After battling Castro, James Cason takes on Coral Gables
James Cason marched past the hostile glares of Cuba's minister of interior and a handful of generals gathered inside the air control tower at Havana's José Martí International Airport. It was early in the morning on April 1, 2003, and the officials didn't say a word to the blue-eyed, gray-haired Yankee who, in his first year as head of the U.S. Interests Section, had gloriously succeeded in getting under Fidel Castro's beard by daring to deliver U.S.-branded democracy to Cuban dissidents.
Castro couldn't stand Cason and had even carried out a surprisingly imaginative propaganda campaign against him. But now a crisis had enveloped the Communist regime, forcing el comandante to seek the assistance of his imperialist foil, el guapeton, el cabo Cason — the showoff, Colonel Cason. It was a slap-in-the-face insult for la revolución. But averting an act of terrorism was more important.
From the tower, Cason peered down at the Cubana airliner parked on the tarmac. A day earlier, at around 9 p.m., the plane had departed Nueva Gerona on the Isle of Youth carrying 46 passengers, including Adermis Wilson González, his common-law wife, and his stepson.
As the plane cruised to Havana, the 34-year-old Cuban produced what appeared to be grenades from the pockets of his shorts. He threatened to blow up the plane unless the pilot detoured 90 miles north to Key West.
The pilot, however, managed to convince Wilson the jet didn't have enough fuel to make it. Landing in Havana was the only option. The pilot shut off the plane's engines and fuel systems after touching down at José Martí, fearing that if the grenades detonated, a massive fire would erupt.
On the ground, the hijacker demanded food for himself and his hostages and more gas for the getaway. Via the plane's radio system, Cuban officials stationed in the tower pleaded with Wilson to give up. In the sweltering plane, Wilson only grew antsier. He grabbed a female passenger and looped the black cord of the intercom phone around her neck. "I'm going to put the grenade in your mouth!" he screeched at her. An hour later, the desperate would-be defector let the woman go.
Around the same time, a male voice speaking fluent Spanish with a funny American inflection crackled through the intercom. "Oye mi hijo, es James Cason de la oficina de los Estados Unidos," the U.S. Interests chief relayed in Spanish.
Wilson didn't buy it.
"You can't be el cabo Cason," Wilson replied, "because the government doesn't talk to you." Since his arrival on the Communist island in 2002, Cason had been encouraging the dissident movement in Cuba by providing regime opponents with Internet access and journalism courses inside the U.S. Interests Section building in Havana. His efforts would end in controversy — with 75 dissidents imprisoned. Castro ridiculed Cason's democratic activities with a crude cartoon series lampooning the American diplomat. Cason was so despised by Cuba's dictator, Wilson must have reasoned, that there was no way Castro would turn to the enemy to resolve a hijacking.
Cason shook his head in frustration. He turned to the interior minister. "I'm going up to the plane to talk to him," Cason said. The minister didn't stop him. A jeep dropped off the American diplomat 200 feet from the plane, which sat isolated on the runway. The aircraft's hull was close enough to the ground for Cason to walk up to the cockpit's window, where he handed his passport to the pilot. The pilot showed it to Wilson.
The pilot returned to the cockpit and handed Cason the radio through the open window. Inside, Wilson's face was drenched in perspiration. He gripped the explosives in his pockets as Cason's voice came over the intercom.
"If you take this plane to Key West, you will be prosecuted and you will get 20 years in prison," Cason explained in Spanish. "Don't do this to your family."
Wilson shook his head no. "I've been in prisons all my life," he said. "At least this way my family can be free because of the wet-foot-dry-foot law." The hijacker was fully aware that Cubans intercepted on U.S. soil are allowed to stay.
"He would not budge," Cason recalls. "He was determined to leave the country. There was no way I could talk him out of it."
That same day, some 12 hours after the standoff began, the Cuban government caved, refueling the airliner. Before taking off, Wilson released some of the hostages. But Cason was right — the hijacker wouldn't turn back. A U.S. Customs Black Hawk helicopter and two U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets escorted the plane as it landed in Key West. FBI agents and Key West SWAT team snipers took positions around the airfield as the 32 people on board disembarked. A hostage negotiator directed the passengers off the plane with their hands over their heads.
Wilson was separated from his wife and son, and arrested. Under intensive questioning by federal agents, Wilson admitted the grenades were fake. He just wanted to escape with his family, who were released after being briefly detained by immigration officials. Wilson's wife apparently knew nothing about her husband's plot, and she and her son have since settled in the United States. Four months later, Wilson was convicted and got a 20-year sentence for the hijacking.
