Bernie Weiss Hunted Nazis and Hosted Mobsters in Havana — Now He Wants Justice
Illustration by Tristan Elwell
Bernie Weiss could be your grandpa. Nestled on the 12th floor of a custard-colored Collins Avenue retirement home, his small studio apartment bears all the signs of senescence. The air inside is as cool and moist as a supermarket veggie aisle. The coffee table is spread with gummies and Publix pink lemonade in anticipation of younger visitors. A green velvet couch, balding in spots, slumps against a wall. Bernie's armchair is covered with plastic.
"My damn prostate blew up on me a couple of months ago," Bernie says, lifting the leg of his gray sweatpants to reveal a swollen ankle and a catheter tube. "Now I have to be careful where I sit."
Spend some time here, however, and you'll begin to notice unusual things. Between sips of lemonade, you'll spot military-grade maps of the Caribbean on a cluttered shelf. Or half-century-old wine bottles that hint at rowdy toasts with the rich and powerful.
And then there is Bernie himself. His hair is now white. A scraggly beard covers a liver-spotted face. And a few missing teeth have softened his Brooklyn accent. Aside from the catheter, however, he's fit as a fiddle. He could be your 80-year-old grandpa or even your 75-year-old uncle. But then Bernie opens his mouth and stories come tumbling out: stories of submarines and sabotage at sea, prisoners of war and plane hijackings, revolutions and games of Russian roulette.
No, Bernie Weiss isn't your grandpa. He's the most interesting man in Miami: a 94-year-old Nazi-hunting World War II hero, a suave Central American businessman, and the owner of one of the best damn bars in Havana, where mobsters mingled with diplomats and where celebrities shared drinks with strongmen. Then came the revolution, and Bernie found himself in a cemetery with a gun to his head. He managed to escape the island but left a fortune behind.
If all of that seems like ancient history, Bernie is adamant about writing a final chapter. Almost 60 years after Fidel Castro stole his saloon, Bernie wants it back. His biggest obstacle, however, may not be the Cuban regime but rather an American court system that finds his story simply too incredible.
"The record contains not even a scintilla of primary evidence" in support of his claim, a commission ruled in 1969. Time hasn't helped his case either.
"I couldn't go to the papers. I had to wait until everyone I knew was dead," he says of his 56-year vow of silence. "So I kept my mouth shut and I saved a lot of people's lives."
But Bernie's story checks out. And the stubborn old man's patience may soon pay off. In December, President Barack Obama announced he was restoring diplomatic ties to Cuba. After more than 50 years, the embargo could soon come to an end. Like thousands of Americans who lost property during the Cuban Revolution, Bernie's hopes for a return — or at least reparations — are suddenly looking a helluva lot more realistic.
Even if Bernie never makes it back to Havana, his story could still hold the key to the island's future. His bar, Cachet, was emblematic of Cuba's golden age, when the country was flush with dollars and dance clubs. But Cuba in the 1950s was also awash with gangsters, corruption, and inequality — the kindling that fueled revolution in the first place. If the embargo falls and American money pours back into the island, some observers predict a repeat of the island's past or, even worse, a free-for-all akin to the sacking of the Soviet Union.
But Bernie is a believer. "I think it'll be bigger than Vegas," he says. "I'd put money on it." Now the nonagenarian simply needs younger generations to take him seriously.
"Just like people don't believe my age, they are very skeptical of my stories," he says. "I've had an interesting life. I tell you one thing: There's never been a dull moment."
At 94 years old, Bernie Weiss can still spout stories about chasing Nazi submarines around the Caribbean.
Photo by Michael E. Miller
Take a seat on Bernie's balding couch and he will tell you his life story. It's more a collection of stories, really, one remarkable tale after another. You'll scribble down the names of movie stars and mobsters, boxers and bullfighters. And then, at the end of the day, you'll go home and Google them and realize something even more remarkable: It's probably all true.
