Vesco's Last Gamble
By Ann Louise Bardach
Outlaw financier Robert Vesco spent nearly 25 years on the run, becoming America's most famous fugitive. In a final twist of fate, his arrest last May was not by the F.B.I. but by agents of his longtime host, Fidel Castro, and the Vesco family is finally breaking its silence.
The end for Robert Vesco, America's most notorious fugitive, came not from a FBI SWAT team ambushing him in a cafe, or through an extradition request arranged by the U.S. Justice Department, or at the hands of a kidnapper or an assassin retained by one of his embittered creditors, but by order of his accommodating host of 13 years - the Cuban government.
Shortly after noon on May 31st last year, Vesco peered out of his livingroom window in the Havana suburb of Atabey - just a stone's throw from the residential compound of Fidel Castro - and saw four government cars parked in front. In a matter of seconds, 16 men, some in olive-green uniforms, spilled out of the vehicles, and headed for the house. Across their shirt pockets was written MINISTERIO DEL INTERIOR. Vesco shuddered. A savvy gambler, who had deftly eluded countless snares to capture him for 23 years, Vesco knew that something was terribly wrong.
Sprinting upstairs, he burst into the room of Donald Nixon, Richard Nixon's nephew, his longtime friend, business associate and houseguest of three years."He really looked worried. He said, 'just stay up here,"' recalls Nixon, who assumed that Vesco was about to have a business meetings with high-level Cuban officials. "All the meetings he ever had with government people, he would have me stay upstairs, because he kept me out of that loop."
But Nixon quickly discerned that something far more serious was up.Vesco handed him a piece of paper and said darkly, "If they take me away, call these numbers."
Then he disappeared downstairs.Nixon glanced down at the sheet of paper and saw the phone numbers of Ramon Castro, Fidel's older brother, known as Mongo, and who was a neighbor and friend of the Vesco family. .There were also numbers for Antonio Fraga Castro, Fidel's nephew, the director of Labiofam, one of Cuba's internationally esteemed biotechnology facilities, where Nixon and Vesco were developing a hoped-for wonder drug they called TX; Gloria Castro, then president of Labiofam, who is not related; and Vesco's oldest son, Dan.
Five minutes later there was a knock on Nixon's door. A colonel whom Nixon had seen with Vesco on several occasions instructed him, "Mr. Nixon, please come downstairs," -speaking politely, but as if they had never met. Downstairs, Nixon saw Vesco hovering by the desk in the office.
"They've got Bob standing there - everybody's surrounding him - and I come around and pass him. Bob doesn't say anything.Not a word. He looks totally stunned."
The only person present was Lydia Alonso, Vesco's 42-year-old mistress and colleague. Vesco did not speak to the officers or struggle, recals Nixon. "I said, 'what the hell is going on?' They said they're taking Tom away'"
Soon after his arrival in Cuba, Vesco had rechristened himself as Tom Adams, and even close friends and family referred to him as Tom."Then they sat me down and said, 'you're going to the Biocaribe (Hotel).You are going to take your clothes - nothing else.We want you to be our guest, and we're going to ask you some questions.Is that O.K.?"' Nixon nodded. He knew it was not a question.
Word of Vesco's arrest leaked out slowly. Not until mid-June did the government disclose to the foreign press that Vesco had been charged with "suspicion of being a provocateur" and of being "an agent for foreign special services." The news stunned the U.S. State Department, the C.I.A., and the National Security Agency.
Rumors spread furiously, notably one that the Cubans were prepared to offer Vesco to the United States as part of a deal. Then Fidel Castro announced that Cuba would never consider turning over Vesco to his longtime enemy, deriding such an action as "immoral."
'The Cubans never offered Vesco to us," one administration official told me two months after his arrest. "The only thing they asked was if we had any information on him in terms of U.S. law." I asked whether there was any substance to the espionage charges against Vesco. Was it possible that Vesco, in maverick James Bond fashion, could have been doing favors for his enemy as a double agent? The official had evidently been thinking along the same lines."We contacted the CIA and said, 'is it possible he's an agent' and the CIA said, 'No, he's not.' But when I worked in Guatemala, I'd routinely ask the CIA for information and they would always tell me that the person was not an agent ... and I'd find out later that they were."
As for Vesco, he said, "He would sell his grandmother, so it wouldn't surprise me to learn that other intelligence agencies had hooked up with him." As for any deal for Vesco, I suggested that the only exchange Castro would likely consider for giving up a prize such as Vesco would be the lifting of the U.S. embargo., "That's a deal we're not prepared to make," he said tartly..
Some Washington insiders speculate that many Republicans would just as soon never see Vesco again on American soil .After all, he was indicted in 1973 for making an illegal cash contribution of $250,000 to Richard Nixon's 1972 election campaign. In political circles, Vesco was known as Nixon's bagman, and some believe the amount was double or triple what was reported, and earmarked to finance the infamous Watergate plumbers. More to the point, former Attorney General John Mitchell and GOP campaign officials Maurice Stans and Harry Sears had met their political deaths partly because of their ties with Robert Vesco. Clearly, the GOP would not want to revisit the biggest scandal in their party's history, which Vesco's return would guarantee - especially in an election year. "Those people are so afraid of him coming back," says son Dan Vesco, "they wouldn't know what to do with him."
Few American outlaws have inspired as much mythmaking as Vesco, who according to a 1992 civil complaint brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, stole $224 million from his Swiss-based mutual fund, Investors Overseas Services (I.O.S.) - the equivalent of $800 million today. For two decades Vesco outwitted and humiliate d a multitude of pursuers- first slipping into the Bahamas in 1970, settling in Costa Rica from 1973 to 1978, then darting back to the Bahamas. As the world closed ranks against him, he found unlikely sanctuary in Nicaragua as the guest of the Sandinistas before forever turning his back forever on his country by fleeing to Cuba.
One State Department official likens Vesco to Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, "running the oldest, floating crap game," he says, adding, "the last time we had anything to do with Vesco was when we arrested some guy named James Feeney on bank fraud in the Caribbean in 1980.[Feeney's conviction was later overturned.] He said, 'You can't do that. I tried to kidnap Robert Vesco for you guys and almost pulled it off.' It turned out he was right. There was a caper to bring Vesco into some fraud deal through Canada, but Vesco got suspicious and sent a phony Vesco in his place, who was kidnapped and seized by federal agents."
James Wilkens, a boat mechanic and petty criminal, claims that in 1976 he was hired by Robert Fiske Jr. - then U.S. attorney in New York and recently a prosecutor in the Whitewater investigation - to assassinate Vesco. (In 1976, Fiske called the charge "preposterous.") After he was apprehended near Vesco's home in Costa Rica, the two men became friendly, according to both Wilkens and the Vesco family. By the late 80's, however, Vesco's outlaw shine had begun to tarnish. In 1989 a Jacksonville, Florida, grand jury charged him with drug trafficking in an indictment that alleged that Vesco served as a middleman for Columbian drug king Carlos Lehder in securing permission to fly planes carrying cocaine through Cuban air space."He had been a folk hero.bHey, he ripped off a quarter off a billion dollars, and he got away with it," says Dan Vesco."Now he was branded a bad-news drug dealer. .It was a disaster."
