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March 1995

Casablanca on the Caribbean: Cuba in Transition

For most of December, every room in Havana's grand Hotel Nacional was booked. At any hour the stately lobby, fraught with activity, looked like a scene from Grand Hotel, although the diverse and hilarious cast of players more often resembled characters out of Room Service. In addition to the Solidarity Conference, a gathering of more than 3,000 delegates from some 150 countries, representing virtually every known and unknown worker's group in the world, Cuba was hosting its annual film festival, a symposium on biotechnology, and a conference on homosexuality. Plans were also disclosed for an international conference on the subject of AIDS in Cuba to be held in Havana in May.

In the course of one evening in the lobby of the Nacional, I bumped into the German film star Hanna Schygulla, arranging her program of kitschy German cabaret songs for the opening night of the film festival, a black Cuban transvestite in an evening gown, several prominent American businessmen who made only the feeblest efforts to conceal the fact that they were doing business in Cuba, film director Stephen Frears with his entourage, Tom Brokaw and his NBC crew, and Fidelito Castro. The 45-year-old Fidelito bears the distinction and burden of being Fidel's eldest child as well as the cousin of the bellicose Miami congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who advocates, among other measures, a naval blockade of the island. Presumably rehabilitated after his disastrous supervision of Cuba's now defunct nuclear-reactor program, Fidelito has always been regarded as Castro's favorite, although he is only one of many progeny. "Miami is filled with women who went to bed with Fidel," says film producer Rosario Moreno, who left Havana in 1963, "but Fidel only married Mirta [Diaz-Balart]. Her family was 100 percent for Batista, so I think he really loved her."

Today, "la mujer de Fidel," as she's called on the island, is Dalia Soto del Valle, a red-haired beauty approaching her 50s, who has shared a home with El Comandante for more than 20 years and borne him five sons. As for the infamous Alina Fernandez Revuelta, the offspring of Fidel's brief romance with Natalia Revuelta, who defected to the United States last year, life has proved as difficult for her in Miami as it was in Havana. Her public utterances about her love life have been greeted with embarrassment by some in the prudish exile community, while her accusations on Larry King Live that some of the balseros, or boat people, fleeing Cuba were carrying materials for germ warfare, stunned virtually everyone else. Nevertheless, she has reportedly negotiated a $1 million advance on her life story.

About an hour after I landed in Havana, the day after Thanksgiving, I went to what the Cubans call the Teatro Carlos Marx. Onstage, flanked by the entire Cuban politburo, Fidel Castro was delivering the oratorical wrap-up for the weeklong Solidarity Conference. The 68-year-old leader was predictably blasting US imperialism and its 33-year-old embargo. "They euphemistically call it an embargo," he boomed, "but it's a war!" He shot off some particularly salty salvos aimed at the recent U.S. elections, Proposition 187, and Michael Huffington and his ill-fated, hugely expensive senatorial run. "It takes $25 million to participate in this so-called democracy," he cried with mock disbelief before dismissing the elections outright. "Only 38 percent of the people decided to vote. The others said, `I'm going to the beach,'" he joked, play-acting to the roar of the crowd, "or `I'm going to the movies,' or 'I'm going to take a nap.'"

Most of El Maximo's 100-minute monologue covered the usual turf; "the triumphs of the revolution," followed by "the enemies of the revolution." Since this was the third Fidel speech I had listened to in the last year, my mind was drifting when I heard an alarming alteration in the rhetoric and bolted awake. Not only were the leaders of the revolution targets of U.S.--backed assassins in the past, Fidel thundered, but they continue to be now. "This is not an old war," he charged, "the war is ongoing. Nobody thinks that this is a thing of the past, this is a very real thing, a dirty war, with plans for the infiltration of armed mercenaries to kill and sabotage." As Castro exited the stage, to a tumultuous standing ovation more typically generated by rock stars, it was evident that he was wearing a bullet proof vest under his olivos verdes.

The next day I made some inquiries as to the level of counterrevolutionary activity in Cuba. While everyone I talked with was buzzing over Castro's allusion, no one had heard or read about any plots. Perhaps it was merely a hyperbolic dose of Fidel paranoia and propaganda. Then I contacted a woman I will call Marta, a consistently reliable source with several family members in the highest levels of the Cuban government, who assured me that indeed there had been a very serious attempt on Fidel's life last spring. According to Marta, on the morning of April 21, five men with machine guns surrounded Castro's car as he pulled away from his home in the Havana suburb of Atabey. They did a lot of damage to the car, but Castro emerged unscathed. His chauffeur, however, was wounded in the arm and was rushed to CIMEQ, Havana's finest hospital, which caters to government VIP's. According to Marta, all five would-be assassins were instantly obliterated in hail of weapon fire from the security car immediately behind Castro's. "It was a suicide mission," concluded Marta.