The stories begin in Brooklyn, where Bernard Israel Weiss was born November 23, 1920. World War I had just ended. Warren G. Harding was elected in a landslide. And the Roaring Twenties were officially underway. Suddenly, automobiles and jazz were everywhere in New York City. So was the Mob.
Bernie's dad ran a dry-cleaning store near the end of the subway lines in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. Every day, gangsters would stop by to pick up their suits. Frequent customers included Jewish mobsters Martin "Bugsy" Goldstein and Abe "Kid Twist" Reles. "My father had a back room where they'd throw their guns into the bottom of the coat hangers and put on their suits," Bernie says.
One night the store was robbed. Bernie's dad was sweating bullets: He'd just lost merchandise belonging to a group of men nicknamed Murder, Inc. But when Bugsy Goldstein came by that afternoon, he told Bernie's dad not to worry. "That night we heard a knocking on our back door," Bernie remembers. "And there was a stack of suits all piled up in the back of the yard."
Bernie and his brothers soon realized there were six beautiful fur coats that hadn't been there before. When Goldstein stopped by the next day, Bernie's dad told him they'd left someone else's fur coats along with all the suits. "What do you mean they're not your coats?" Goldstein said. "They are your coats."
But the Roaring Twenties didn't even last the decade. The stock market crashed in 1929, plunging the nation into the Great Depression. Prohibition ended four years later, taking much of Murder, Inc., with it. (Reles snitched on Goldstein, who was sent to the electric chair. Five months later, Reles was thrown from a window of Coney Island's Half Moon Hotel). As a teenager, Bernie went to work hauling sacks of fruit and nuts for 15 cents before school. Later he got a job lugging batteries. "Everybody struggled back then," he says.
When he was 17, Bernie bolted west to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. He slept in tents, planted trees, and fought forest fires near Priest River, Idaho. "It was God's land," he says of the sweeping landscape, "but the winter was tough." He made $30 a month, most of which he sent home to his parents. The rest he spent on apple pie and fresh milk from a nearby farm.
He moved back to Brooklyn a year later. His brother was in the Navy, and he helped Bernie get a job as an electrician at the shipyard. On December 7, 1941, Bernie was busy losing his paycheck in a late-night poker game when an announcement interrupted the radio music: The Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor. "We looked at each other and said, 'Well, we're at war,'?" he remembers. The next day, they all signed up to serve. "Of the guys playing poker that night, four never came back."
Bernie followed his brother into the Navy. But instead of shipping out to the South Pacific, he was sent to New Orleans. His job was to hunt down the Nazi U-boats that had been terrorizing America's Atlantic Coast. His new home was a "sub-chaser," a 120-foot boat so light and fast that its plywood transoms started coming apart after a couple of months. But the Nazis were faster. "We couldn't catch those submarines," Bernie says. Instead, he and his crew would sabotage the Germans' fuel depots hidden around the Caribbean.
In fact, the only time Bernie saw a Nazi sub was one night in 1942 when his boat was ordered to transport prisoners. There, nearly hidden by dark waves, was a disabled U-boat: the technological marvel they had been chasing for years. Bernie even snagged a Nazi Luger as a memento. Many of his missions were secret, he says, "clandestine stuff. Nobody knows what I did. People still ask me about it to this day."
Secret or not, Bernie's service would end before the war ended. A few months after seeing the U-boat, his sub-chaser was off the coast of Honduras when Bernie was called to the deck. The Germans had riddled the waters with magnetic mines, and frogmen were inspecting the hull. It was twilight, and Bernie jumped into the black water to help. Suddenly, the ocean erupted beneath him. Bernie floated to the surface like a dynamited fish. He was hauled on deck, but his body had been crushed. Without a stretcher, his crew mates duct-taped him to a door. He woke up in a New Orleans hospital in a full body cast. The damage: 19 fractures, including a broken spine. (The Navy, citing privacy laws, declined to send Bernie's records to New Times, but he provided documents confirming his service.)
