Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo today and yesterday: In a photo from January 1959, he displays a rifle as Fidel looks on appreciatively
Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo today and yesterday: In a photo from January 1959, he displays a rifle as Fidel looks on appreciatively
Steve Satterwhite

Our Man Back in Havana

Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo stunned his fellow Cuban exiles three weeks ago with an audacious maneuver in the quest for democracy on the island. He traveled from Miami to Havana for a vacation, then announced he was staying permanently and demanded permission from the Cuban government to open an office for his political group, Cambio Cubano www.cambiocubano.com. His gambit has left the Castro regime speechless and the most powerful anti-Castro exile organization, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), in a difficult position.

Any other Cuban exile most likely would have been jailed or booted from the country in a Havana minute, but Gutierrez-Menoyo has thus far avoided both, a testament to his impeccable credentials as a former revolutionary commander and his current role as an independent and nonviolent anti-Castro activist. His brother Carlos was a bona fide Cuban martyr who died in the legendary student-led assault on dictator Fulgencio Batista at the presidential palace in 1957. Menoyo, as he is commonly known, commanded 3500 rebel fighters in the Second Front of Escambray during the war against Batista's army, while Castro led the Eastern Front in the Sierra Maestra. When Batista fell, Menoyo led his troops into Havana ahead of Castro. Soon, however, Menoyo grew disgusted with Castro's totalitarianism, fled Cuba, and in 1961 formed Alpha 66, the anti-Castro commando group that garnered widespread attention and notoriety. Cuban troops snared him during a raid on the island in 1964. Castro spared him from execution but kept him in prison for 22 years.

Menoyo's résumé since his 1986 release from prison also shields him. He settled in Miami and for the next seventeen years consistently distanced himself from CANF and other exile groups that endorsed armed intervention, U.S. trade sanctions, Radio and TV Martí, and other forms of yanqui-backed confrontation with Cuba.

In 1993 he created a small political group named Cambio Cubano (Cuban Change), whose basic tenet is that democracy on the island must be achieved through dialogue and reconciliation. In July 1995, during a return trip to Cuba, he met for three hours with Fidel Castro and requested permission to open a Cambio Cubano office in Havana. Castro rejected the idea, and has not responded to Menoyo's repeated requests since then.

Menoyo grew tired of the wait. On August 7, at the end of a three-week vacation, the wiry 68-year-old made his move, surprising friends, foes, even family. While he has made no apparent progress in accomplishing his goals, he has provoked an unusual response from the Cuban government, which offered him a 90-day visa and a two-year multiple-entry visa. Menoyo, who is a Cuban citizen, rejected both. "The problem is that I haven't come to Cuba to ask for a visa," he explains by telephone from Havana. "I've come to stay in my country, because this is my country." Aside from asserting his right to return, Menoyo wants what he calls "legal space," in which the Cuban government would recognize Cambio Cubano as a legal opposition group. "That would include opening an office, of course, and opening offices in all the provinces," he says. In the "illegal space" dissidents currently occupy, Menoyo complains, the government "simply eliminates you when they feel like it."

At press time the Cuban government had not indicated whether it would accede to his demands, and no word of Menoyo's exploits had appeared in Cuba's state-controlled media. "But I have to recognize that up to now [Cuban officials] haven't acted stupidly," he reports. "Up to now it seems they've been analyzing my proposal very thoroughly and with much caution. That means there is hope, anyway." (Cuban government spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment.) His independence from both the U.S. government and exile groups with links to Washington is crucial to his success, he maintains. Otherwise he could not have been so brazen. "If I can take this step," he says, "it's because I maintain a real independent position, not a fictitious one."

Menoyo is staying at the Havana house in which he grew up. He says many friends and dissidents have come by to express their support and offer to let him stay at their homes. One coalition of (illegal) dissident groups, known as Arco Progresista (Progressive Arc), has circulated a statement to the international press backing Menoyo. The coalition is led by Manuel Cuesta Morúa, head of the Cuban Democratic Socialist Current. "It's a pretty respectable group of organizations," Menoyo notes, adding that he is avoiding political gatherings at the moment. "But for sure, when I get out of this situation I'm going to give Cuesta Morúa a jingle to thank him and at least meet with him."

Acquaintances from Miami, while on family visits to Cuba, have also come by to greet him. They are likely among the vast majority of Cuban Americans who believe that dissidents on the island must play a more important role than Miami's exile leaders in any transition to democracy. Menoyo himself has arguably become one of those dissidents.

Thus, he has forced the Cuban American National Foundation to assume an awkward stance. Over the past year CANF has tried to shift the focus of its anti-Castro struggle from Washington and Miami to Cuba. "The protagonist is not the foundation in Miami, it's the human-rights people in Cuba," CANF executive director Joe Garcia says. Yet the foundation does not consider Menoyo a legitimate human-rights protagonist and will not rally behind him.

A major reason for that: Many elderly exiles still loathe Menoyo for having once exposed an anti-Castro operation -- in August 1959, 44 years ago. "There are people who are dead because of that," Garcia explains. "There's a very big difference between someone who fights against a dictatorship as opposed to someone who's supporting it."

In certain quarters of el exilio, it's not enough to have been a founder of Alpha 66 and to have spent 22 years in Cuban prisons. Resentments endure. "That's what happens in the exile community -- we start talking about things that happened 45 years ago," Garcia says with evident frustration. "It's ridiculous. It has no relevance."

There are other reasons CANF does not support Menoyo. For one, the foundation is opposed to talks with Fidel Castro, unlike Menoyo. For another, Menoyo "is dangerous for the dissidents because he may take away the spotlight that they have so deservingly earned from the exile community and from the world," says Garcia.

"It sounds like sour grapes to me," observes William LeoGrande, a Cuba-policy expert and dean of American University's School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. "It doesn't seem to me that [Menoyo's return] takes the focus off the dissidents. If anything you could argue that by going back and trying to organize oppositional activity on the ground that he's in effect picking up the baton."

Menoyo simply doesn't understand Garcia's concern. "Well, I don't know what poor Joe could be referring to because he knows absolutely nothing about Cuba," he says from Havana. "Take away the spotlight? I think an independent opposition could provide total light."

Garcia does concede that Menoyo "is dangerous for Castro" because allowing the Cambio Cubano leader to stay could set an example for other pro-democracy activists to follow. "What does Castro do?" Garcia muses. "If he coordinated this with Menoyo, Castro is still taking a risk because Menoyo is not particularly known for his loyalty. And if he didn't coordinate it, it still sets a dangerous precedent for Castro." Castro has two options, according to Garcia: "One is to kick him out, and the other is to use him to wipe out the internal dissident movement. In other words, to make Menoyo the focal point."

Menoyo scoffs at the idea he is conspiring with Castro. The government's first reaction, he says, was one of "displeasure" and "irritation." But Menoyo can't be bothered by his hard-line critics in Miami. "Right now they seem super-distant," he says. "The extreme right is never going to support me because I don't represent the extreme right.... I must keep my five senses focused on what I'm doing now."

Even though he believes he enjoys popular support, Menoyo says now is not the time for a few thousand like-minded exiles from Miami to follow his lead in returning to Cuba and refusing to leave. "I think the correct thing would be for them to let this unfold and develop fully," he advises, "because definitely what I'm asking for is the right of all Cubans to freely enter and leave their country without needing a visa. In that regard, one needs to be calm and wait to see what the government of Cuba decides." Then he adds: "Wish me good luck. I'm going to need it."

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