By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
"We all are in favor of the liberty of Arocena," says Eddy Riquenes Montero, a short middle-age Cuban-American who squints through large glasses in the midday glare. "He's a political prisoner. He has been there 25 years. Isn't that enough time? It's a humanitarian case."
A White House spokesman declines to comment about the campaign, but de la Torre contends 35,000 signed cards have been mailed to President Bush. "I don't mind him having so many years in jail for what he did. But he's 65 now," de la Torre says. "He's sick and he should come home."
On February 26, 1943, Eduardo Victor Arocena Pérez was born in Caibarién, a small town in north-central Cuba with white sand beaches and a natural harbor that bustled with sugar-laden boats. He dropped out of high school at age 16, when the Cuban Revolution catapulted Fidel Castro into power. Soon he was conscripted to work on Caibarién's docks, loading sugar from the nearby mill towns onto boats bound for other Caribbean ports. A gifted athlete, he also began lifting weights and practicing wrestling. He entered local tournaments and quickly rose through the ranks to win the national championship in the 138.5-pound class, a victory that took him from the docks to an athletic tour around the country.
Arocena wrestled in exhibitions at military bases, where, in a place called La Puntilla at the northern tip of Cuba, near the town of Remedios, he watched Russian soldiers building platforms that would trigger the Cuban Missile Crisis.
When the wrestling tour ended, Arocena quarreled with his father and left Caibarién for a government co-op in eastern Cuba. There the political fire that would dominate his life was ignited. He was chosen to train in the Soviet Union as a fighter pilot, but balked. "I did not like Communism," he later recalled in court testimony.
So he returned to his hometown and joined an underground resistance group. According to Arocena, the group — which he declined to name in court testimony — had connections to the United States and trained him to sabotage government buildings, intercept intelligence, and burn sugar fields. Arocena and his co-conspirators were arrested before carrying out any plans, and he was held in Cuban jails for 15 days. Some were executed by firing squad, but Arocena, still a minor, was released.
He returned to work as a stevedore, married his first wife, and started a family in 1962. But as the United States and the USSR played chicken over Cuba's missile sites to the brink of nuclear war, Arocena again entered the resistance, helping surveil the movement of Soviet troops near military bases close to his hometown. He also learned a skill that would be key to his future career as a terrorist: bomb-making.
By the mid-Sixties, Arocena was again feeling heat for his anti-government activity. So much heat that he gathered his young family — his wife, who was pregnant, and their three children, who were two, three, and four years old — and announced his departure. "I told them that ... I would have to leave the country and then try to get them out," he later recalled in court. "They were in agreement with that."
On November 26, 1965, Arocena and another dockworker cleared a small space in a sugar-packed cargo hold of a freighter bound for Morocco. They smuggled some water and food onboard and sealed themselves in before the ship unmoored. The crew discovered them in open water, with Cuba's shoreline still in view, but the Spanish captain took pity and granted them asylum. Arocena spent several months living in Tangiers and Casablanca trying to find a government to take him in. Eventually he took refuge in Madrid.
But he wasn't done traveling. The next year, he posed as a crew member on the SS Independence, bound for New York. With the help of a Presbyterian minister who had once led Arocena's high school in Cuba, Arocena gained political asylum in the United States and moved to Newark, New Jersey.
In 1966, a newly arrived Cuban immigrant named Miriam García-Torrens drove her mother around Newark's crowded streets, looking for a new apartment. A few months earlier, the tiny 22-year-old brown-eyed beauty, her mother Mercedes, and her sister Mercy had fled Holguín, a city of 300,000 and capital of the southeastern Cuban province of the same name.
Inside one of the nicer buildings they visited, a young man was leaning against a wall near the entrance. His serious, stoic eyes locked with Miriam's.
"Mother," the young woman said, grabbing Mercedes's arm after they were inside the apartment. "Mother, did you see that boy? He will be my husband."
In the hallway, the 25-year-old man grabbed his friend by the shoulders and said, "I will marry that girl."
The meeting, perhaps, highlighted the two linchpins of Arocena's personality: his impulsiveness and his burning passion. It also hinted at events to come. He had just received word in the mail a few weeks earlier — soon after arriving in New Jersey — that his first wife in Cuba had ended the marriage. Though he still had four young children in Caibarién, he leapt into a new life in New Jersey with his new passion, Miriam.