Bernie was sent to the Biltmore Hotel — at the time a military hospital — to recover. But it wasn't long before he was back on a boat. The war was over, but there was money to be made for a seaman who knew the Caribbean like the back of his hand. Bernie landed a contract pulling mahogany stumps from the Honduran jungle and shipping them to Havana to make Singer sewing machine tables. "Honduras was the Wild West," he says. "But I had blue eyes, white skin, a Luger, and a German last name, so nobody messed with me."
One day in 1948, he hitched a ride aboard a freighter bound for Havana. He slept in the cargo hold with his mahogany and in the morning emerged on deck to see Cuba rise in the distance.
Photo courtesy of Bernie Weiss
"The Pearl of the Antilles," he says 67 years later as if seeing the island for the first time. Cuba would provide Bernie with a wife, a family, and a fortune — but also a brush with death.
With a face like a flattened steak, the man ducked into the dark bar and ordered a drink. Bernie immediately recognized him. The furrowed brow. The scarred skin. A nose that had broken down more times than a Havana taxicab. Bernie rose from his seat and crossed the room.
"Rocky, how are you?" the bar owner asked, extending a hand. Without saying a word, Rocky Marciano reached out and grabbed Bernie by the hair spilling from his open shirt. Bernie put his fists up as if to throw a punch.
"You fucking guinea," Bernie joked. "You may be champ of the world, but here in Havana, I'm the champ!"
Bernie could be forgiven for boasting. It was Havana in the 1950s, and his bar seemed like the center of the universe. Celebrities like Marciano stopped into Cachet almost every night. So too did the mobsters who had quietly taken over Cuba's casinos. And so did the Cuban officials whose pockets were lined with American dollars.
"My bar was the Casablanca of Cuba," Bernie remembers. But like Casablanca, Havana would soon become a war zone. And Bernie would be made to pay for the company he kept.
Before the bar and the boxers and the bloodshed, there was just Bernie and a girl named Mireya. He might have never stayed in Havana had he not met her. Bernie was fresh from the Honduran jungle and not looking for love, but a friend's wife insisted he meet her employee. Bernie begged off, blaming his poor Spanish, but his friend's wife brushed aside his excuse: "She speaks English better than you!"
When he finally met her, he was speechless. Mireya was movie-star beautiful, with tan skin and long, bleached-blond hair. "It was fait accompli," Bernie says.
It was 1948, two years after Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky had organized a meeting of Mafiosi at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. Under pressure from the Americans, the Cuban government had deported Luciano to Italy. But Lansky remained in charge of Cuba's casinos, and the country was heating up. The U.S. economy was booming, and gringos were beginning to visit the island en masse.
Bernie saw a business opportunity. With Mireya's help, he began plotting to open a nightclub. He found an empty store on Havana's main drag, El Paseo del Prado, near the Malecón and the city's central square. Then he put up a red awning and a neon sign reading, "Cachet Bar Club." The final touch: a statue of Bacchus.
But it was the interior that made Cachet one-of-a-kind. Bernie hired carpenters to carve a long mahogany bar inside. And he bribed Cuban officials to let him install a secret pay phone hidden behind mirrors in the back of the club. Bernie's childhood in Mob-owned Brooklyn taught him that the one thing powerful men covet most is privacy. "All the American executives would come to my bar after lunch," he remembers. "They'd have a drink and call their mistress."
On any given night at Cachet, American military officials could be found sitting near known criminals. Celebrities such as Tennessee Williams, Robert Mitchum, and Rocky Marciano appreciated Bernie's only rule: no photographs. And, of course, Cachet had government approval. Bernie paid for a cop at the door. And Fulgencio Batista's younger brother, Havana governor and heavy drinker Francisco "Panchín" Batista, was a regular. Once, one of the president's assassins even killed a Chilean in Cachet, Bernie claims. The club didn't skip a dance beat.
