Anti-Castro commandos like these, photographed in the mid-Nineties, sometimes actually go ashore
Anti-Castro commandos like these, photographed in the mid-Nineties, sometimes actually go ashore
Courtesy Jesus Hoyos

Spies in Miami, Commandos in Cuba

On June 20 a Cuban Interior Ministry official revealed some startling news on Cuba's state-run television show Mesa Redonda. Three Miami-Dade residents had been under arrest on the island since April, he reported, for boating to the island from points unknown and going ashore with AK-47 assault rifles, an M-3 carbine rifle fitted with a silencer, and three semiautomatic Makarov pistols. The incursion by Ihosvani Suris, Santiago Padron, and Maximo Padrera gave Fidel Castro, who participated in the television program, yet another opportunity to portray the Cuban-exile community as a morally corrupt hive of right-wing terrorism.

The situation also presented Miami exile groups with an opportunity to dispel a nasty stereotype: that Cuban exiles accept, condone, and promote violent acts aimed at destabilizing the Castro regime. This unsavory image percolated for six months at the federal trial of five Cuban spies. Jurors redeemed the exile community in June when they convicted the spies on an array of espionage charges. Defense lawyers argued that their clients' undercover work was justified in order to protect their homeland. They cast some exile groups as provocateurs and others as saboteurs, assassins, and terrorists. A variety of Cuban-exile organizations and radio talk-show hosts expressed outrage at that depiction.

Even acting U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, an Anglo from Tennessee, shared the indignation. "As you know, one of the tactics that was used during this case was to put the Cuban-American community itself on trial," Lewis pronounced at a news conference after the verdicts. "José Basulto was tried. Brothers to the Rescue was tried. The Cuban American National Foundation was put on trial. The Democracy Movement organization was put on trial. Let me say here and now that I believe the jury, by their verdict, has strongly and vehemently rejected this tactic. It was nothing more than a diversion that was unfair, inappropriate, and in my measured judgment simply unconscionable."

With the exile groups thus vindicated, it would now be perfectly fair, appropriate, and conscionable for them to reject anti-Castro terrorism the next time it occurred. It would also make good political sense. By establishing their nonviolent credentials, exile leaders could trump the Castro regime on moral grounds. The credible claim that Cuban Americans delivered Florida and thus the presidency to George W. Bush last November helped their chances of persuading his administration to indict Castro for the 1996 shootdown and death of four Brothers to the Rescue members. Here was a chance to fortify their position by demonstrating they could also add moral consistency to the equation.

But exile leaders reacted to news of the April incursion with silence or ambiguity. Then the issue seemed destined to disappear amid a flurry of news about Castro's June 23 fainting spell and the campaign to indict him. In an effort to facilitate clarity, New Times put the following questions to the three groups Lewis said had been maligned at the trial -- the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the Democracy Movement, and Brothers to the Rescue:

1. Does your organization condone incursions into Cuba by armed individuals? If so, why? If not, why not?

2. Does your organization condemn such actions? If so, why? If not, why not?

3. Would your organization condemn the actions of a group of three Miami-Dade residents reported to have sailed to the Cuban coast this past April armed with AK-47 assault rifles, one M-3 rifle with silencer, and three Makarov pistols, were these actions to be verified?

4. Will your organization publicly condemn such actions, should individuals opposed to the Castro regime carry them out in the future?

Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez said that although his organization does not condone armed incursions, it does not condemn them either.

1. "Although we respect the right that everyone has to choose their own strategy and method to struggle against a dictatorship that destroyed their country, their family, and their lives, we certainly do not favor in any way armed incursions into Cuba or any type of violent activities to end a dictatorship over there."

2. "We do not condemn a person who attempts to end conditions that oppress his people, his family, and himself. What we do is try to persuade them that there are other ways that are a lot more humane, productive, and effective to change those conditions. But I cannot condemn somebody who is willing to risk his or her life for the well-being of other people, even if I disagree with the method they are employing."

3. "I don't have enough information about them to give you an opinion regarding that specific case. I don't recognize any of their names. Their names and their faces are totally new to me. I don't even know what they did, so I cannot form an opinion on that."

4. "There are violent activities that I do definitely condemn with all my strength, even if they are done to obtain the high goal of freedom for people. For example, to take a boat to Cuba and shoot from the beach at a hotel -- I consider that an act of cowardice. A conventional encounter with the army is a different issue. If somebody landed in Cuba with weapons to try to overthrow Fidel Castro, although I would not do that and would try to discourage such people, I cannot condemn them."

Brothers to the Rescue leader José Basulto reiterated his organization's commitment to nonviolent struggle but also refused to condemn the armed actions of others.