Perhaps the most persistent fable was that Vesco was living like a Saudi prince in Cuba, zipping between his beachfront mansions and his island getaways aboard his various yachts or jet. True, he had lived a life of luxury for two decades, but for the last three years, Vesco has been scraping to make ends meet.
"He told me that he was broke, that he could barely pay his rent [about $5,000 a month to the Cuban government]," says Donald Nixon.Another sources says that at the time of his arrest Vesco owed the Cuban government $50,000.Vesco told Nixon that he had had funds in a Russian bank with a branch in London, but that when Moscow's patronage of Cuba ended in 1990, his account disappeared.
In the fall of 1994 I paid the first of several surprise visits to the Vesco house, described as a "beachfront villa" in the New York Times. While it was in one of Havana's better neighborhoods, it would be considered commonplace in any upper-middle-class American suburb. A simple white shingled two-story house, it wasa few miles from the beach and ringed by a distinctly unglamorous chain link fence. In the driveway were two cars, an old Russian Lada that Vesco drove and a 1985 silver Civic Honda used by his wife, Pat, before she left the island three years ago to assist her ailing mother-in-law in Florida. On the first floor were a modestly furnished living room and office. Upstairs were three bedrooms. Some family photos were the only homey touches.
Shortly after his Vesco's arrest, I spoke with his son Dan. We had previously talked several times about my interviewing his father and the family. The answer was always np. It was not until Vesco landed in Cuba's most dreaded detention center, that the Vesco family considered speaking with a journalist.
I met up with Dan and his youngest brother, Patrick, who is 20, in Dallas in October .Dan, 42, is affable, gregarious and endowed with a deep, infectious laugh. He is a self-made millionaire, a fact that has attracted the attention of enforcement agencies and his father's creditors, who assume that he has either sheltered or had access to his father's money. Dan dismisses the charges.
After beating back several lawsuits, Dan changed his name to Dan Williams in 1987 to discourage such curiosity and did not revert back to Vesco until 1982. Nevertheless, he admits that his father's wealth did give him and his siblings a head start. "My father had set up trust funds for all the kids," he said. "Each of us got about $250,000." But Dan says his money soon went up in smoke."I went into the safe deposit box business when I was living in Florida.It was about the time they dropped the drug charges on Dad. My name became poison. My wife and kids left me. I was piss poor."
In the early 70s, he made and lost another fortune. His current wealth, he says, comes from investments in fitness clubs and furniture manufacturing."Danny has all the charm his father doesn't have," says one family friend."They're like 180 degrees apart. Dan is brilliant, maybe a hundred times more so than his father. Though he is now his father's staunchest champion, lobbying both the U.S. and Cuban governments on his behalf, their relationship has never been easy. "My father is a difficult man," Dan says. "He's very ambitious, a workaholic and a perfectionist - you could say a control freak who has to do things a certain way."
On June 23rd, Dan received a FAX from his father via his lawyer: "Dan, my health is okay for the moment."He also said, "you are now the head of the family." A student at
Lehigh University when his father fled the country, Dan always hoped that Vesco would resolve his legal problems and return to the States. From 1982 to 1987 Dan angrily severed all contact with his father over his decision to defect to Cuba. "Dad and I butted heads on a number of occasions," says Dan."In general terms, we have butted heads on all this bullshit for 20 years. I had been an advocate of settling this deal and making life normal.That didn't mean that I didn't support him, but I disagreed with his decisions."
Indeed, no one has ever really understood why Robert Vesco chose to abandon his country and become its most wanted fugitive. Robert Lee Vesco was born in Detroit in 1935 to an Italian-American father who worked on an auto assembly line and a mother of Yugoslav extraction - both FDR Democrats. According to Dan, Vesco frequently "butted heads " with his father, Donald Vesco who died in 1984. Vesco's mother, Barbara, 82, tells me in her living room in Orlando, Florida "Bob was always a real go-getter. He had goals." She contrasts his worldly ambitions with those of his older sister who became a psychologist. "He's got a temper," she says, then adds,"I'll just say he's hard-headed."
At 17, he dropped out of high school and married his neighborhood sweetheart, Patricia Melzer, who came from a conservative Republican family. Vesco, who started out as a draftsman, was later hired as a junior engineer at an aluminum company, and by the time he was 24 was a shareholder in another aluminum company. A pioneer Wall Street raider, Vesco accumulated his fortune by buying and selling cash-strapped companies.
A millionaire at 31, he moved his family of four children into a 54-acre estate in Boonton, New Jersey, replete with tennis courts, a pool, a stable, and a helipad.A passionate convert to Republican politics and Richard Nixon, he shrewdly retained Harry Sears, a Republican state senator, as his lawyer and soon secured a lofty niche as a backstage party power broker. Sears would become a key figure in CREEP, Nixon's re-election campaign committee. Vesco also met Maurice Stans, Nixon's finance chief, and John Mitchell, Nixon's campaign manager and later his attorney general. The Vesco family were VIP guests at both of Nixon's inaugural balls.
Though most Vesco watchers believe that he sealed his fate when he fled from SEC and civil charges in 1972, Vesco himself saw things quite differently. According to Dan, his father believed he had entered into a deal with Richard Nixon and the Republican Party and was simply fulfilling his part of the bargain. Vesco, says Dan, admitted making a $250,000 donation to Richard Nixon's CREEP fund, but he denies that it was meant to squelch the SEC investigation into him and IOS, which Vesco had seized from its founder, the flamboyant financier Bernie Cornfield."They wanted it in cash, and that was that," says Dan. (A curious footnote to the scandal, according to Patricia Vesco, was that when CREEP was forced to return the money, "the check bounced," and had to be re-issued.)
Vesco's subsequent flight to Nassau, according to his son, was as much to protect Nixon as himself. "I was actually in the room with him in our home in Costa Rica when he received the phone call that the verdict had come in not guilty against Mitchell and Stans. And he made the comment to me that they should consider the fact that he did not go up there and testify as another contribution to the Republicans," says Dan.
It was his father's understanding that Gerald Ford's first order of business, when he became president in 1974, would be to pardon Nixon and second would be to pardon Vesco. But as the Watergate scandal deepened, a Vesco pardon became unthinkable."He felt he had walked the distance for the President and the Republican Party," says Dan. "So he made the decision not to come back. He felt he had delivered on his end of the bargain and was betrayed by the U.S." (Former President Gerald Ford denies considering a pardon for Vesco.)