Times were good for Bernie. Mireya soon gave birth to their daughter. Business, meanwhile, was brisk. He had quickly become known as the man with connections, and Bernie began making them count. He bought stakes in a fruit-importing company, a supermarket chain, and a plot of beachfront land 70 miles west in Bahía Honda.
The '50s burned on like an endless summer day, but Bernie began to see signs of a coming storm. In 1955, a rabble-rousing young attorney named Fidel Castro was released from prison. Castro went to Mexico to raise money and arms for an uprising against Batista. Seventeen months later, he and a band of followers returned to Cuba on the ship Granma. The rebels were quickly routed, but Castro and a few others — including his brother Raúl and Che Guevara — escaped to the Sierra Maestra.
Few of Bernie's rich and powerful customers paid attention to the guerrillas, however. Over drinks at the bar, Bernie says, Aristotle Onassis discussed a plan to build 30 hotels along the Malecón. And Rocky Marciano allegedly asked Bernie to find him a bowling alley to buy. "Rocky, are you nuts?" Bernie recalls saying. "Castro is up in the mountains! They are putting bombs around the city!"
On New Year's Day 1959, the rebels swept into Havana. Batista fled, but many businessmen, including Bernie, were hesitant to leave their investments. Cuba had been through revolts before, but things were usually back to normal in six months. The streets of Havana, however, were chaotic. Police gave up their guns. Casinos and stores were looted. Parking meters were cracked open like candy eggs. "It was just insane," Bernie says. "The whole thing was totally nuts."
Still, Bernie simply didn't believe Castro was that bad. "I heard him on the radio," he remembers, "and nothing he said convinced me that he was a communist." So Bernie and his family stayed. But the revolution couldn't remain beyond Cachet's doors forever.
Manager Felipe Diaz gets married inside Cachet, Bernie’s Havana nightclub, in 1957.
Photo courtesy of Bernie Weiss
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Bernie could feel the tip of the snub-nose revolver tap the back of his head with every Havana pothole. Hours earlier, he had been arrested at Cachet and thrown in jail. Now two teenage revolutionaries were taking him somewhere to die.
The car headed southwest toward the outskirts of the city. It passed beneath a heavy stone gateway engraved with strange characters and entered the old Chinese cemetery.
"We're going to bury you here," said a big kid in the back seat with his gun barrel pressed to Bernie's head. "No quiero sangre en el coche," the scrawny driver objected, so the big kid kicked open the door and pushed their prisoner to the edge of his seat. Bernie looked up at the statues of lions and dragons. Then he heard the gun's hammer pull back.
Click. The chamber was empty. Click. Click. Click. Click. Bernie's shoes were filled with sweat, but the kid was laughing. He closed the car door and they headed back toward the jail. "You don't even have bullets," Bernie said to the boy, no older than 18. The kid pointed the revolver out the window and pulled the trigger once more. A gunshot echoed over the gravestones.
Bernie had been spared, but his Havana adventure had become a nightmare. Once his best asset, Bernie's ties to Batista and the Mob were now costing him dearly. Fidel Castro's men had taken his bar, his fortune, and now nearly his life.
His troubles had begun that morning. Bernie awoke to the sound of firing squads at El Morro castle near his house. As he walked to Cachet, he could see smoke rise in the distance. Around midday, an American strolled into the bar and asked to change a $500 bill. Bernie was suspicious — he'd never seen such a large bill in Havana — but told his fellow gringo that he would give him $100 and, if the bill checked out, the rest later that day. The man agreed and handed Bernie the folded-up note.
Seconds later, as the American slunk out of the bar, Bernie saw soldiers approaching. He flicked the bill under a table, but it was too late. He had been set up. That morning, Fidel had ordered $500 bills outlawed in Cuba.