Cason, meanwhile, continued his test of wills against Castro and his Marxist acolytes until 2005, when he was reassigned to be the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay — the final stop in a diplomatic career that spanned four decades.
Cason admits he enjoyed wrangling with the Western Hemisphere's longest-running Communist dictatorship during his Cuba tour, a feat that helps build his name recognition as he prepares to run for elected office in Coral Gables, the troubled suburban oasis where 40 percent of the population is Cuban American.
"I definitely enjoyed the sparring," Cason says of his time on the island nation. "It was a very gratifying time for me, because we helped the people who will one day help bring democracy to Cuba."
In the living room of his home on Alhambra Circle in early November, Cason wraps up a meeting with campaign manager Jorge de Cardenas, who, after leaving Cuba in 1958, worked with a CIA-backed university group against Castro. The 64-year-old publicist and political consultant shuffles out of Cason's home.
During the infamous Operation Grenpalm Miami scandal of the late '90s, the feds arrested de Cardenas and three City of Miami officials in an attempted shakedown of a vendor. De Cardenas was convicted in 1997 of obstruction of justice, serving a year in prison and three months in an immigration detention facility. In his first run for elected office, Cason has quickly learned that in Miami-Dade County, it is imperative to have campaign operatives who know how to corral the Cuban American vote, even if they happen to have felony records.
In his heyday, de Cardenas's clients included a who's who of Miami-Dade's elected elite, from Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez to Coral Gables Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli to Maurice Ferre, when he was a county commissioner running for county mayor. He most recently worked on Miami City Commissioner Willy Gort's 2009 campaign. "I thought his [criminal conviction] was irrelevant to his ability for running campaigns," Cason says. "Jorge knows people in Miami-Dade County and knows how to win local elections."
Dressed in a white polo shirt tucked neatly into dark gray trousers, Cason, 65, reclines in a chair behind a three-dimensional painting by the Scull sisters, Cuban siblings whose mixed-media works capture Cuba's days before Castro. On a nearby table, a wood-carved Charlie Chaplin el cabo purchased from a street artist in Cuba's capital waves at visitors coming through the front door.
According to de Cardenas, Cason isn't ready to settle into a life of drinking beers and watching football games. "His mind and body are not ready for retirement," says de Cardenas, who was familiar with Cason's exploits in Cuba before they met four months ago. "Jim has a very distinguished diplomatic career, and everywhere he's been, he engages the community and learns everything he can about it. He is doing the same in Coral Gables."
Cason has been a government man since 1970, when he passed a difficult foreign service exam that prompted a job offer from the State Department to work as a deputy consul in El Salvador. During his 38-year career, the lifelong Republican and American patriot has served on more than 19 diplomatic missions. Along the way, he's tangled with the Castro brothers, recorded a Paraguayan folk song CD in Guarani that got significant airplay, and audited the U.S. government's operations in Baghdad. Now he wants to put his experience to work turning around Coral Gables city government, which is in dire financial straits. As the city's property tax base has plunged in the past few years, so has its ability to meet its obligations. "About 77 percent of all the income generated by the city goes to pay salary and pension obligations," de Cardenas says. "It is a nightmare."
During his diplomatic tours of Latin America, Cason would sometimes have to pass through Coral Gables on his way to Washington, D.C. His visits convinced him to make the City Beautiful his home when he retired in 2008. "Coral Gables is a multiethnic, multilinguistic city with a high quality of life," Cason explains. "It reminds me of places I have been to all my life."
Two years ago, Cason and his wife Carmen purchased their home, a new Spanish-tiled house on a corner lot, for $417,000. "Soon after we moved in, we started fixing this place up," Cason says. "It used to have purple walls and pink floors. We repainted the whole house and put in the new floors ourselves." The couple hired a contractor to install an iron fence around the property. "That is when I found out why Coral Gables's permitting process is so famously onerous," Cason says. "When I talked to builders and architects, they all comment on Coral Gables's great quality of life but complain about the city making it so hard to do business."
According to de Cardenas, Cason had a hard time finding a contractor to work on his home because "of all the bureaucratic red tape in Coral Gables." Discussions with neighbors and friends about the city's draconian zoning rules led to conversations about the city's financial problems. Cason did his own digging, obtaining copies of the city's union contracts. He found out Coral Gables is struggling to come up with $198 million in the coming years to cover the skyrocketing cost of pension benefits for 343 full-time employees. Five years ago, the figure was $69 million. Coral Gables's budget woes come at a time when the city's tax base has dropped by seven percent in the past 12 months, and the city commission has raised property taxes for the last two years.