Evidently, the government decided to keep the entire incident a secret, most likely in order not to divert attention from the much heralded exile conference, a gathering of 200 Cuban exiles self-described as moderates, scheduled to begin the next day in Havana. The day before the assassination attempt, however, a rumor that Fidel was either dead of natural causes or assassinated swept through Cuba, Miami and other parts of the world. As far as anyone can make out, the rumor was broadcast in Cuba over La Voz de la Fundacion, the Miami-based radio station of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and the mouthpiece of the controversial Miami tycoon Jorge Mas Canosa, who has made no secret of his ambitions to topple and replace Fidel Castro. At the time, most Cuba observers assumed that the rumor was created to draw attention away from the exile conference. The conference participants had barely left Miami for Cuba when the rumor hit the U.S. airwaves, first via WCMQ, whose news director, Tomas Garcia Fuste, is an ideological soul mate of Mas Canosa's.

How the broadcast rumors coincided so exactly with the alleged assassination attempt raises interesting questions. If anyone in Miami had had any interaction with the gunmen, it would have been in direct contravention of U.S. policy as contact with any group that advocates change in Cuba through violence is forbidden.

Last fall, Lee Tucker, who was then staff attorney with the Human Rights Watch Free Expression Project, received reports that Ninoska Perez-Castellon, the director of La Voz de la Fundacion, had allegedly played a message from Mas Canosa to the 30,000 balseros detained at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. U.S. government officials suggest that the message was to the effect that CANF would help the detainees reach the United States. Perez-Castellon denies having played any message in Guantanamo; she insists that she was there solely as a journalist.

Miami businessman Raul Masvidal, one of the founders of CANF, who later broke with Mas Canosa, talked to many detainees after they were released form Guantanamo in September. "Most of the detainees I spoke with were pretty well convinced that their new leader was going to be Mas Canosa and they were pretty depressed about it," reports Masvidal. "To most of us, Mas Canosa is worse than Castro, he's worse than Batista, he's worse than both of them wrapped together." Interestingly, two new bumper stickers appeared in Miami: MENOS CANOSA and NO MAS MAS.

Observers in both Havana and Miami have joked that Mas Canosa's message was in fact driving the balseros back home. More than 400 have dared land mines and sharks to escape from Guantanamo. "My son came in the other day and said Abel was back," reports one resident of Alamar, a dreary housing project outside of Havana, where 200,000 people live. "He swam home. He decided to try his luck with the sharks. My son said he was hanging out at a CDR [Committee for the Defense of the Revolution] party, and all the Cuban mamas were fattening him up. No one cares he left. Everyone is happythat he's alive." Interestingly, few Cubans seem to be paying attention anymore to the once feared and loathed CDR, whose primary purpose was to snitch on neighbors and friends. With the Cuban economy in free fall, everyone dabbles in the black market these days, thereby depriving the neighborhood police of any moral high ground or any opportunity to use blackmail.

Halfway through the 90's, Havana, full of vintage American cars, has the look of the 50's but has the feel of the movie Casablanca. The fact is, Cuba has become the unlikely promised land for a bizarre grab bag of American fugitives. Joanne Chesimard, the former reputed leader of the Black Liberation Army, who escaped from a state prison in New Jersey fifteen years ago, has reinvented herself as Assata Shakur, written her autobiography, and settled down in Havana, where she is something of a cult figure. Then there is arms dealer extraordinaire Frank Terpil, whose partner in crime, Edwin P. Wilson, is serving time in Pennsylvania for, among other things, selling plastic explosives to Libya.

But far and away the most interesting member of the fugitive crowd is Robert Vesco, the maverick financier who in 1972 was charged with allegedly looting more than $224 million IOS-- his Switzerland-based mutual-fund empire considered the largest case of fraud in the history of the Securities and Exchange Commission at the time. "And don't forget," boasts his son Danny, a Texas based businessman "that $224 million might be a $1 billion today." (Vesco's son has had his name legally changed to Danny Williams, but he is still known as Danny Vesco.) In 1972, Robert Vesco reportedly slipped an illegal $200,000 cash contribution into Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. Hunted zealously by U.S. authorities for the better part of twenty-two years, Vesco spent his first decade on the lam living it up primarily in Costa Rica and the Bahamas. But when the United States brought pressure on his hosts to show him the door, Vesco, his wife Patracia, and children flew into Cayo Largo, an island paradise off Cuba's southern shore. "We're a close knit Sicilian family," Danny Vesco jokes. "My parents got married when my Dad was seventeen." Cayo Largo locals report that Vesco took over an entire hotel for a month while he negotiated his deal with the Cubans.