The soldiers stripped Bernie, took him upstairs, and ordered him to open his safe. They took $85,000 cash, contracts for his businesses in Cuba, and even his Luger, Bernie claims. Then they drove him to Campo Colombia, a makeshift military prison. Inside a large cell was a collection of upper-crust Cubans, including "Sugar King" Julio Lobo and a surgeon — still in his gown — who had been arrested for operating on an injured Batista supporter.
Later that night, Bernie says, he was taken to the Chinese cemetery and threatened with death if he didn't give up the names of counterrevolutionaries. "Mafia guys, casino guys," Bernie remembers. "They wanted me to start ratting them out." Friends from the U.S. embassy stopped by but could do nothing more than offer cigarettes.
The atmosphere inside the prison was alarming but amateurish. "I gave a guard $20 to buy me a Cuban sandwich," Bernie recalls. "I said, 'Buy yourself some cigars.' And the guy gave me his gun and told me to keep watch! I threw it under the pool table. That's how irregular it was." When Mireya visited, Bernie told her it was all a misunderstanding. After four days, he was finally released after agreeing to sign a blank confession.
"I knew they could write in whatever they wanted, but I didn't have a choice," Bernie says. "Castro's people were stone-cold killers. So was Batista, but the difference was Batista took money. You could pay him off. You couldn't buy Castro."
Once out, Bernie began working on a backup plan. From the window of her private-school bus, his daughter had witnessed a shootout. Now Bernie sent her to the family farm outside Havana. But before Bernie could plot his family's future, he was grabbed off the street and taken back to jail. This time, there would be no cigars or sandwiches. The next morning, Bernie was taken to a Cuban courtroom where Mireya was waiting for him. When she tried to speak in his defense, the judge silenced her. After ordering Bernie released on $500 bond, however, the judge motioned for the couple to follow him into his chambers.
"I don't know about you, señora," the judge said to Mireya. "But next week, I am going to Miami. There is no more law here. Everything they said against your husband is made up."
Bernie decided to make a run for it. His embassy friends advised him to fly out of Cuba on a Sunday, when the officials most likely to recognize him were off. He and Mireya hid cash inside cut-out issues of Reader's Digest. With their daughter in tow, they walked through security and onto a plane to Miami. Minutes before takeoff, however, two soldiers climbed aboard. They walked down the aisles slowly until their eyes suddenly settled on someone in front of Bernie. The soldiers grabbed the man and dragged him off the plane. Then the cabin door slammed into place and the ground gave way underneath them.
"That was a good feeling," Bernie says. "You left everything you owned, yet you got out of it alive."
On June 3, 1969, ten years after he was arrested and labeled an enemy of the revolution, Bernie walked back into court to relive his Cuban ordeal. This time, however, he wasn't in handcuffs. Or in Havana. He was in Washington, D.C., to testify to the U.S. government how Fidel Castro had ruined his life.
Bernie presented the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission with photos of his stolen property, affidavits from friends and business associates, and a list of items lost to the revolution. There was $112,000 cash, $6,000 worth of jewelry, and more than $1 million in stocks and development rights, plus his pet spider monkey and cocker spaniel. He also tacked on damages for his imprisonment and abuse by Fidel's henchmen. The grand total: $8,676,500.
The U.S. government, however, did not look kindly on Bernie's case.
A teenage Bernie at work in the wilds of Idaho around 1938.
Photo courtesy of Bernie Weiss
"The claim for $1,000,000.00 based upon a cemetery ride for over an hour, during which time claimant was assertedly threatened with death by 'Russian roulette' and caused mental torture, is outside the intent of [the International Claims Settlement] Act," the commission wrote. Finding "not even a scintilla of primary evidence" in Bernie's favor, the commission gave him the same result for his property claims: absolutely nothing.
So began the second great struggle of Bernie's already-battle-scarred life: a simmering civil campaign not against Castro but against his own incredulous government.
Bernie eventually became one of almost 6,000 Americans with certified claims against the Cuban government totaling more than $8 billion. With talks underway about restoring diplomatic ties to the communist island, these debts could finally come due.
