the Cuban government called "the bin Laden of the hemisphere" in May after a U.S. federal judge tossed immigration fraud charges against him.
Also on display were eight paintings by José Dionisio Suarez Esquivel, who was sentenced to 12 years in federal custody after a conspiracy conviction in a 1976 Washington, D.C. car bombing that killed a Chilean diplomat, Orlando Letelier, and his America colleague, Ronni Moffitt.
"It's one thing to be an artist and another thing to be a politician or a bomber or a terrorist or whatever," says Gary Nader, owner of Nader Fine Art in Wynwood. "I don't think [their notoriety] will make the paintings any more valuable."
Notoriety indeed. The Cuban-born Posada holds a militant anti-Castro stance that dates at least to his participation in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The onetime CIA operative was later accused of planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban plane that killed 73 people, a rash of bombings of Havana hot spots in 1997, and a plot to kill President Fidel Castro. Posada was arrested in Venezuela for the plane incident, escaped prison in 1985, and was acquitted twice. While he was in South America, Cuban exiles financially supported him. In 2005 he sneaked into Miami via Mexico and publicly announced he would seek asylum, before immigration agents collared him.
At the time, Posada stated his desire to paint in peace: "I'm doing paintings and I am selling them very well," he told the Miami Herald. "That gives me enough to live on. I have no major aspirations."
Now age 68, Suarez pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in the assassinations of Letelier and Moffitt. Federal prosecutors claimed he and Virgilio Pablo Paz Romero were members of an anti-Castro group in New Jersey recruited for the job by Chilean secret police. Upon his 2001 release, he moved to Miami and started a house-painting company.
Both men turned to art while maintaining their innocence and sitting in jail. Posada has had more time to practice. He began sketching around 1970 and honed his skills in Venezuelan prisons. He sometimes gave his work to exiles who sent him cash, says Enrique Encinosa, a 58-year-old on-air personality for Radio Mambí and obsessive chronicler of Cuban history. "For many years, a lot of homes in Miami had paintings by Luis Posada," he reports. "I have two."
Enrique and his wife, Ilia Rosa, have encouraged Posada and Suarez to pursue their passions. The couple left Cuba as children. Enrique arrived in 1961, and she arrived the next year on a Pedro Pan flight. They met as college students while in an anti-Castro activist group. Their first date was a demonstration.
Last week's exhibition was Suarez's first major show and Posada's second. Enrique, Ilia Rosa, and other exile friends organized it. "I did this because I wanted to help Luis, but I also wanted to help Dionisio," says Ilia Rosa, a polite 57-year-old woman with light red hair and a glittering gold-string necklace. "I also think his work is very good."
Suarez hasn't had the time to develop like Posada, she says. "I think Luis has more of a natural talent."
She helped stage Posada's first show last spring at La Casa del Preso in East Little Havana. In addition to dozens of his paintings, the show featured 10 from Orlando Bosch, who was accused of being a Posada cohort in the 1976 explosion of the Cuban plane. At last year's show, 127 of Posada's paintings were sold; only a handful remained when it ended. "He sold over $30,000 in paintings that weekend," Enrique says.
Both men's work is what some in the art world might call "primitive." They weren't formally trained or forced to spend hours in an art museum with a sketchpad wedged into their laps, trying to emulate some dead guy's brushstrokes. "When you're in jail, you've got to find something to do," says Ilia Rosa.
A stately-looking man wearing a blue blazer and sipping red wine rounds out the conversation: "It's a wonderful way to escape with no consequences." This is Dionisio Suarez. "I'm a beginner, really," he says, shrugging. "I'm not an artist or nothing like that. I have sold some of my pictures, but really it's more entertainment. It's not a business for me."
Suarez enjoys working with oils and acrylics. His pieces include portraits, old buildings, and ruins, like the stone fort wall reaching into the crystalline sky and puffy clouds that appear in Torreron ($300). Tranquil green waters flow under a stone bridge in Pueblito de pescadores ($300). The painting that nabbed Ilia Rosa's attention was José Martí si hubiera llegado a viejo ($600), an imagined portrait of the graying poet who died a martyr in battle for Cuban independence at age 42. "I think it was a great concept," she says.
For Suarez, politics stands apart from painting. "It's two different things," he says.
Two hours into the show, Posada is a no-show, making some attendees cranky. Though waiters treat early guests to generous copas of Copperidge Merlot and Chardonnay, the pepper jack and cheddar cheese cubes are turning gummy. An older woman grumbles to a man with a white handlebar mustache and blue jeans: "Luis Posada no ha venido." They shuffle to the door. But the appearance of a willowy elderly man — sporting slicked-back white hair and wearing a long-sleeve black guayabera and pressed tan slacks — thwarts their departure. "Here's the guy," Enrique whispers.
The crowd's attention shifts from the paintings to Posada, who stands in the center of the hubbub in the entry. He is encircled by Bay of Pigs comrades. Ilia Rosa gently ushers him by the elbow to the center of the lobby. As he stands below the chandelier, a woman gushes, "Eres un tremendo pintor." He hugs her and kisses her on the cheek.
The man with the handlebar mustache shakes Posada's hand firmly and asks about commissioning a work depicting Cuban General Antonio Maceo. "Luis Posada means a lot to us," says the mustachioed man. "I'd love just to have one of his paintings in my house." He declines to give his name but says he is a 60-year-old Vietnam vet who came from Cuba at age 12. His shirt is thrust open to show a gold cross coddled by gray chest hair. "He expresses the feelings of all of us to someday see our country free. He is not a terrorist, but a great patriot," he continues. "There's a slim line."
Two women sigh and ponder Posada's Vendiendo billetes ($600). "Me encanta," says one of them, who looks to be in her forties and is wearing blue jeans. The painting, encased in a gaudy gold frame, depicts a barefoot, flaxen-hair boy with brilliant white teeth, and an old man with a wizened face in a cowboy hat selling lottery tickets. Enrique warns the women it might already be sold and points out the older man's features: "Look at the guy. He's beaten by life."
Near the wine and cheese pit stop hangs Posada's emotive portrait La vendedora de mangos ($600), in which a woman with caramel skin and a white kerchief poses with a basket of green mangoes before a purple background.
Then there's Marte desde mi celda, selling for $3000. One of the largest paintings, it shows an alien planet flecked with pink neon and charred black craters. "He must have painted this one in a particularly turbulent time," says Enrique. "See the black, very arid landscape and jagged edges."
Posada works the crowd — firm handshakes and back slaps for the men, kisses and smiles for the women. He poses with those who came camera-ready, standing in the middle of one group and opening his long arms like wings around them.
A Spanish-speaking journalist with a ponytail puts a microphone to Posada's lips and asks him about his art. But before he can answer, his lawyer, Arturo Hernandez, in a white short-sleeve guayabera and feathered salt-and-pepper hair, snaps to intervene: "No interviews.... He's not going to speak about anything. Not about art. Not about anything."
Posada shakes his head and gently touches the shoulder of the journalist and the arm of a New Times reporter. He smiles and then moves his hand to dab away spittle, a condition that traces to the time in 1990 when he was shot in the face in Guatemala. Then he glides over to the next clutch of adoring fans.
Enrique says Posada should be respected. "Listen, people who think he's a murderer and horrible terrorist are not going to like anything that he does," he says. "People who know him know he fights for freedom. He's a talented man with a sensitivity in his heart."