Vesco first set up housekeeping in the high-security Havana enclave of the Hemingway Marina in 1982. Diplomats in Havana have estimated that his expansive lifestyle ran him about $50,000 a month, though some speculated that Vesco's real value to the Cubans - at least initially - was his know-how in circumventing the U.S. embargo in order to obtain goods and services. According to one source, Vesco shelled out $5 million to build an estate for himself in Cayo Largo. In exchange, Vesco gets the only thing that really matters to him: safe refuge from a world that has committed itself to throwing him in jail. Another perk for Vesco, says one source, is ongoing briefings concerning the identities of new personnel and Marines at the U.S. Interests Section-- roughly the equivalent of a Cold War embassy.

In 1985, when Fidel Castro was cornered into admitting that Robert Vesco was living on his island, he claimed that Vesco needed medical treatment, which is true up to a point. According to Danny Vesco, his father has a severe, chronic bladder condition, which has required close attention for twenty years. Several times a week, Vesco, who is fifty-nine, visits the CIMEQ hospital for treatment. Although he has his own security team, he has hardly been a hermit. In the past, Vesco was known to pilot his plane around Cuba as well as to Venezuela, Nicaragua, and even Grenada prior to the U.S. invasion in 1983. These days, habaneros routinely spy him breakfasting at the Hotel Comodoro and shopping at the dollar supermarket in Miramar, always with security guards on the lookout for U.S. Marines, who might kidnap him. One former Cuban aristocrat, who now struggles to make ends meet, remembers that she met Vesco at a party he hosted shortly before he moved from the Hemingway Marina. "I went with an Argentine art thief. A very big one," she says, matter-of-factly. "This man stole a Goya from the Prado. He knew Vesco."

A year ago, Danny Vesco contacted me about doing an interview with him and his father. Discussions went on for almost a year before the Vesco clan thought better of the idea. Nevertheless, in mid-December I decided to pay a visit to the Vesco home, a comfortable two-story white stucco house on the outskirts of Atabey, probably the choicest suburb of Havana, where many foreigners and VIP's live. Vesco moved there several years ago, when his presence in the Hemingway Marina became too well known. Several surveillance cameras were perched on the roof, but the gates of the chain-link fence that enclosed the place were wide open. A few ordinary cars, including a gray Honda Civic, were parked in the driveway. At one time, Vesco had been considerably more vigilant. According to one source, he was so distressed when burglars broke into the home of a neighbor that he paid to install a security fence and surveillance around her property.

An unsuspecting Cuban maid opened the door for me when I asked if Senor Vesco was at home. While she went to notify her employer of my arrival, I glanced around the house, which is as much an office as a home. Vesco's wife spends most of her time in Miami, and with the exception of some family wedding pictures, there weren't many homey touches. In fact, in the front hall was a table on which were half a dozen piles of manuscripts dramatically labeled PATENTS and SYNOPSIS, with a bold red CONFIDENTIAL stamp across them. Whatever, Robert Vesco is up to in his twilight years, it's certainly not retirement.

Later I would learn that while I was waiting in the living room Vesco was upstairs figuring out how to leave via the roof, convinced that I was part of a U.S. attempt to kidnap him. I was soon greeted by an affable woman who identified herself as Ana - followed by an unpleasant man who said he was a German who appeared to be in his mid-40s with salt-and-pepper hair. Barely suppressing his panic, "the German" alternately cajoled and threatened me to my "real" motive for being there. With his hand slicing across his throat to demonstrate his seriousness, he demanded to know, "punto a punto, paso a paso," how I had found the Vesco address, who was behind me, and how much the U.S. Interests Section knew. I left the incredulous pair with a pile of my Vanity Fair stories and suggested that they have Senor Vesco get in touch with me. That same evening, I had a visitor who said the family was "in shock" but would contact me down the road. A week later, when I paid a second visit to the house, Ana was considerably more relaxed, having decided that I wasn't a stealth U.S. Justice Department operative.