In 1972, Robert Vesco found the best friend he would ever know in Jose "Don Pepe" Figueres, then president of Costa Rica - a relationship solidified by a $2.1 million investment Vesco made in one of Figueres' companies.For the next six years, Figueres snubbed all extradition requests for his tycoon guest and even passed legislation known as the Vesco Law that guaranteed that Costa Rica would not extradite him.Vesco bought an estate in San Jose's most affluent suburb, a ranch, and a dairy farm. He kept his 137-foot yacht, The Patricia, in the Bahamas and his Boeing 707 in Panama, where he conducted some of his business.
When the Justice Department confiscated Vesco's jet and his yacht, Vesco turned to his Panamanian powerful friends - like Manuel Noreiga - to help him get the boat back. In 1975, Vesco dispatched a "limousine with Panamanian flags," according to Dan, to the South Florida marina where The Patricia was guarded by Pinkerton detectives. "They showed these official papers printed in Spanish to the Pinkertons who were guarding it, and they tried to call somebody, but it was a Sunday night and the judge was out of town - as planned," says Dan."So they pulled out to sea." For years, the yacht scam filled Vesco with glee. In the early 80s, when he met with a court-approved negotiator in the Bahamas to try to settle some of his financial problems, he was asked which of the boats in the marina were his. "What difference does is make?" he boasted."You can't hold onto them. I'm going to take them back anyway."
On July 22, 1972, President Figueres personally petitioned President Nixon to intervene in the SEC's complaint against Vesco."I am concerned that any adverse publicity emanating from the SEC against Mr. Vesco might jeopardize the development of my country .My son, Marti [whose brother is currently president of Costa Rica] recently met with your brother Edward [Donald Nixon's uncle], in New York through Mr. Vesco ... and we have extended to him an invitation to visit our country." And when the world locked arms against Robert Vesco, Figueres approached Fidel Castro on his behalf. Things got especially dicey for the American fugitive in 1978, when one of Figueres' successors won office on an anti-Vesco campaign. Soon the Vesco Law was revoked, forcing the fugitive back to Nassau. Consequently, when Dan married his Costa Rican sweetheart, he had to have two weddings, one in Costa Rica where "Don Pepe stood in for my father," and another in the Bahamas.
In 1982, when a crony of Figueres named Luis Alberto Monge took power, Dan was hopeful that his father could return to Costa Rica. But by then even the Bahamas had shut Vesco out, forcing him and Pat to seek sanctuary in Antigua briefly and in Nicaragua for nearly a year. The arrangement was negotiated by Figueres with the Sandinista minister of the interior, Tomas Borge, whom Vesco said "was honoring the revolutionary concept that the enemy of my enemy is my friend." When Vesco had been in Antigua, Dan masterminded his escape."With U.S. agents closing in on him, Dad was forced to flee Antigua on a private boat which dropped him off the coast of the island of St. Martin. After swimming the last 50 yards to shore, he left the island wearing a pilot's uniform in a plane, which was regularly chartered by the president of Mexico and bore the presidential seal. From Miami, where I had been living, I arranged for that aircraft to be waiting for him."
To achieve his father's return to Costa Rica (on the basis that Vesco had a Costa Rican -born son, Patrick) - Dan immersed himself in all manner of political finagling. Just three days after Monge took power, Vesco showed up at the San Jose airport. His premature arrival embarrassed and infuriated the new president who reacted by forbidding Vesco to even leave the airport. "Why not wait until the guy puts his toothbrush in the presidential palace?" says Dan incredulously, "On one level, it was an ego thing, but in his mind, it was a chess move - a message not really for Costa Rica, but for the U.S." Previously, Vesco had snuck back into Costa Rica through the craftiness of Figueres, "who sent two planes to pick up Dad in Managua and fly back to Costa Rica." One served as a decoy, the other headed for Figueres' hacienda where Vesco hid out until he returned to Managua.
"But that's not what pissed me off," says Dan. "I met with five or six ministers, then took this plane out of the country to a private landing strip in the woods used by the Sandinistas. Basically, Dad took the position that I wasn't doing enough for him.He came down pretty hard on me and then he announces that he's going to Havana! And I said, 'Give me a break! I'm living in Miami and you're gonna live in Cuba! Don't we have enough problems?' And I said, 'Fuck you, these are not my problems.'"
It took five years for Dan to calm down and then it was he, not his father, who initiated reconciliation in 1987. When I ask if his father e ver admitted to mistakes, he says, "I'll tell you the one time he told me he made a mistake. When he took over IOS, Meshulim Richlis [the international tycoon and an IOS shareholder] and my father had dinner in London, and Richlis offered to buy Dad out and take IOS from him at like a $10 million profit, and Dad said no. Ten years later, he said, 'I made a mistake. I should have sold it.'"
Patricia Vesco has a short bob of gray hair, pale skin, a smattering of freckles, and sharp blue eyes shielded by tortoiseshell glasses.Though she was once a Goldwater Republican, her years in Cuba transformed her. She says she returned to the States three years ago to care for her mother-in-law, making no mention of her husband's subsequent affair with Lydia Alfonso. She says, "I miss Cuba.The pace is so quiet and easy. From 1982 to 1985, Fidel didn't even admit we were there."
When Castro did admit that he was harboring Vesco, he denounced the U.S. for persecuting him, saying that Vesco was, "hunted like a dear through the world . . . We don't care what he did in the United States. We're not interested in the money he has." Pat Vesco says, "We weren't exactly under house arrest, but we had to cool it." When I ask her about the charges that her husband worked for the CIA, she laughs."If he was working for the CIA, then I'm going to apply for back pay and medical." I learn later that since her husband's arrest, she has been without funds, and Dan has lent her money to make ends meet.She says that the best days of her marriage were the "early days," adding quietly, "more money didn't make it better."I ask her if it was a difficult marriage.She hesitates, then says carefully, "He was demanding. Maybe that's the way to put it."
Donald Nixon met Robert Vesco in 1971 through friends of his father, Donald senior, a business executive.Donald had recently come back from serving a year and half in Vietnam.Long viewed as the black sheep of the Nixon clan, he was continually cautioned not to do anything that could embarrass his uncle, the president."A lot of people suggested that I leave the United States," he says with a trace of resentment. "Another election was coming up and I was doing things that I'd rather not discuss."
Even today at 50, Nixon has the demeanor of a hyperactive teenager, and Pat Vesco, refers affectionately to the Nixon-Vesco relationship as "25 years of baby-sitting." Vesco shrewdly saw the value of having a Nixon on his payroll, and offered him a job at IOS."I made introductions," says Nixon, "I opened doors for him."A Canadian company operated out of Switzerland, IOS at its peak in 1969 managed almost $3 billion, much of it "black money," meaning illegal funds. Dan Vesco says his father told him, "The weirdest one was this Egyptian general who smuggled his cash out by surgically implanting it in a camel."Vesco also told his son that among IOS's largest investors was the CIA, with $150 million in the mutual fund pool.(A CIA spokesperson responded:"We do not comment on such allegations.") Many ordinary, middle-class Americans, including GI's also invested in the fund.