At 94 years old, Bernie is one of the few claimants left alive to collect. Yet he's also one of the least likely to cash in. He has been fighting for 56 years for the United States to acknowledge his ordeal, but the World War II vet feels ignored by his own government.
"They basically sided with Fidel," Bernie says. "This isn't about money or publicity. This is about morals. People in government should have ethics and, above all, honor. But these bums don't have any of that."
Like many of those forced out of Cuba, Bernie believed he wouldn't be gone long. He told his employees he was going on vacation. "We'll be back in six months," he said to his wife on the flight to Miami. Mireya wasn't so sure. Luckily, she had prepared for the worst. "Like any good Cuban, she was saving her money here in the U.S.," Bernie says.
With her money and his connections, the family quickly adapted to America. Bernie took over a friend's travel agency, which secretly sent Batista supporters back to the island. When word got out, however, Bernie's store began receiving bomb threats. Luckily, the agency was attached to a gun shop. Stocked with his own arsenal, Bernie didn't take the threats too seriously.
But Mireya did. So the family escaped town for a while by traveling to Spain and Portugal — a trip as much business as pleasure. Bernie needed a break, but he was also there to see someone: Fulgencio Batista. The ex-dictator was comfortably holed up atop a luxury hotel in Madeira. Still a man of many connections, Bernie had promised Batista's brother that he would speak to the exiled strongman. But when Bernie approached the hotel, a taxi driver told him Batista's suite was under 24-hour spy surveillance. So Mireya snuck up to the penthouse.
After a year in Europe, Bernie and Mireya returned to Miami. But it wasn't long before Bernie was back on a boat in the Caribbean. This time, he used his Navy contacts to start a shrimping company. He had four ships that scoured for crustaceans in the same seas he had once searched for Nazis.
In 1967, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission began hearing cases against the Cuban government. Two years later, Bernie filed his own claim against Castro for taking Cachet.
But if Bernie thought his old connections would be useful in court, he was wrong. The court didn't buy his claim that Cuban soldiers had stripped him of his contracts — the very documents he now needed to prove his ownership — or stolen his savings. Bernie submitted a dozen affidavits from everyone from Cachet clients to U.S. embassy officials, but it wasn't enough. The commission refused to certify his claim.
After two more years of lobbying and legal wrangling, Bernie seemed to have caught a break. The commission changed its mind. It certified his claim, but only to the tune of $79,333 — a far cry from the $8.7 million he sought.
For half a century, Bernie fumed over the decision. Even as he sent his kids to college, retired to his custard-colored high-rise on Collins Avenue, and celebrated his 90th birthday at a Las Vegas casino, he stewed over the double injustice of losing a fortune to Fidel and being laughed out of an American court.
A couple of years ago, however, he was futzing around on a computer when he came across something curious. It was a 2005 decision to allow new claims against Cuba. At the behest of Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission had opened a second round of claims. Five had been filed, most by megacorporations.
Bernie felt like he had been bilked. He had been arrested, imprisoned, pistol-whipped, and threatened with death in Cuba, yet the commission had largely dismissed his complaint. Now corporations — some of which had acquired assets in Cuba through mergers and acquisitions years after the revolution — seemed to be getting special treatment.
"The congresswoman went to big efforts to bring in these five corporations," Bernie says, "but they are fluffing me off."
Mauricio Tamargo, who was in charge of the commission at the time, denies that idea. He says that the five claims were all for property taken after 1972 and that only two were certified. As for Bernie's old claim, Tamargo says the commission was right to demand documentation.
"The commission had a responsibility to stick with the law and require proof of things," he says. "If they include claims that are not valid with claims that are valid, it will hurt their case when payment is demanded from the Cubans."
But Bernie is calling BS. He has written to Ros-Lehtinen, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Bill Nelson to demand a third round of claims so he can get his full IOU from Fidel Castro — so far without success. "If they can open up another round of claims for a corporation, then they can open it up again for me, a war veteran," he says. He has even filed a federal lawsuit demanding just that.