"It's not that I don't love you," Danny Vesco cooed into the phone after I returned to the States, "it's just that this isn't a good time." Indeed, the word in Cuba is that Robert Vesco's charm has worn thin with his hosts. Worse yet, his closest contact in the Cuban government, Tony de la Guardia, the high-flying Ministry of the Interior colonel who helped bring Vesco to Cuba and oversaw his affairs, was executed in 1989.

Antonio, the 21-year-old son of Tony de la Guardia, according to a source close to him, confirms that his father brought Robert Vesco to Cuba and set him up in the Cayo Largo mansion, with its own communications station and marina. The two swashbucklers, were by all accounts, very close. Antonio remembers sailing on Vesco's yacht as a child. Another source close to the de la Guardia's remembers Vesco's getting thrown into a Havana jail "for a short time," in 1988, when the Cubans believed that he had pocketed their share of a $7 million tobacco deal with Mexico. Danny Vesco dismisses these accusations as "pure fantasy."

According to Ileana de la Guardia, Tony's 31-year-old daughter, who lives in Paris, the relationship between the two men soured several years before her father's death. "Part of Vesco's deal was to bring in equipment from the U.S. for the Cuban sugar industry," she says. "In one of these operations, he embezzled $1 million from the Cubans. Vesco said it was the FBI who had detected and thwarted the operation, but the Cubans could not find out the truth. Still, the Cubans continued to help him. My father had big differences with the Cuban government, because he saw that Vesco wanted everything for himself and had not done right by them. He thought that Vesco was a bandit and that the Cubans should beware of him." [Dan Vesco denies all of these charges.]

According to Senate testimony in 1985, Vesco was a central player in a cocaine trafficking ring operating out of Nicaragua which shipped its goods to the U.S. He has been continually dogged by reports that he maintains an ongoing dalliance with the drug trade, a charge his son vehemently denies.

The great drug and corruption trials of 1989 - Cuba's biggest post-revolutionary scandal - ended with the execution of the dashing Tony de la Guardia, revolutionary hero General Arnaldo Ochoa, and two other top officials. Among those sentenced to 30 years in prison were de la Guardia's twin brother, Patricio, and five others.

However, many Cubans still believe that it was impossible for de la Guardia and Ochoa to be operating as rogue drug traffickers. Even some died-in-the-wool fidelistas shake their heads in disbelief that such a high-level operation would escape the attention of the omnipresent El Jefe. Yet when Castro boasts of having a drug-free country, he's not that far off, relative to other countries. Cuba has an alcohol problem, but there is little evidence or ancillary crime to indicate that it has a serious drug problem.

One well-placed source, who believes that the de la Guardias were acting at the government's behest, offers an explanation. "It's true that Cuba has no interest in drugs for drugs' sake," he says. "But Fidel is always shopping for more and better weapons. And in this hemisphere the arms business is controlled by the narco-traffickers. You cannot buy arms without dealing with the drug lords or their companies."

Before I left Cuba, I visited the parents of the de la Guardia twins. Mario, at ninety-four years, is housebound owing to a recently broken hip and a broken wheelchair, but his wife, Graciela, eighty-three years, never misses her weekly prison visit with son Patricio. A third son lives in New Orleans, but relations have always been chilly between him and the family, who stayed behind and supported the Revolution.

Even by Cuban standards, few families have sacrificed so much. Wealthy and privileged, Mario de la Guardia graduated from New York University in 1922. In 1944 he built the Miramar home that they live in today. "Our boys could run next door and play at the yacht club," Graciela reminisces about what was once Havana's most exclusive club and now serves as a recreation hall for military VIP's. When all their friends and relatives fled in the wake of Batista's fall, the de la Guardia's threw their lot and fortune behind Fidel and his ragtag barbudos. The handsome twins became the golden boys of the revolution, traveling freely around the world and enjoying perks known to very few - until their sudden, catastrophic fall from grace. To some, the de la Guardias are the poster family of Cuba, separated by exile, prison, and Cold War politics; one son is dead, another in exile, and a third in prison.

However, the plight of Patricio - who, according to his niece Ileana, was stationed in Angola and knew nothing of his brother's alleged drug dealing - is not a priority for either the Cubans or the Americans, who have little sympathy for any former fidelista. "Sure, we'd like to see Patricio get out of jail." one State Deartment official told, but he's not at the top of our list. We're interested in longtime dissidents like Sebastian Arcos and Yndamiro Restano." As I left the de la Guardia home, Mario pushed a tear from his face. "Try to do something," he said softly. "Try to help Patricio."