For young Nixon, the relationship was heady, "He's a genius, " Nixon says, "He's always hands-on, total control of everything."On the downside, he says, "he pushes the limit-goes to the max always. We worked until we droppe. .It was the craziest, meanest, most wonderful time of his career."
When Vesco fled the country, Nixon went with him, to the dismay of his family."I lived with him in Costa Rica for a couple of years from 1972 on." But before Vesco chose the "untraveled road," to Managua and later to Cuba, Nixon, with his wife, Helene, and their son, returned home to California.For 14 years, he says, he and Vesco went separate ways.Then, in 1985, Helene was stricken with breast cancer. Following a mastectomy and chemotherapy, she was afflicted with crippling arthritis and given five years to live .In 1989, Nixon was introduced to a local doctor who had developed a drug later called Trioxidal, or TX, derived form the citronella plant, which Nixon claimed cured cancer. Soon after Helene began taking a daily dose, Nixon claims her arthritis disappeared, and she has remained cancer-free. Nixon decided to go into business with the doctor to market the drug, but after three years of resistance from what he calls "the cancer monopoly" he gave up hope for any clinical trials in the States. In late 1992, he contacted his old pal Vesco and suggested a partnership.
According to Robert Vesco's family and friends, the rapacious corporate raider found a previously unknown degree of contentment in Fidel Castro's island fiefdom.Nixon recalls telling Vesco, "'My God, you're stuck in Cuba.' And he said, 'I've got everything I want.' For him Cuba was a wonderful place."For the first time in his fugitive hood he felt safe from warrants and kidnappers.An empty lot across from his house in Atabey was in fact a lookout for his 24-hour security detail."Dad didn't get in the car and go for lettuce at the store without them being behind him," recalls Dan.As the years passed uneventfully, the security detail was reduced and the surveillance cameras Vesco had installed were turned off intermittently.According to Patrick Vesco, the house was burglarized on five occasions by local kids.
In the high-flying days of IOS, Vesco had made quite a name for himself with the ladies of the night.The English call girl, Norma Levy, whose association with two Conservative Cabinet ministers precipitated their resignations in 1973, writes about Vesco in her memoir, I Norma: "Sometimes thirteen or fourteen of us would go round [to his hotel suite].We would arrive there at around eight ... and stay until the late small hours of the morning.He used to live it up like no one else I have ever met . . . There would be about a dozen bottles of Don Perignon on side tables round the room, an enormous silver bowl of the finest Iranian caviar.With him would be a collection of international bankers, mostly South American, but some Swiss and a few Americans.In the middle of it all, rather like the ringmaster of a circus, was the ebullient figure of Vesco himself . . . He would give us $1,000 each if we stayed until midnight and another $300 if we stayed later."
Vesco quickly learned that ostentatious displays of wealth were to be eschewed in Cuba, and he made the transition without complaint. He took to wearing short-sleeved guayabera shirts, the traditional Cuban garment, over his jeans with Topsiders.
However, Cuba's rich cultural and art worlds held no interest for Vesco, whose tastes and hobbies remained decidedly blue-collar.His favorite haunts were the Diplomatic Club, where he want bowling, and the Hemingway Marina pizzeria. A virtual teetotaler, he allowed himself a two pack-a-day Kool habit. "He loved to sail and fish, especially night fishing in Cayo Largo," says Patrick.
"What he probably missed most about America was gambling in Vegas."
But Vesco continued doing in Cuba what he had always done: wheeling and dealing, persuading companies to deliver critically needed goods into the embargoed country."He got involved in pharmaceutical products, educational projects, computers," says Patrick, "and he bought a lot of agricultural stuff."
Vesco has clashed at one time or another with every member of his family except Patrick, the youngest of his five children. "He could do no wrong," says Nixon. Born in Costa Rica in 1975, Patrick has lived most of his life in Cuba, and he reveres his father. "He's the most compassionate person that I've ever me," he says emotionally.There are certain principles that he lives by - like you don't rat on a friend." A junior at a college in the Southwest, Patrick was scheduled to visit his father only days after his arrest. Though chilled by recent events, Patrick still speaks of his adopted country with palpable ardor. "Castro is in power because a lot of people like him, not because he has this great suppressive mechanism on his people," he says. And like a true fidelista, he rails against the U.S. Embargo of Cuba."Dad liked Fidel a lot," says Patrick."He said he was a very benevolent guy."
Before moving to Havana, Patrick lived with his parents in Nicaragua for roughly a year. "It was unsafe there. A war was going on," he says."Once a guy came in and shot off a machine gun. I was sitting on a bed in the guestho use and the bullets went that far from my head. Aside from the danger, Vesco was concerned about his worsening health, notably a urinary tract infection, which requires monthly hospital, visits for treatment. "My father had lost 50 pounds and his skin was a strange color," recalls Dan. "He was going to die," says Patrick." He needed serious health care."Vesco told his family that Cuba's superior medical system was a key factor in his decision.
"Initially, I hated Cuba because I had heard all these things about it," says Patrick."Then I started to mingle with the Cubans. Every Sunday, everybody in the neighborhood would play baseball and my father would play with us. Now, I think it's a great country." Unlike his father, Patrick şbecame an aficionado of Cuban music and films. Known as Patrick Adams, he went to the international school in Miramar for the children of diplomats and foreigners and told his friends at first that he was Canadian.
When he was 10, Patrick met Fidel Castro at the CIMEQ hospital where his father had taken him for a tonsillectomy."Fidel saw Tom and came over and shook his hand.And Tom said, 'this is my son.'Fidel said, 'ah, un pequeno Vesco.' And he shook my hand." One day two years later, Patrick he came home and found Castro talking with his father in the living room."Fidel asked me what I was doing. I told him I was playing with my Cuban friends.He said, 'Baseball. It's a great sport.' Then I went upstairs.They must have talked for an hour after that.I know Dad had at least one meeting with Raul [Fidel Castro's brother, head of the Cuban Army] about the security that was around the house, and several meetings with Fidel. He said that Raul was the stricter of the two brothers, the more militaristic."
Mongo, the older Castro brother, who drives a tractor around Havana in his coveralls, was a family friend. "Dad said that Mongo was more of a farmer and that he related more to him. We would go to Mongo's house and drink rum.Patrick says his father acted as a counselor to Fidel. In fact, Vesco told his son that it was at his urging that the Cubans began loosening up economic controls and legalized the dollar.
Vesco's relationship with Cuba is a long one. In 1977, five years before his move there, he engineered one of his splashiest backdoor deals via Cuba when he attempted to arrange delivery of a fleet of eight military cargo planes to Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.The planes, which had been paid for, were subsequently embargoed by the Ford and Carter administrations in retaliation for Libyan support of terrorism.Vesco flew from Costa Rica to Havana to Tripoli via Moscow to broker the transaction.The deal prompted a 1980 congressional probe which investigated allegations that Vesco and the Libyans had planned to offer a $15 million bribe to Carter administration officials, in addition to a $220,000 payment to Billy Carter, the president's brother. Dan Vesco claims his father did the deal solo.
