Castro's Birthday Bash

A ringing telephone awakened Norberto Fuentes just after dawn on a Saturday morning this past August. The acclaimed Cuban author couldn't imagine who would be calling so early, but because his telephone number was unlisted, he assumed it would be someone he knew. When he picked up the receiver, however, he instantly realized he was wrong. A man's low voice growled in Spanish: "We're going to kill you and your family members."

Throughout the morning on that day -- August 31, 1996 -- the phone continued to ring, and every time the 51-year-old Fuentes or his wife answered it, they were met with another threat or an insult. They had no idea how these anonymous callers might have gotten their number, or why they were being subjected to such intimidation. Finally, about noon, a friend called and explained that an article in that morning's El Nuevo Herald had included Fuentes's name among an exclusive list of people who purportedly had been invited to Fidel Castro's recent 70th birthday party. Inexplicably, the paper had published Fuentes's unlisted telephone number along with his name.

Confronted with that incredible piece of information, Fuentes wasted no time. He, his physician wife, and their six-year-old daughter immediately fled Miami and went into hiding at a friend's house in Key West. Having unwittingly provoked the vicious side of Miami's Cuban exile community, evacuating to Key West may have seemed more like punishment than refuge. Certainly it bore haunting similarities to his desperate escape from Cuba just two years earlier.

The author of several books, including the highly regarded biography Hemingway in Cuba, Fuentes was a member of Cuba's intellectual elite for many years; in 1968 he won the nation's top literary prize. His fortunes took a dive, however, during the scandalous 1989 drug trials of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, Col. Antonio "Tony" de la Guardia, and de la Guardia's brother Patricio. Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia, both of whom were executed, were among Fuentes's closest friends.

Guilty by association, Fuentes found it increasingly difficult to work, especially to travel outside Cuba for research and conferences. By October 1993 the frustration had overcome him, and he and several others attempted to flee the island in a rubber raft. They were caught, and Fuentes was sent to prison. His incarceration prompted the renowned writers' organization PEN to come to his defense, and after luminaries such as John Updike, William Kennedy, and Norman Mailer attached their names to the cause, Cuban authorities released Fuentes -- though they did not allow him to travel outside the country.

By August 1994 Fuentes was suffering systematic and pervasive harassment by state security forces. In response he openly denounced the Castro regime and began a hunger strike, which he vowed to continue until he received permission to leave the country legally. His dramatic action instantly drew international attention and precipitated direct contact with El Nuevo Herald in Miami.

Fuentes spoke to reporter Armando Correa from his Havana apartment, announcing his hunger strike and lambasting the government. Then Fuentes dictated another article about his plight for publication in El Nuevo Herald (the piece was also published in the Miami Herald), and a second article by Correa appeared fourteen days into Fuentes's fast.

The sympathetic publicity elicited more outrage abroad, and eventually Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who wrote the prologue to Hemingway in Cuba) prevailed upon Fidel Castro to let Fuentes leave. Accompanied by Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, along with his wife and daughter, flew to Mexico on August 26, 1994. From there he came to the United States, where he was granted political asylum. The family settled in Miami, where Fuentes continued his cooperative relationship with El Nuevo Herald.

The article Armando Correa wrote in late August of last year concentrated on the man who hosted an "intimate" party in celebration of Fidel Castro's 70th birthday. The host, author Pablo Armando Fernandez, spoke with Correa from Havana two weeks after the August 13 event, to which artists, writers, filmmakers, former diplomats, and bureaucrats from the ministry of culture were invited.

According to Correa's account, Fernandez didn't really expect Castro himself to show up, but el comandante did in fact appear, along with an entourage that included Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage. Correa infused his article with an ironic tone, allowing Fernandez to gush about the thrilling presence of Castro at his home in the exclusive seaside neighborhood of Miramar and having him repeat with self-satisfaction the "poetic" toast he had made in honor of the Cuban leader. Among others quoted in the article was Norberto Fuentes in Miami, who knows Fernandez well and whose comments clearly indicated his disdain for Castro and his government.

Accompanying the story was a sidebar headlined "Some of Those Who Attended." It contained the names and occupations of some of the people Fernandez said he invited to his party. A subsection of that list carried a separate explanatory note that read: "Los que estuvieron en el cumpleanos de Fernandez en 1990 y que no pudieron estar en el de Castro..." ("Those who were at Fernandez's 1990 birthday party and who couldn't be at Castro's..."). The reference to Fernandez's 1990 party was drawn from a scene in the main article in which Castro attended the celebration of Fernandez's 60th birthday. Fuentes also attended that party.

Much less clear, however, was the reference to those "who couldn't be at Castro's" birthday party. A list of names followed, including two people who were described as deceased and four who were living in exile. Fuentes's name was there. So was his unlisted home telephone number.

Correa's intent remains unclear (he did not return calls seeking comment for this article), though one reading of the list would suggest it was meant as a joke -- dead men and exiles who've broken with Castro would not be likely to accept Fernandez's invitation, much less to fly to Havana for the party. But regardless of intent, the reaction among some readers of El Nuevo Herald was swift and unambiguous: Norberto Fuentes, they apparently thought, would have attended Castro's birthday festivities if he could have, and that was all they needed to know. The phone rang off the hook, the threats poured forth, and the family fled.

From his hideout in Key West, Fuentes made contact with an attorney who wrote a letter to El Nuevo seeking an explanation. A few days later publisher Alberto IbargYen responded in writing with an apology. "The list we originally obtained had a number of past and present telephone numbers," he wrote. "It was our intent to delete all numbers. In fact, all numbers but Mr. Fuentes's were deleted. It was an oversight, an inadvertent error, that his was not." Ibarguen went on to express regret and to stress that neither Correa nor El Nuevo Herald intended any harm to Fuentes.

Despite the apology, Fuentes filed suit last month against the Miami Herald Publishing Company (which publishes El Nuevo Herald) and Armando Correa individually, charging libel and invasion of privacy. Fuentes's attorney, G. Luis Dominguez, refuses to allow his client to speak directly about the incident, but he argues that the paper implicitly characterized Fuentes as a Castro confidant by suggesting he had been invited to the party. "In order to be invited to Fidel Castro's birthday party," Dominguez says, "you have to be among the most trusted people. Norberto Fuentes has never been invited to Castro's birthday party, or any of Castro's parties." According to Dominguez, Fuentes is worried that being perceived as a Castro supporter might adversely affect his wife's chances of finding work in Miami as a doctor, and could also affect the fate of his latest project, a book about the De la Guardia-Ochoa executions. El Nuevo's Alberto Ibarguen will only repeat that the publication of Fuentes's telephone number was "an unfortunate error.


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