What's more, to balance this year's $127 million budget, the city commission increased the number of hours for metered parking and upped the fire inspection fees for commercial properties to $75 — from $25. In other cost-cutting moves, Coral Gables slashed $300,000 in street resurfacing funds and $30,000 to replace trees.
Cason says he is appalled by the city's financial mess. "The mayor and the city commission have been asleep at the wheel for the past decade," he grouses. Then there is the scandal that tarnished the city's image in 2009. George Volsky, a columnist for Coral Gables Gazette, exposed how former City Manager David Brown was blowing taxpayer money on extravagant lunches and then backdating the receipts to cover himself. Brown eventually resigned.
Volsky contends the Brown scandal and the city's skyrocketing pension costs happened under the watch of current mayor Donald Slesnick, so he is ultimately responsible. Cason agrees. "The more I researched and spoke to people about the city's problems, I started thinking about a run for office," Cason says. "As mayor, I would bring a new management perspective culled from 40 years of diplomatic experience."
On July 10, Cason filed to run for mayor, six months after Coral Gables attorney Thomas Korge, former chairman of the city's pension board, put his name on the ballot. On October 18, Slesnick announced he would seek a fifth and final term, surprising city hall gadflies who expected him to step aside.
Volsky, a Polish-born journalist who spent part of his career covering Cuba for the New York Times, believes the City Beautiful's voters want new blood. "I think Slesnick should have stuck to his public assertions that he wasn't going to run again," Volsky says. "We are fortunate to have two good candidates to challenge him."
It's mid-June during Cason's last assignment for Uncle Sam. A small bus carrying the diplomat and a half-dozen other State Department officials cruises through Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily guarded area in Iraq's capital where U.S. government officials and American citizens live and work. Even with its barriers of coiled barbed wire, high concrete walls, and security checkpoints, the Green Zone is not impervious to attack.
The bus navigates the streets toward the U.S. Embassy compound, located on a sprawling campus along the Tigris River that includes Saddam Hussein's former presidential palace. It shares the road with taxis, M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Humvees equipped with .50-caliber machine guns.
"Incoming! Incoming!" someone screams.
The bus driver stomps on the brakes, bringing the ride to an abrupt halt. The driver opens the front door and runs out. The chauffeur ducks into an alley and scurries into a concrete bunker. Cason and his companions follow into the cramped space. "First we heard the kaboom," Cason recalls. "Then came the emergency siren. We had seven mortar and rocket attacks during the 12 days I was there."
One of those other attacks was a missile that hit an apartment two floors below Cason's living quarters. "The insurgents put a rocket on the back of a pickup truck, light it, and then run," Cason says. "They just aim for the Green Zone, so you really have to know where all the bunkers are because you never know where it is going to hit."
Cason was on a team of auditors sent in 2010 by the State Department's inspector general to evaluate the transition from military to civilian security for Baghdad's U.S. Embassy, the largest American overseas diplomatic post. The embassy has about $125 million in government property and 1,700 people assigned to the mission. It spends more than $1.5 billion a year on operations and security. "The plan was to establish three branch offices and two consulates in Baghdad," Cason says. "That is going to be very expensive and difficult to do. As the military pulls out, our civilian personnel will have to provide for their own security with private contractors. We had the task of assessing how that transition is going."
The report, titled "Compliance Follow-Up Review of Embassy Baghdad, Iraq," was released in October. Among the findings were that the U.S. Government would need to provide anywhere from 15 to 60 security and life support personnel for each of the 59 full-time embassy administrators expected to work in Baghdad this year. In other embassies in Beijing, Cairo, and New Delhi, the ratio is four security/life support people for every three full-time high-ranking officials.
"Security concerns loom large," the report concludes about the transition from military to civilian control. "Resources, structures, and the approaches could hardly be more difficult."
Cason says the report is an "unvarnished opinion that had nothing to do with political correctness." After that assignment, he returned to Coral Gables, where his strategy has shifted from ensuring the United States's future in Iraq to trying to convince voters that he is the fresh-faced candidate. "I have run very large embassies with budgets that are similar in ways to Coral Gables," Cason says. "I'm bringing a new set of eyes and ears. And typically mayors are a city's ambassador, so why not get a real one?"
Cason's childhood and adolescence resemble a Norman Rockwell portrait of a classic American military family. His father, Arthur, was a Naval captain who flew dive bombers in World War II and manned patrol planes scanning the Mediterranean and the Atlantic for Russian subs during the '50s. The Casons lived in 19 different locations, including Jacksonville and Miami Beach, where James's brother Bill was born. James is the oldest of five siblings.
"We were very proud of our father," says Bill, who is a year younger than James. "We would all go out to the base wherever we lived to watch his plane come in. We were in awe of our dad."