Sandwiched between Dan and Patrick are three other Vesco children: Tony, 38, a disturbed young man who now lives in a Midwestern halfway house; Bobby Jr., 31, divorced with young children, who lives in south Florida, where he works as a security guard; and Dawn, 35, the only daughter.
Dawn Vesco lives in a Virginia suburb where she holds down two jobs, takes courses, and looks after her 16-year-old son, Robert Lee Vesco, who's called R.L. Dawn, who has had her own share of troubles - she is an unwed mother and once had a cocaine and alcohol problem which led to an arrest in Dallas - describes the Vescos as "just another dysfunctional American family. But most of our problems have stemmed from my father's decisions. We were just dragged along."
From 1982 to 1989, Dawn lived with her parents in Cuba, and continued to visit them regularly through 1992. She is bilingual and often translated for her father, who never learned to speak fluent Spanish. In the mid-80s, Dawn made friends with a fellow American who introduced himself as Robert Hunter."We were drinking buddies," she says."He told me he was involved in Abscam," the Washington bribery scandal that torpedoed the careers of several US congressmen.
One day in 1992, Dawn says, "he told me to my face, 'They're gonna bring down your father. They're going to round up all the foreigners and arrest us all.They're going to make a deal with the U.S. and trade us and hope it opens things up."' Dawn assumed this was drunken banter until she returned to the States and saw a photo in a newspaper story about Frank Terpil, 56, the former CIA agent turned soldier of fortune, who was high on America's most wanted list for selling weapons explosives to the Libyans in the late 1970s."I realized, Oh my God, it's him," says Dawn."Robert Hunter is Frank Terpil."Terpil was reportedly placed under house arrest in 1995 less than three months after Vesco.He was accused of illicit dealings with foreign businessmen. According to the State Department, Terpil and Vesco are only the cream of the fugitive crop living in Cuba; 77 fugitives from US justice live there, including three former Black Nationalists.
Though Cuba lags in virtually every segment of their economy, it is well respected for its pioneering work in biotechnology. Knowing Cuba's capability, Vesco recognized that Donald Nixon had a potential golden goose in TX and began ardently lobbying the Cuban government to develop TX at Labiofam, the country's premier biotechnology facilities.
When Nixon arrived, he found his friend considerably changed. Nixon says he was shocked at the degree of Vesco's irritability and unpredictability, and found him prone to rash decisions and temper tantrums."I'll just say, life with Bob was difficult," says Nixon .Never the less, Vesco was still a world-class networker and single-mindedly committed to launching TX. "His goal was to put this to bed, go down to Cayo Largo ASAP, have a fax machine and portable phone and kick back on the beach," says Nixon."This was going to be his last hurrah."
One of his most enthusiastic boosters, according to Donald Nixon, was Ramon "Mongo" Castro. "Me and Bob went over to talk to Ramon," says Nixon."Ramon's pet pig had a foot infection and it would have died.They put it on there, and the stuff got rid of the infection immediately. And the whole family started using it."Introductions were soon made to Fraga Castro and Gloria Castro, who jointly ran Labiofam.Though Nixon had initiated the project, Vesco made it clear that he alone would be in charge."I knew only what he wanted me to know," says Nixon. Even when Mongo's wife would invite Nixon to dinner, Vesco would forbid his going.
About the same time that Vesco became consumed with producing TX, he formed his attachment to Lydia Alfonso.In October 1995, I dropped in at the home of Alfonso in Playa, on the outskirts of Havana.The cramped three room apartment she shares with her 12-year-old son has furnishings of a quality rarely seen in the homes of ordinary Cubans. And the expensive jewelry she wears - three gold necklaces, bracelets, and numerous rings - is notable in a country where a simple watch is unaffordable to many.
A woman of physical and emotional heft, Alfonso sports long, red-lacquered nails.Her mossy black hair reaches her shoulders, and her eyes are blue-green.Wearing snug jeans and a V-necked white eyelet blouse, she looked striking but not beautiful. Her most salient feature quality is her fearlessness. Not only did she welcome me into her home, she spoke with unusual candor about her life with Vesco, at a time, when the mere mention of his name was met with a chilly silence in Havana.
The day after his father's arrest, Patrick Vesco, who was finishing spring semester, called his best friend in Cuba."His mom answered the phone and said, 'Even if my son could speak to you, he wouldn't.'I called a friend whom we played baseball with," says Patrick. "The following day he was interrogated by counterintelligence."
When I visited a member of Vesco's household staff, his face was gray with worry. Like many who had had extensive dealings with Vesco, he had been subjected to nearly a month of grillings at the Villa Marista prison in the rundown Havana neighborhood of La Vibora.The questioning sessions sometimes lasted 12 hours. At one point, he locked eyes with me and whispered, "To mention Vesco at this moment is really dangerous. If they ask me, I will need to tell them that you came here and asked questions."
The first time Alfonso spoke with me she had recently been released from Villa Marista. According to a family source, she had been arrested after she met with Vesco's personal lawyer who had flown from Rome - Vesco had renounced his U.S. citizenship and took Italian citizenship - in hopes of meeting his client. Cuban authorities refused his request allowing him contact only with Vesco's Cuban lawyer. When I mentioned that I had heard she was detained for 14 days in Villa Marista, Alfonso quietly corrected me, "Eighteen days,- but it felt like longer."
Villa Marista, formerly a nunnery, is known on the streets of Havana as "the pressure cooker." Though Cuba claims that it eschews physical torture, psychological torment is not uncommon. When I asked Alfonso to describe her stay, she said, "It was very bad." She shared a cell with a woman she described as "crazy," and was allowed no reading material or exercise.She was interrogated daily by two MININT officials, "There was nothing to do but think," she said, " and thinking makes it worse." I asked Alfonso if she could elaborate on the charges against Vesco."The process is secret," she said grimly, "so no one knows."
Donald Nixon's experience was considerably less grueling than Alfonso's. Installed in the Biocaribe Hotel, he was questioned on and off for a month, during which he says he lost 27 pounds. Sometimes he was questioned at Villa Marista. "They took me there at night and said to me, 'this is like Langley [CIA headquarters].You know Langley?' And I said, 'no I don't know Langley.' . . .The whole place is counter intelligence."Inside, he saw Vesco's staff, tremulously waiting to be summoned. Nixon's interrogation was conducted by Major Francisco Diaz who began their sessions, Nixon recalls, by saying that they knew that he was CIA, and that "the [TX] project is CIA and I'm laundering money in the international drug cartels.They said I was trafficking drugs.I said, 'You're out of your mind.' They said, 'Fine, you're not telling the truth, and if you don't you're going to go to jail.' "They said they had informed Bob that the project was stopped on December 28, 1994, that Labiofam was controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture, and that the minister didn't know about it. Well, if they didn't know about it, how come I have a contract signed by Fraga Castro, Gloria Castro and Ramon Castro."
