Cuban Painters and Fugitives

The lobby of the exclusive Big 5 Club in Fontainebleau, on SW 92nd Avenue near Calle Ocho, glowed under an eight-tier chandelier and was decorated with Oriental rugs and silk flowers one night last week. About 100 invitees — Bay of Pigs veterans, former guerrilla leaders, and Ana Margarita Martínez, the former wife of a Cuban spy — mingled there.

They wore guayaberas, grandma-helmet hair, and high heels while chatting in Cuban-flavored Spanish and English and settling into overstuffed couches.

About 40 paintings, mostly landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, lined the walls behind them. There was one oil painting of a blood-splattered José Martí; another of a boy and an old man hawking lottery tickets; one of a papaya; another of wine and fruit placed on a table; and a fifth of a fishing village.

But this was not just any art opening. Thirty of the cuadros were created by 79-year-old Luis Posada Carriles, whom the Cuban government called "the bin Laden of the hemisphere" in May after a U.S. federal judge tossed immigration fraud charges against him.

Also on display were eight paintings by José Dionisio Suarez Esquivel, who was sentenced to 12 years in federal custody after a conspiracy conviction in a 1976 Washington, D.C. car bombing that killed a Chilean diplomat, Orlando Letelier, and his America colleague, Ronni Moffitt.

"It's one thing to be an artist and another thing to be a politician or a bomber or a terrorist or whatever," says Gary Nader, owner of Nader Fine Art in Wynwood. "I don't think [their notoriety] will make the paintings any more valuable."

Notoriety indeed. The Cuban-born Posada holds a militant anti-Castro stance that dates at least to his participation in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The onetime CIA operative was later accused of planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban plane that killed 73 people, a rash of bombings of Havana hot spots in 1997, and a plot to kill President Fidel Castro. Posada was arrested in Venezuela for the plane incident, escaped prison in 1985, and was acquitted twice. While he was in South America, Cuban exiles financially supported him. In 2005 he sneaked into Miami via Mexico and publicly announced he would seek asylum, before immigration agents collared him.

At the time, Posada stated his desire to paint in peace: "I'm doing paintings and I am selling them very well," he told the Miami Herald. "That gives me enough to live on. I have no major aspirations."

Now age 68, Suarez pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in the assassinations of Letelier and Moffitt. Federal prosecutors claimed he and Virgilio Pablo Paz Romero were members of an anti-Castro group in New Jersey recruited for the job by Chilean secret police. Upon his 2001 release, he moved to Miami and started a house-painting company.

Both men turned to art while maintaining their innocence and sitting in jail. Posada has had more time to practice. He began sketching around 1970 and honed his skills in Venezuelan prisons. He sometimes gave his work to exiles who sent him cash, says Enrique Encinosa, a 58-year-old on-air personality for Radio Mambí and obsessive chronicler of Cuban history. "For many years, a lot of homes in Miami had paintings by Luis Posada," he reports. "I have two."

Enrique and his wife, Ilia Rosa, have encouraged Posada and Suarez to pursue their passions. The couple left Cuba as children. Enrique arrived in 1961, and she arrived the next year on a Pedro Pan flight. They met as college students while in an anti-Castro activist group. Their first date was a demonstration.

Last week's exhibition was Suarez's first major show and Posada's second. Enrique, Ilia Rosa, and other exile friends organized it. "I did this because I wanted to help Luis, but I also wanted to help Dionisio," says Ilia Rosa, a polite 57-year-old woman with light red hair and a glittering gold-string necklace. "I also think his work is very good."

Suarez hasn't had the time to develop like Posada, she says. "I think Luis has more of a natural talent."

She helped stage Posada's first show last spring at La Casa del Preso in East Little Havana. In addition to dozens of his paintings, the show featured 10 from Orlando Bosch, who was accused of being a Posada cohort in the 1976 explosion of the Cuban plane. At last year's show, 127 of Posada's paintings were sold; only a handful remained when it ended. "He sold over $30,000 in paintings that weekend," Enrique says.

Both men's work is what some in the art world might call "primitive." They weren't formally trained or forced to spend hours in an art museum with a sketchpad wedged into their laps, trying to emulate some dead guy's brushstrokes. "When you're in jail, you've got to find something to do," says Ilia Rosa.

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Janine Zeitlin