In 1951, when James was 8 and Bill was 7, the Casons lived on a French-U.S. base in Morocco. The parents hired Berbers, an indigenous Arabic people from North Africa, as nannies to watch their brood. "We were fascinated by their culture," Bill says. "It made us want to spend more time exploring the world. It was a total eye-opening experience for us." A year later, James decided he would pursue a career in international affairs after one of his teachers gave him a copy of The Complete Works of Winston Churchill. He read it. "From that moment I was hooked on becoming a diplomat," Cason says.
The family returned to the United States, bouncing between bases in Florida and Virginia. When he graduated from Virginia's Fairfax High School in 1962, he was voted "Most Likely to Be Ambassador to Uganda." Bill remembers his older brother as a teenager waking up at 4 a.m. to deliver newspapers. The siblings also mowed neighbors' yards for extra cash.
Cason earned a full academic scholarship to Dartmouth, where he majored in international relations. While he studied for his degree, he worked at the U.S. Park Service in Washington, D.C., during the summers. "He rode the garbage truck emptying out the trash bins," Bill says. "He wasn't ashamed to work his way from the bottom to the top."
After graduating from Dartmouth, Cason went to Johns Hopkins University for a master's degree in international studies. In 1968, he won a Fulbright scholarship to go to Uruguay, where he spent 18 months researching the rise of the leftist movement in that country. In 1970, he packed his Chevy Camaro and drove to San Salvador for a job in the foreign service as vice-consul to the American consulate in El Salvador.
Later that year, he met Carmen, a young Salvadoran woman who worked for the Chilean airline LAN Chile. Cason married her in 1972, shortly before his next assignment took him back to Washington, D.C., where he became assistant to the State Department's head of Latin American affairs.
Cason lived in 14 countries and can speak five languages, including Spanish, Italian, and Guarani, the indigenous dialect spoken by 90 percent of Paraguayans. He performed his diplomatic duties from Kosovo to Kingston. Wherever he landed, friends say, Cason worked hard to assimilate into the local culture. In 2008, the final year of his ambassadorship in Paraguay, the diplomat recorded himself singing 16 traditional Paraguayan folk songs entirely in Guarani. He packaged the melodies into a CD called Campo Jurado (Field of Promises).
While he had never sung professionally, Cason was encouraged to flex his vocal cords by Paraguay's most celebrated soprano, Rebecca Arramendi, who sings along with the diplomat on a few of the CD's tracks. In a soft baritone, Cason belts out melodies to the accompaniment of accordions, harps, and guitars. Arramendi is one of four Paraguayan crooners who appear on the album, which has sold more than 10,000 copies. The songs got major play on local stations in Paraguay, and Cason sells the CD at $15 a pop via snail mail or on iTunes. The proceeds pay for scholarships for poor Paraguayan children. "They call me the singing ambassador," Cason says triumphantly, while clutching a CD. "It is a never-ending variety of interesting things you do as an ambassador. You become very cosmopolitan."
The YouTube clip opens with a Looney Tunes-style intro titled "Cosas y Casos del Cabo Cason." This episode is "Human Rights," and the animation looks like a low-budget, cut-and-paste knockoff of Genndy Tartakovsky's work on Cartoon Network's Dexter's Laboratory. The protagonist is a two-dimensional Cason, wearing oversize eyeglasses and speaking in a ridiculously exaggerated American accent.
"My eyes are tearing up," Cason's runt-sized caricature bemoans in Spanish. "My heart is breaking. Oh, the humanity. I shall spread democracy all over." A pair of worms wearing transistor radios around their necks goad him. Cason metamorphoses into a fairy with wings and a magic wand; the arms of his fairy gown are stitched with colonel stripes. He flies out of the U.S. Interests Section building to the streets of Havana, where he informs a crowd: "With human rights, everything shall be like a dream!" Cason waves his hand.
The cartoon images cut from a dirt-caked boy hawking newspapers to a police officer pulverizing a man to a Cuban protester alongside a Klansman and a Neo-Nazi to a drug dealer holding a bag of cocaine. When Cason reappears, he asks the Cubans: "It will be marvelous, eh?" The crowd turns into a mob throwing things and chasing after Cason, who transforms into a rat that scurries back to the U.S. Interests Section building. It is not clear when the video was made, but the Cuban government released it and several others to ridicule Cason during his time in Havana from 2002 to 2005.