1. "We're a nonviolent organization and we sponsor and propose to have people to use nonviolence as a form of changing the government on the island. We believe it's much more effective. It doesn't leave scars like violence does."

2. "We have stated our position clearly, and we do not think that [condemnation] is the way to go. We don't like to be used to antagonize groups here. It doesn't lead to any good result."

3. "That is a speculative question and it's not for me to answer. It's not our position to judge anybody here for what the government of Cuba alleges happened. We're not here, as I said, to antagonize anybody that thinks differently than we do."

4. "We propose nonviolence. That's what we have been sponsoring all along, and if others want to govern themselves otherwise, it's not our business to do anything about it. If others do otherwise, take it up with them."

When first contacted for a response to the incursion, CANF executive director Joe Garcia said the question was tantamount to a brother being asked to respond to scurrilous charges that his sister was a child abuser. "Do I think that people have the right to fight for their liberty? Absolutely," he said. He later declined to reply to the specific questions. Instead he insisted on providing this response: "The foundation is against terrorism. Period. No more, no less."

Not only are exile organizations not condemning violence, they are still raising money for practitioners of it.

Two of the Miami area's most prolific sources of anti-Castro vitriol -- Radio Mambí WAQI-AM (710) and La Poderosa WWFE-AM (670) -- held on-air fundraisers June 23 and 24 to generate money for four exiles currently jailed and awaiting trial in Panama. The quartet -- Luis Posada Carriles, Guillermo Novo Sampoll, Gaspar Jimenez Escobedo, and Pedro Remón Rodriguez -- are under arrest for plotting to kill Castro during this past November's Ibero-American Summit.

The man who spearheaded the fundraising is Santiago Alvarez, a Hialeah-based developer whom the Cuban government accuses of organizing the assassination attempt. Alvarez denies his four friends in Panama were plotting to kill Castro, but he backs armed struggle in Cuba. "I think to free our country we Cubans have to fight for it, have to sacrifice for it, and if any blood is going to be spilled, it has to be ours," he declares. "I don't see any other way to get the Castro regime out of there. I don't think you will ever get anything out of negotiations." (Alvarez says he has a "certain responsibility" for the April incursion into Cuba but refuses to elaborate on his role.)

The detainees in Panama all have prior criminal records and indeed some have boasted about their violent anti-Castro endeavors. In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Posada took credit for planning six bombings at Havana hotels and restaurants during 1997 that killed one person and injured eleven. He also told the paper that CANF financed the operation but later retracted that statement. (Posada has a notorious history of violent anti-Castro activity. He was imprisoned in Venezuela for the bombing of a Cuban jet in 1976 that killed 73 people. He escaped in 1985.)

In February 1986 Remón pleaded guilty to participating in a 1979 bombing in New York which was aimed at (and missed) Cuba's United Nations ambassador. Novo was convicted in the 1976 murder of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C., but acquitted after an appeal. Jimenez was indicted for the 1976 bombing that destroyed the legs of Miami journalist Emilio Milian, but the U.S. Attorney dropped charges in 1983, citing a lack of evidence. In 1981 the United States deported him to Mexico, where he was imprisoned for involvement in the killing of a Cuban government official in Merida. He was released in 1983, after his sentence was reduced, and he returned to Miami.

The fundraising campaign featured a taped telephone call from Posada and Remón. A weary-sounding Posada thanked his brothers in Miami for their support. Because he was not well, he said, he was now turning the phone over to Remón to read the rest of the message for him. It began with a prayer that "the power and will of God would make possible the liberation of our beloved fatherland.

"Each day the tyrant approaches his demise," Remón continued. "Together we will shorten the time, and we will conquer the freedom of our fatherland.... We want to take this opportunity to thank you profoundly for your brotherly support. Please send your support and correspondence to Fondos para Defensa Detenidos en Panama [Defense Fund for the Detained in Panama], care of Santiago Alvarez."

Brothers to the Rescue is not involved in the defense-fund campaign. Ramon Saul Sanchez says that during the Democracy Movement's weekly radio show on La Poderosa, he asked listeners to contribute. Sanchez calls Pedro Remón a friend.

Before embracing nonviolence in the late Eighties, Sanchez went to prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the 1979 U.N. bombing case. "Regardless of whether we agree with his methods, we defend his right to be represented by a competent attorney before the law," Sanchez explained, "especially when you have Fidel Castro trying to get him back to Cuba, where he most likely would be executed."

CANF executive director Joe Garcia says his organization is not endorsing or contributing to Alvarez's defense fund but added that some foundation members may be helping privately.


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