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The Trial that Shook Cuba

1.

Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez, one of Cuba’s most distinguished generals and the former commander of the Cuban forces in Angola, was arrested last June 12 in Havana and shortly afterward accused of corruption and drug trafficking. He appeared before an honor tribunal only thirteen days later, and in his opening statement confessed to all charges against him. He said he thought the death sentence would be an appropriate punishment for the crimes he had committed.

Ochoa, in his light gray dress uniform with its rows of decorations, cut a dignified figure before the honor tribunal of forty-seven generals and admirals. Its proceedings, hastily convened on a Sunday, were recorded on videotape by the government, and lengthy portions were broadcast throughout Cuba on nighttime television after a two-day delay for editing. Ochoa’s words of self-accusation before the cameras were stunningly direct, although his demeanor was remote and reflective.

While our [Communist] party was declaring that it had nothing to do with drug trafficking, I was involved in it,” Ochoa testified. Later he said, “I want to tell my comrades-at-arms that I believe I betrayed my country, and I say in all honesty, one pays for treason with one’s life.”

Ochoa said he had done “atrocious things” but he said little about what these things were. Instead, his confession was full of politically charged statements. Ochoa swore that all his actions were “the artifice of my [own] mind,” and that neither Cuban president Fidel Castro nor his brother Raúl, the defense minister, nor anyone else in the Communist party or government “ever had anything to do with it.” He sought to dispel rumors that he had tried to lead a revolt against Castro’s regime, saying “I have never been opposed to the revolution—quite the contrary.”

He closed his statement by declaring that if he faced execution, “My last thought will be of Fidel, and the great revolution he has given our people.”

After Ochoa’s confession, the tribunal decided not to question him, and the following day it stripped him of his honors and expelled him from the armed forces. After the tribunal, in which Ochoa was the only defendant, came the second phase of the Cuban prosecution, a summary court-martial, which began on June 30 and lasted only eight days. Thirteen other officers of the army and the Interior Ministry, the agency in charge of intelligence, national security, and the political police, were indicted along with Ochoa on charges of corruption and drug dealing. Ten of them were sentenced on July 7 to prison terms ranging from ten to thirty years. At dawn on July 13, four men convicted of high treason went before a firing squad: the fallen General Ochoa, his aide-de-camp, Captain Jorge Martínez Valdés, a high intelligence officer, Colonel Antonio de la Guardia Font, and his aide, Major Amado Padrón Trujillo.

It was the first time in the Cuban revolution’s thirty-year history in which sitting high-ranking members of the regime were publicly condemned and executed. In 1963 Fidel Castro spared a Cuban whom the CIA had hired to assassinate him, declaring that the revolution would not “eat its own children.” This time it did.

There has never been a judicial process with so much participation, information, clarity, and fairness,” Castro proclaimed on July 9 in a speech before Cuba’s Communist parliament in which he declined to commute the death sentences. Of all the dubious statements Fidel made during the trials, that was probably the most outrageous. The honor tribunal, for example, opened with a long statement by Army General Raúl Castro, the commanding officer of everyone involved, demanding “exemplary punishment” for Ochoa. The defense minister didn’t bother to give a detailed account of Ochoa’s alleged offenses, but devoted his presentation to running down Ochoa’s character and military record, depicting him as behaving like an irresponsible joker, as an officer who was constantly being reprimanded for breaches of discipline and who liked complaining more than fighting. (It seemed particularly irritating to Raúl that, as he later put it, “one never knew” when Ochoa was “talking seriously or making jokes; he would sometimes combine the two.”)

The tribunal called as witnesses several officers who were subsequently indicted, and their self-incriminating testimony was used against them days later in the court-martial. When Antonio “Tony” de la Guardia, the highest-ranking Interior Ministry official accused of drug trafficking, testified before the tribunal, he was so nervous that he repeatedly gagged on his own speech and had to ask for a glass of water. During a grilling by one general, de la Guardia helplessly parroted the officer’s words; in this way, by repeating the charge, he abruptly admitted that he had committed treason.

The accused were assigned lower-ranking military defense lawyers, whose primary concern seemed to be to avoid interfering with the alternately ferocious and derisive questioning of the prosecutor, Juan Escalona Reguera, a brigadier general, and the justice minister. Encouraged by their lawyers, all fourteen defendants in what seemed a humiliating ritual of contrition made statements accepting complete responsibility for the charges against them. Ochoa’s lawyer, Colonel Alberto Rubén D’Toste, asked him only five brief questions. And D’Toste’s defense before the video cameras of Martínez Valdés, one of those later executed, consisted in its entirety of the following:

D’Toste: Are you aware you were involved in one of the most serious, reckless, and irresponsible acts ever committed?