Cason reveled in Castro's hatred of him. "I put the caricature on a flag and attached it on my car," Cason boasts. "I had colonel stripes on my guayaberas. I laughed at them. These stodgy totalitarians can't stand it when you laugh at them." From the moment he arrived in Havana, Cason engaged in an unusually aggressive policy of enabling Cuba's dissidents. "We gave them means to be independent journalists," Cason says. "I set up 24 Internet terminals [inside the U.S. Interests Section building] where the dissidents could come file stories without being detected by the Cuban government. We gave out 30,000 shortwave radios, cameras, pencils, and notepads. It was a gratifying time, being there doing something for the people who will bring democracy to Cuba."
Naturally, Cason's activities antagonized Castro, who grew suspicious that el guapeton Americano was looking to get kicked out of Cuba so the Bush administration could have a reason to engage in a military intervention. Cason claims the Cuban government warned him to stop. "I told them to throw me out if they didn't like it," Cason huffs.
After a spate of hijackings, including the taking of the Cubana airliner on March 31, 2003, Castro finally had enough of Cason. But the dictator took his wrath out on the people el cabo was supposedly helping. In early April 2003, Castro ordered the arrest of 75 dissidents, who were all convicted during one-day trials and sentenced to prison terms of more than 20 years. The Cuban government utilized double agents to infiltrate the opposition movement. The spies also gained the trust of Cason. One of the informants, Cuban journalist David Manuel Orrio, even helped organize a journalism ethics conference at Cason's home.
For an interview with the Associated Press following the dissident crackdown, Cuba's Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque mocked Cason. El cabo "should know that our nation has learned how to defend itself," Perez Roque told the AP.
Cason acknowledges that Cuban spies were always among the dissidents he befriended. "Of course we knew about the infiltrated agents, but we couldn't just point them out," Cason says. "In Cuba, it is a 10-year-prison sentence to reveal the identity of a government secret officer. It was a way to cause confusion and mistrust among the dissidents."
Besides, Cason emphasizes, he wasn't doing anything illegal in Cuba. "Everything we did was aboveboard," he says. "Nothing was clandestine. The Cuban government knew we were teaching dissidents how to become independent journalists."
On April 25, 2003, Cuba's president addressed the nation on the state-run television station. He revealed in painstaking detail every move Cason made to subvert his government up until the dissidents were jailed. "James appeared as the best choice to implement the predetermined policy of an increase in, and escalation of, hostility toward Cuba from his State Department post," Castro railed.
Saul Landau, professor emeritus at California State University, Pomona, is a vocal critic of Cason's tenure as head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. This past September, about two months after Cason declared his candidacy, the leftist scholar cowrote an article for left-leaning, Miami-based website Progreso Weekly accusing the diplomat of conspiring with Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, to create chaos in Cuba by encouraging dissidents to defy Castro rather than follow written U.S. government policy of using peaceful means to produce "regime change."
"Cason was poking Havana in the eye with the expectation he would get kicked out or Bush would find a reason to close the Interests Section," Landau told New Times. "He was stirring up trouble without realizing what the consequences would be. He got 75 people arrested."
If he was teaching a class in diplomacy, he would give Cason an F-minus, Landau says. "Instead of doing the real work of an embassy," Landau says, "Cason set out to bring down the Cuban government."
On December 3, Cason perches at a conference table inside a small studio at Spanish-language AM station Radio Mambí (710). He is flanked by Armando Pérez-Roura, the hard-line Cuban exile who is Radio Mambí's general manager, and Raúl Chau, a Cuban American anti-Castro activist and a longtime friend of Cason's. The trio spends the first ten minutes reminiscing about Cason's exploits in Havana. "I wanted to let the world know what was going on in Cuba," Cason says with righteous emphasis. "I had a duty to report the human rights abuses under Castro."
He also recounts the tale of hijacker Adermis Wilson González and dismisses allegations he was trying to push Castro into a military confrontation. "Castro was always going on state-run television claiming that we were going to invade Cuba," Cason says. "There was never any truth to it. It was a ridiculous thing Castro made up."
With the mayoral election coming in April, Cason is making the rounds of the Spanish media outlets. He was recently interviewed on Telemundo (Channel 51), where he again took a shot at his old nemesis. "At this stage in his life, Fidel needs to keep portraying us as the enemy," he tells reporter Marilys Llanos. "However, there will not be any fundamental changes in Cuba if the United States keeps following its current policy of 'aggressive niceness.' "
Two weeks later, the ex-diplomat sits in his living room and angrily defends his body of work in Cuba, dismissing Landau's claim that he was responsible for the arrest of the 75 dissidents. "That's bullshit," Cason snarls. "Our policy was to support a rapid yet peaceful political change in Cuba. This guy Landau is a lackey for the Cuban government who has never met me. He doesn't know anything."
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