Diaz finally put a prepared statement in front of Nixon to sign."It was totally negative and would put Bob in a terrible light.I said, 'I won't sign this.' We made five changes.The last change, they said, 'if you don't sign this, you are not leaving.I said, 'Where do I sign?'Nixon stressed his need to rejoin his family.Asked what was so urgent, Nixon told them, "My son's going to be Bar Mitzvah-ed. Cuban intelligence certainly knew that the Nixon family is not Jewish, but they didn't know that Donald Nixon had married a Jew and converted. In the States, meanwhile, Nixon's wife, Helene, was frantically working the Nixon power network. "She got hold of Christopher Cox [congressman from California's Orange County] and also Bob Dole," says Nixon.The only reason he got out, he thinks, is because his name is Nixon."If I was Joe Schmo, I'd be there for the rest of my life with Vesco."
Unbeknownst to Vesco, his stock had been nose diving a full year before his arrest. One Cuban official who defected to the U.S. said Vesco has long been persona non grata. "A friend in MININT told me that when he mentioned to his boss that he was planning on stopping by the Vesco house he was firmly told not to visit.The word was that Vesco was in trouble for corrupting lower-level officials." Howard Safir, a former federal prosecutor, takes some credit for tarnishing Vesco's image in Cuba, according to The New Yorker. Claiming to have masterminded the heist of an armored car in London, Safir solicited Vesco's help in fencing some gold bars. Vesco arranged to meet Safir in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where Safir intended to have him arrested.
At the last moment, however, Vesco's friend Tony De La Guardia, a high profile Cuban colonel, kept Vesco from going. A second scam also nearly culminated in Vesco's capture when Vesco rendezvoused in Managua with Safir's front. Minutes before he was to board a private jet, Vesco was once again restrained by a suspicious De La Guardia. In the end, Safir was able to inveigle Vesco into yet another scam, a dummy corporation that Safir promised would deliver communications hardware to Cuba. Vesco got the Cubans to advance a million dollars, for which they got nothing in return.Even Patrick noticed a shift concerning his father. By December 1994, two new officers had been assigned to Vesco's security detail."In my opinion, they were counter intelligence," says Patrick."They weren't nice guys."Determined as he was to pull of the TX project, however, Vesco refused to see the writing on the wall.
Nixon insisted to his interrogators that the TX program was totally above board. "We were approached by heavy drug money from wherever, old Nazi money from Brazil, to invest in our project," he says."I am anti-all that stuff.So is Bob . . ..It goes against everything I know about him."Still, it is interesting that Vesco was approached by such people in the first place.Though his family vehemently denies the drug charges, it is indisputable that Vesco rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in the drug pantheon. Aside from Noriega and de la Guardia, Dawn says her father knew drug czar Carlos Lehder.
According to Dawn, "My father and Don Pepe [Figueres] were involved with guns. I remember the two of them waiting in a field for a shipment of guns. And Don Pepe also got guns for the Cubans. He fronted for them. That's how, I think, my father met Tony de la Guardia. And that's how Carlos Lehder came in the picture - because he sold guns as well as drugs."
Vesco was seen in the Bahamas with Lehder on several occasions.In the early 1980's, Larry Greenberger, identified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as Lehder's chief of operations, and his Miami lawyer flew "in the dead of night in a Saber liner to Norman's Cay," says writer Steve Wick, who chronicled the career of Greenberger (who was murdered in 1988)."They were met by Carlos' private army and driven to Carlos' house, where Carlos introduced them to Vesco.The lawyer was stunned and kept saying, 'This is Robert Vesco!" and Larry told him 'Yeah, he's a friend of Carlos. They're partners.' Lehder told Greenberger, 'Mr. Vesco is helping us out.' Presumably in cocaine because that's what Carlos did."
One State Department Official says that Vesco's name popped up in Senator John Kerry's hearings on narcotics in the late 1980's."A couple of Columbian pilots testified about a drug corridor over Cuba."Lehder, after his capture in 1987, testified that Vesco had been one of his partners in drug trafficking in the Bahamas.
Toward the end of Nixon's questioning, Diaz asked him what he knew about Tony de la Guardia, the Cuban colonel who had helped arrange Vesco's entry into Cuba. The charismatic de la Guardia and Arnaldo Ochoa, a hero of the revolution and a five star- general, were executed along with two others in the wake of the famous 1989 televised drug trials, which shook Cuban society to the bone and purged the army of reformers. Six other officers were imprisoned Nixon insisted they had never met de la Guardia and knew nothing. He didn't mention that Vesco had told him a very interesting version of de la Guardia's demise. "Tom indicated to me that he was the one who had put the finger on Tony. That de la Guardia had allowed drug flights and that Fidel heard about it and told him to never, ever do that again. Then Tony did do it again and got taken away."
According to Nixon, Vesco's split from de la Guardia was rooted in a personal vendetta.Vesco's son Tony has been plagued since his teens with emotional troubles, perhaps related to drugs, according to one family member, although Pat Vesco believes he may be schizophrenic. After several violent episodes, Dan Vesco flew to Havana and brought him back to the States for treatment. For the last five years, Tony Vesco has lived in the Midwest at a halfway house. For years Robert Vesco attributed his problems to outside influences such as drugs and certain people, notably Tony de la Guardia. Vesco told Nixon that de la Guardia had stolen his 64-foot yacht while young Tony was aboard it and, according to Nixon's account, "it caused Tony to go off the deep end and he'd never forgiven de la Guardia or his family for doing what they did. And he had gone down and put the finger on him."
Dawn vividly recalls the de la Guardia scandal, the Cuban equivalent of Watergate. "My dad was involved in bringing Tony down. I know that for a fact," she says."In 1988, Tony [de la Guardia] moved him out of the house in the marina and put him under house arrest without authority and seized my father's yacht. Tony was using it for his own personal benefit, but one of the security officers who didn't trust Tony, believed my father. He spent three months with my dad in hotel rooms and protocol houses with Madalon [Vesco's personal translator]. And that information is what took Tony away. My father was upset because he felt he was being used by Tony, who said the word had come from high up. He lied . . . My father was giving Tony what he thought was owed him."
Tony de la Guardia's 32-year-old daughter, Ileana, however told me a very different version last year. "When Fidel gave Vesco protection, he asked my father to be the officer in charge and to prepare his homes in the Marina Hemingway and Cayo Largo, which had a communications system, radios, and a big marina. Vesco was involved with drugs and this is where all the drugs were conducted. My father soon came to believe that Vesco was bad for Cuba. Part of Vesco's deal was to bring in equipment from the U.S. for the Cuban sugar industry. In one of theses operations, he embezzled $1 million from the Cubans." Vesco blamed the losses on FBI interdiction, but Ileana says her father believed that he was swindling the Cubans."My father had big differences with the Cuban government because he saw that Vesco wanted everything for himself. He thought Vesco was a bandit. And the Cubans had to beware."