Other than for its cradle-to-grave health care and education programs [both seriously downgraded by the economic crash], Cuban Communism is virtually dead. With the U.S. dollar having all but replaced the Cuban peso as the legal tender of the country, the black market operating virtually in the open, and just about everyone selling or trading goods and services, Cuba is now a land of amateur entrepreneurs. Most habaneros say there is more food available this year than last and chalk it up to the very popular and successful farmers' markets. And with the government closing foreign-investment deals on everything from offshore oil drilling to cars to tourism with the Spanish, Mexicans, French, English, Germans, and Canadians, few Cubans doubt that they will soon have a full-blown private-enterprise system. Even Cuba's famed health-care system has been unable to resist the siren song of capitalism. The Frank Pais Hospital, run by the legendary orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Rodrigo Alvarez Cambras - who counts eleven world leaders, including Francois Mitterand, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi, among his patients - now offers "for pay" surgery to foreigners. Some observers believe that Fidel Castro, as he has no other cards to play, will move his country towards neo-socialism, using the Netherlands or Sweden as a model and offering health and education programs alongside a free- market economy.

Lee Iacocca spent part of July visiting the island, and Ted Turner frequently shows up. Hollywood producer Peter Guber, another recent visitor, reportedly wants to make the first American film in Castro's Cuba. For now, the Americans have to window shop. While CANF has threatened companies who do business with Cuba that they will not be doing it after Castro, no one takes this seriously. Still, if the embargo were to end tomorrow, American businesses would have to scramble for its piece of the pie. Spain has invested so much money in its former colony that Cubans joke about "La Reconquista."

Most authorities agree that Cuba has seen its worst days and is slowly crawling out of its economic abyss. Still, misery is not in short supply: a squatter's slum of refugees from Pinar del Rio huddled on the banks of Havana's Almendares River and packs of begging children [unheard of two years ago] lunging at tourists in the colonial jewel box city of Trinidad offer evidence that these are still tough times for Cuba. Doctors report desperate shortages of basic medical supplies such as aspirin, antibiotics, and insulin and a young couple I picked up hitchhiking on the autopista in western Cuba told me that they will risk their lives and flee next year in a boat first to Mexico, then over the U.S. border.

Amazingly, despite all the deprivations, the majority of Cubans still stand by their man. "It's your country's embargo," a 78-year-old black woman tells me in the city of Trinidad. "We like you Americans, but your country treats us bad." Many joke about what no one will admit in Miami - that Cuba is now a black country. Seventy percent of the population is either black or mulatto - up from 40 percent before the revolution. South Florida Cubans are 95 percent white, and the Cuban blacks who have fled there have fared far worse than their white counterparts. Observers agree that if there is any single "triumph of the revolution" it is race. Fidel Castro has created a seemingly color-blind society, perhaps the only one on the face of the earth. If this was a cold-blooded calculation, as cynics suggest, then it is one which has paid off handsomely for him.

Shortly before Christmas, the first independent Gallup poll of the Cuban people confirmed the accounts of many visitors to the island: 48 percent of those polled described themselves as "revolutionaries" in support of the government, an additional 21 percent defined themselves as Communists or socialists, and 43 percent said they were "very satisfied with their personal lives." Nearly half of those polled blamed the U.S. embargo, not their own government, for their economic woes.

"The U.S. embargo is the reason we still have Fidel Castro," a Cuban dissident and fierce government critic who wants to be identified only as Lazaro lectured me. "It's been his excuse and safety net for thirty-three years. And just when it was running out of steam and people were beginning to say, 'It can't be all the Americans' fault,' they come up with the Torricelli bill. Now we'll have to wait another thirty-three years." According to Lazaro, the Cuban government had a field day throughout 1992 propagandizing the impending Torricelli bill, which considerably tightened the screws of the embargo. "Normally about 42 to 45 percent would have turned out for our municipal elections," moaned Lazaro, "but the Torricelli campaign brought out more than 90 percent of the vote."

Although Bill Clinton cynically threw his lot in with hardline Cuban exiles to reap Florida votes he never got - first by championing the Torricelli bill, then by further restricting travel and remittances to the island at the behest of Mas Canosa and his allies - few in U.S. intelligence or the State Department have any illusions about the unmitigated folly of U.S. policy regarding Cuba. The word from the White House is to do nothing and pray that nothing happens. When I asked Dennis Hays, the State Department chief of Cuban affairs, how long he expected to see Fidel around, he responded gloomily. "I saw Fidel's brother Ramon at a cocktail party last week. He's seventy years old and looks fifty. That whole damned Castro family seems to live forever." I asked another former State Department veteran how long Fidel Castro would stay in power answered, "As long as he wants."


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