Martínez: Yes.

In short, the defendants never had the opportunity to put forward their own account of events. Nor was there any way of knowing what psychological pressures were applied to elicit the confessions, and therefore what part of them was true. At times the defendants appeared so willing and candid that many Cuban viewers suspected that the government had struck some deal behind the scenes, promising them leniency. As a result Fidel Castro acknowledged, in the days before the executions, that the Cuban public overwhelmingly expected and hoped that the death sentences, especially Ochoa’s, would be commuted to life in prison.

Moreover, not everything that affected the case was discussed in the trials, and not everything that happened in the trials was made public on television, though in all the broadcasts lasted more than twenty-three hours. Fidel Castro admitted that parts of the trial that he claimed would offend Cubans’ moral sensibilities were edited out. In what was shown, the defendants were somehow persuaded to make certain omissions, such as leaving out the names of several foreigners who were said to have important parts in the drug-dealing activities.

Nevertheless, Cuban journalists in Havana agreed that the trials provided the public with an unprecedented amount of information on such sensitive topics as the inner workings of the army and the Interior Ministry, where de la Guardia and his team of alleged drug traffickers worked. Fidel Castro evidently decided that the trials had to be broadcast in order to convince Cubans that the officers deserved to be punished and to publicize the political lessons of their downfall. Even the delayed videotapes provided a sense of immediacy that was a new experience for Cubans, and night after night they watched with fascination.

At least two dozen defendants and witnesses were subjected to prolonged questioning about the alleged illicit activity. The testimony of different witnesses often agreed on points of fact, and too many of the same small details were mentioned in too little time for the entire performance to have followed a precomposed script. So, although many central questions—such as what exactly led to Ochoa’s arrest—remain unanswered, some conclusions can be drawn from the show trials.

2.

What emerged was not one but really two separate cases. The first was the case of “Tony” de la Guardia, Major Padrón, and six other officers who worked at a secret Interior Ministry unit, called MC, set up in the early 1980s to get around the US trade embargo against Cuba by smuggling American medical and computer technology from Florida to Cuba. The Cuban government charged that de la Guardia’s group arranged for six tons of cocaine to be sent from Colombia through Cuba to the United States in the two years after April 1987, and that they were paid $3.4 million for doing so.

De la Guardia and his associates testified at length about their activities and many of their revelations were not altogether surprising to people who had been following recent investigations of Cuban drug smuggling in Miami. In February 1988, two Cuban Americans—Reinaldo Ruiz and his son Rubén—were arrested and indicted in Miami for smuggling drugs supplied by the Medellín cartel through Cuba to the US, and in March of this year the two men pleaded guilty. The published reports of their indictment and confessions said that they had worked with Cuban officials, although de la Guardia himself was not publicly named. At the trial in Havana, however, de la Guardia and his associates testified extensively about the operations that they had carried out in collaboration with the Ruizes, who were sentenced in August to long, but reduced, terms in prison, in exchange for their cooperation with the US authorities. Thus by the end of the trial there could be no doubt that Tony de la Guardia was the leader of a ring of cocaine smugglers. The question that remained was when the Castro brothers first learned of his activities.

The other case, against General Ochoa and his assistant, Martínez, and several other lower-ranking aides, was a much more nebulous one. The Castro brothers never contended that Ochoa had participated in Tony de la Guardia’s cocaine transshipments. Nor did they claim that Ochoa had ever carried out a narcotics operation. Essentially Ochoa was accused of three main crimes: he was said to have enriched himself in black-market trading, using army resources, when he was stationed in Angola in 1988, and to have neglected his military duties; he was said to have stolen $161,000 from Nicaragua’s Sandinista army through a failed weapons deal; and he was said to have conceived of a scheme to send major cocaine shipments to the United States, and for that purpose to have sent Martínez secretly to Medellín, Colombia, in 1988 to meet with Pablo Escobar Gaviria, a magnate of the drug cartel.

Though there was considerable testimony concerning these charges, at the end of the court-martial Ochoa’s role remained shrouded in ambiguities. The crime of treason was asserted in the Castros’ rhetoric and Ochoa’s confession, but it was not shown by the facts.

Among the great unknowns concerning the trials is the way events came together to allow the Castro brothers to roll the two cases into one. By doing so they were able to submerge the vast political implications of the case of Ochoa, a military hero, in the cruder criminal activities of de la Guardia and his circle. Even so, the regime made it clear during the trials that it considered Ochoa to be a threat and a challenge, not to the enforcement of law in Cuba, but to Castro’s particular form of communism. Escalona, the prosecutor who was Fidel Castro’s mouth-piece at the trials, formulated the state’s view of Ochoa’s rejection of its system in this way:

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