Her brother, Antonio, recalls that Vesco "was thrown in jail for a short time in 1988" suspected of pocketing the Cubans' share of a $7 million tobacco deal with Mexico.(Dan Vesco denies this allegation.) Ileana goes even further, admitting that her father was involved with drugs, but with the government's approval."Vesco can attest that Fidel and other top officials approved the drug traffic," she says."Vesco did not do this on his own."
Before the Vesco - De la Guardia split, the two families had enjoyed a close relationship. Their children recall cruises together on the Vesco yacht. "I liked Tony," says Pat Vesco."He was a very good painter. He was a very good looking guy, but his twin brother Patricio [a brigadier general, who was tried with his brother and who is now serving a 30-year prison sentence], was even better looking.Tony was then the head of the CIMEX, the government's business corporation, and was responsible for our schedule, and we had to do what CIMEX told us to do."According to Patrick, "Tony was like our first friend when we first arrived there.He introduced us to everybody." As for the de la Guardia trial, Pat Vesco says she finds it hard to believe that either brother was dealing in drugs because "if they were, some of it would get in the country and there sure as hell aren't any drugs in Cuba."
One former government official insists that Vesco's relationship with Cuba was always an ambivalent one. "Fidel never liked Vesco," he says. "He used him to help circumvent the embargo and in reaching foreign markets, but he was always suspicious." Given the recent surge of foreign and American investors eager to do business with Cuba, Vesco's value as a middleman was severely diminished. Earlier this year, Fidel Castro hosted a reception for 45 American executives at the Palacio de la Revolucion. With Jose Marti Airport filled with the private jets of American celebrities and tycoons, Castro has little need today of Robert Vesco.
About a month after Vesco's arrest, Alfonso wangled a 15-minute visit with her lover .He had lost more than 45 pounds.Alfonso says that Vesco has three medical problems - his chronic urinary-blockage condition, a heart condition, and neck and back problems. Though she bravely speaks of her fears, she carefully sidesteps criticism of the government, the jail, her interrogators, and even prison food. "If she complains," a friend explains, "there will be more trouble for her."
Recently, Alfonso has been allowed one hour visits with Vesco ."Sometimes we talk in the prison, sometimes in the garden," she says."Permitted to hold hands and even kiss but allowed only personal and family discussions."Although Vesco has indicated to Dan that he anticipates being tried soon, no date has been set.
Alfonso says the met Vesco at the CIMEQ hospital in early 1992, when she was having some minor surgery and he was in for his periodic urinary procedure. CIMEQ is a government hospital for VIPs, but Alfonso declines to say what kind of job she had at the time, I learn later that she had been a top official at Cubanacan, one of Cuba's tourist organizations and a high-ranking staff member at the Palacio del Convenciones, which facilitates foreign trade. She proudly remains a member of the Communist Party. She says she and Vesco began dating in mid-1992, and soon she was spending most of her time with him.
For more than a year, Alonso knew her paramour only as Tom Adams. One day he told her he was Robert Vesco. ."And I said, 'Who's Robert Vesco?' I had no idea.He showed me some books written about him, but I never read them. I love him. I love everything about him." In January 1994, Alfonso began working on the TX project. "Frequently we worked from seven in the morning till one at night," she said. While she speaks passionately about Vesco, one source says the relationship was as much about business as it was about romance. "Her name was on all the bank accounts," Nixon says. Another sources says, " She came to Nassau and picked up more than $100,000 in cash to take back to Cuba. Boy, she has guts - which she has. She did things only a Cuban with her connections could do for him. He needed her."
Donald Nixon says that Vesco's relationships were fueled solely by need, that he had no friends as such."Where are all the people we knew all those years?" asks Nixon."Where are they now? And interesting how the whole family left." It is curious that a man whose cronies once included a U.S. President, Latin American leaders such as Figueres, Noriega, Castro and the leading Sandinistas had no one but his family to count on in the end."He was a loner," says his wife ruefully.
Moreover, Vesco was inclined to turn wrathfully on those he felt had let him down. "Bob's a very tough businessman.I'm not saying ruthless," says Nixon, "but you cross him and there's no second chances."Dawn's account of the de la Guardia affair clearly reveals that Vesco felt that a pre-emptive strike was necessary to neutralize Tony De La Guardia. Ironically, he would meet his downfall in a similar contest of wills.
In late 1993 at the Cuban Trade Fair, Vesco met an acquaintance from his Nassau days, Enrico Garzaroli.The Italian-born Garzaroli is the managing director of the Graycliff Hotel in Nassau and one of the largest importer of goods to Cuba.He supplies much of the non-Cuban alcohol on the island, and brokered the deal to open a chain of Benetton stores there.Unable to travel off the island, Vesco seized the opportunity to become partners with the well-placed Garzaroli, who also agreed to try bring in investment capital.Nixon says that Vesco boasted that his new Italian partner was "the bag man for the Vatican Bank.... and that Enrico had a known relationship with the CIA," - charges denied by Garzaroli.
I spoke with Garazoli, who splits his time between Havana and Nassau, at Gray Cliff in mid-November. A beefy, light complexioned man, he sports a gold Rolex and a heavy silver pendant on a thick gold chain and is one of the Bahamas' more colorful characters.In heavily accented English, Garzaroli told me that he had met Vesco only once when he had lived in Nassau, but others say they were much better acquainted.
Vesco, who lived in Nassau from 1970 to 1974 and again in 1980, when he was forced to leave Costa Rica, found a patron as accommodating as Jose Figueres in Lynden Pindling, the Bahamian Prime Minister. Pindling's name, according to Ivan Johnson, publisher of The Punch, a local tabloid, has come up "in every major drug trial in the last twenty years." Johnson says Vesco secured his popularity by becoming a business associate of Garret "Tiger" Finlayson, Pindling's eminence grise. "Vesco took over Butlers Bank and gave out unsecured loans to anyone in the government," says Johnson. "At one point, he paid a retainer to every law firm in The Bahamas. He tried to buy and compromise everyone."
Garzaroli said that Vesco had told him "he had a very interesting project that was super secret for the Cuban government." Garzaroli is certain that Vesco was broke, because Garzaroli always had to pick up their meal tabs.Nevertheless, Vesco succeeded in wowing Garzaroli with the powers of TX. "He showed me a video," he says, "and he brought me around. He's a very intelligent, a very seducing man."
Sometimes, he says, Vesco was accompanied by Lydia Alfonso, other times by Nixon, but usually the two of them discussed business alone, though he says he also met with Dan Vesco. Through his Nassau accountant, Michael Hepburn, who happens to be Tiger Finlayson's half brother, Garzaroli set up two companies, Carinada, to distribute TX and Rutenol Chemicals, to manufacture it."Vesco's name was never supposed to be mentioned," Garzaroli says. "He was the man behind the scenes."