Bernie's claim battle is more than semantics. After 56 years of inflation, his $8.7 million claim would now be worth almost $70 million. (By comparison, his certified $80,000 claim comes out to $642,000.)
However much he is owed, Bernie has a much better chance of collecting now than he did six months ago. President Obama's December 17 decision to restore diplomatic ties to Cuba has put the issue of certified claims on the negotiating table for the first time, Tamargo says. (Raúl Castro recently countered, however, that the U.S. owes Cuba billions in reparations for the embargo.)
"The administration promises that these claims will be part of the discussion, and I'm hopeful that is the case," Tamargo says. "I am looking at a timeline of the next two years."
Bernie might not have that long. But that's OK. He's got a plan B.
Bernie says he waited for friends and enemies to die before sharing his story. Even now, however, he fears Cuban agents could track him down.
Photo by Michael E. Miller
Bernie Weiss hasn't been off Miami Beach in a while. When a reporter pulls up to his apartment building on Collins Avenue, the old man emerges into 80-degree weather wearing a gray sweater that reads "Rounding Cape Horn" across the chest. Penguins dance atop the South Pole on his stomach.
Bernie is in an exploring mood. Today's mission is to locate Felipe, Bernie's only surviving employee and the key to reclaiming Cachet.
"Felipe thinks we can go back to Cuba and get possession of the club," Bernie explains in the car. It would be an audacious plan for anyone. For two men with a combined age of 181, it's damn near impossible. But Bernie has a habit of defying the odds.
"You gotta be positive," he rasps as we pull onto the road. "Many doctors have asked me: 'What's the secret of life?' I give them this" — he motions for an imaginary doctor to come closer — "Don't die."
"What do I know?" he says, laughing. "You're a doctor."
Thirty minutes later, after a pit stop for pastelitos, we pull up to a small house just off Flagler Street. A wiry man with white hair and a handsome face meets us at the door. Felipe Diaz hugs his old boss and then makes cortaditos as three Chihuahuas nip at his ankles. "Felipe, Felipe, I wanted to come see you because it might be the last time we can," Bernie says in Spanish.
For three hours, the men trade stories about Cachet: the employees, the celebrities, and that chileno Batista had killed in the bar. More than anything else, however, they talk about Bernie's wife, who died a decade ago.
"She was the most beautiful of all — that's the truth," Felipe says. "For me, she was like a sister. She loved me."
"Mireya was a golden heart," Bernie says. "I prayed that she would be here, not me. My wish was for her to be 94."
Eventually, the conversation turns to the other great loss: Cuba. The news from Havana is mixed. Felipe and his wife were there three weeks ago. The good news is Cachet is still standing. The bad news is it's an empty shell. When Bernie left Cuba, he turned the bar over to Felipe, his manager. But Felipe couldn't stand to see the place torn apart, so he soon quit. (Now 87, Felipe followed his boss to Miami in 1995.) The doors were shuttered, the beautiful mahogany bar stolen.
"There is nothing left, just a white door with iron bars over it. The building is still there, but the awning is gone," Felipe's wife says. After a pause, she asks, "Bernie, don't you want to go back to Cuba?"
"Cuba is up here," he says, patting his white hair. "Cuba is in my head."
On the drive home, however, it's clear Bernie hasn't given up on the island, even if his conversation with Felipe has left him unsure of ever reclaiming Cachet. Fidel can't last forever, after all. Neither can the embargo. "Soon everything will be bulldozed," Bernie says. "Havana will be what it should have been: a real metropolis."
It's not lost on Bernie that 56 years after the Cuban Revolution, he and Fidel are nearly the only two participants left alive. In their old age, the enemies even look eerily alike.
But their visions for the island they both love couldn't be any more different. With Cuba now in ruins, Bernie believes the country would have been better off with bars like his.
"That's my story," he says, opening the car door. "And I'm sticking to it."
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