Garzaroli claims he raised about $1 million for the project, including $150,000 of his own money (Nixon says the total figure is less than $80,000), and got support from UNICEF, the United Nations, the Italian government, and President Aristide of Haiti before discovering that Vesco was operating without clearance from the Cuban government. (None of these claims can be confirmed.) "The Cubans knew nothing. He was using the left arm against the right arm¸so nobody can talk to one another, so nobody can find out all his tricks.He was so broke that he didn't give a shit," Garzaroli claims."This was the only way for him to collect fast money and gain extra survival time. This project was going to bring him back a big, big hero."
Nixon recalls that the two men fought from the outset for control of the project. "But then Enrico started going off and doing things without permission." According to Nixon and Vesco and some supporting documents, in February 1994, Garzaroli "falsified," a Cuban certificate of approval saying that clinical trials on TX were a fait accompli and submitted it to the Bahamian government. ("That's bullshit!" Garzaroli says angrily, pushing the document back at me.) "Vesco demanded that Nixon confront his partner."First he said he hadn't done it, then he admitted it," says Nixon."He said, 'okay.I give up.' He told Bob that he had done it." Still, Vesco was wary of a nasty split, thus scaring off the Cubans, though Lydia Alonso supported his decision to blow the whistle on his partner. "Always Enrico said he would do anything to hurt Tom and destroy the project," she says.
Garzaroli says that, having learned that Vesco was operating without government approval, he confronted him. "'This means to me that you have been lying to me from day one, that you are fucking around and robbing people. You go ahead with the project and give me back my money. If you don't, I'll go to the proper authorities.'So Vesco told me, `Keep your mouth shut. In five years, we'll give you back your money.'" Garzaroli says that Vesco also made threats. "Something like, People who disagree with me, disappear. Vesco was writing a book about his life; one paragraph said his enemies have no right to live. He showed Mike Hepburn that book, and [Hepburn] told me about it.[Hepburn denies conveying any threat from Vesco. ]He said that if I talked, he would make sure my business in Cuba would end and the Cubans would throw me out."
Vesco soon gave Garzaroli an ultimatum, says Nixon, "which of course came through me."Then Bob turned around and had me write another document, which was totally untenable and unnecessary.And we fought over it continually."The second agreement demanded that Garzaroli not only withdraw from the project, but also pay a hefty fee just for the privilege of getting out. "It was too hard," says Nixon, "but Tom was in total control, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was devastated."
Nevertheless, carrying the new document and wired with a hidden tape recorder at Vesco's insistence, Nixon met with Garzaroli at a restaurant in Miramar. Garzaroli says he knew immediately that something fishy was up. "Then he brought me a piece of paper to discuss. I was to blame for everything. He could not do the project because of my failure - this paper was very well prepared by Vesco. I counter-attacked and said, "I don't even want to discuss it. You are a fucking son of a bitch. Nixon was crying and said, 'Vesco sent me here. Vesco did this.' I said, 'Call the mother fucker Vesco and tell him to come here himself.' And when I found out that Donald was taping me, I crushed the tape and the tape recorder with my foot. And I said, 'My dear fellow, there is nothing more to talk about between me and him.'"
Garzaroli didn't wait long to exact his revenge. According to Nixon, he dispatched a letter to Fidel Castro who saw to it that Vesco got a copy. Garzaroli insists that he actually sent a sheaf of incriminating documents to an official in the Ministry of Interior, confident that a copy would land on Castro's desk. "I gave them every single piece of paper. So they went and arrested him."
Garzaroli quickly realized that that Vesco had been doing the very same thing to him, passing reports to the Cubans to discredit him, and to some effect. "From July to November, an enormous [number] of Cuban officials came to check [my] companies for customs, for labor. They come down to shut the company down. Very fishy. On the other hand, I pass all these things very successfully."
Another TX source, which insists of anonymity, says, "I saw it coming early on . . . Tom didn't like Enrico.,I warned Tom not to fight with Enrico and Enrico not to fight with Tom . . . I saw they would both be hurt." Vesco, he says, was so desperate to pull off the deal, that "he never saw it coming." However, it appears that Vesco had did have more than an inkling. A source within the Italian Embassy in Havana says that just prior to his arrest, "Vesco sent an emissary to Embassy several times with an urgent request for a passport."
Dan Vesco believes that Garzaroli did far more than inform the Cubans about his father's business dealings over TX. "I am fairly certain that Enrico told them that Dad was a CIA agent or some kind of American operative. Enrico was the messenger of some very damaging misinformation. It is the only thing that would infuriate Fidel enough to arrest Dad. And Enrico is now the Cuban hero. No one will ever convince me that all this is about some crazy deal over a citronella plant." Garzaroli demurs when I mention the espionage charges, then concedes that their business dealings "are only a minor part of the charge," adding, "I suspect and I think he was spying. He must be a CIA agent."
Curiously, Nixon says that his interrogators told him that, "Enrico was a bad person.Then why would Enrico still be allowed [into Cuba]? None of this makes any sense."
However, the TX source cautions,"This story isn't over yet. When [the Cubans] are finished with Tom, then they're going to deal with Enrico. One must be cautious with a government that can change the rules at any time. They need Enrico now, for business and to testify against Vesco, but when they're finished with Vesco, I have a feeling that Enrico will be next." Indeed, the Cubans have famously long memories. Those within the Cuban government, who were outraged that Vesco was spared in the de la Guardia/Ochoa purge, are taking their consolation now.
Shortly after Vesco was arrested, he turned down a consular visit from the U. S. Interests Section, which also submitted an extradition request for him. "Dad said no to them," says Dan. "He really didn't want anything to do with his enemy." Dan says that although he would like to visit his father, he's fearful of being arrested. Pat Vesco has applied for a visa from Washington, but nine months after making her request she has yet to hear any word.
As for the TX project, Dan Vesco has hired attorneys to assess the contracts that were drawn up. He suspects that Garzaroli, having eliminated his father, is proceeding with the project. (Garzaroli denies any further interest in TX.)
Barbara Vesco, Robert's mother, remains fervently optimistic."I liked Fidel and I liked the Cuban people. I don't think that Fidel would personally do him wrong. If it was drug money laundering or espionage, they would have picked him up a long time ago," she says. "I really can't believe that Fidel is behind this." Hearing this, Pat Vesco rolls her eyes and remarks: "And she also thinks that O.J. is innocent."
The searing irony is that had Vesco stayed in the States and faced the SEC charges he might well have beaten them or secured a probationary sentence on a plea bargain. At the very most, he would have done five years in a white-collar prison, like Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, and the other Wall Street sharks of the 1980's. "To tell you the truth I was astounded he stayed away," says John R. Wing, the chief prosecutor of the 1973 criminal case against Vesco involving the illegal Nixon-campaign contribution."He could have lived very well after serving his time."
The best case scenario for Vesco hinges on improved U.S.-Cuban relations. Should Clinton win re-election this year, it is likely that the noose of the Embargo will be loosened. Some speculate that Castro would then gladly return some of the 77 American fugitives lingering on his island.
However, Vesco is a man who may know too much. He could very well be the one exclusion in such a deal. To the huge relief of many.
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