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?
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.
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:
When he reached the limit and began to desire that which this society could not provide, he didn’t hesitate to separate himself from it and head out on his own dubious course.
That this was a crisis in Castro’s regime, and not merely a noisy scandal, is demonstrated by its results to date. On June 29, Fidel Castro fired Division General José Abrahantes Fernández from his post as interior minister, the third most powerful job in Cuba after the Castros’. Abrahantes was replaced by Corps General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, an officer close to Raúl Castro and an outsider to the Interior Ministry, having made his career in the army. On July 31, Abrahantes and four other top interior ministry officers were arrested. No evidence was ever revealed linking them directly to Ochoa or to de la Guardia’s drug activities, but they were tried for dereliction of duty and corruption, and on September 1 Abrahantes was condemned to twenty years in prison, while the others drew jail terms of between five and twelve years.
Fidel Castro said that Tony de la Guardia had “morally destroyed” the Interior Ministry, the pillar of the regime’s political control, so that it would have to be “made all over again.” Ten more top Interior Ministry officers were fired or forced to resign, as well as the head of civil aviation. There were signs that many other lower-level Interior Ministry officials were punished without public announcement.
The transportation minister, Diocles Torralbas, about whom little more was said publicly than that he threw some wild parties in Havana, was sentenced to twenty years in jail for “dissipation.” The head of the central bank and the construction minister were fired, as well as twelve economic and cultural deputy ministers. A colonel, who was not accused of any crime, was reported by the Cuban government news agency to have killed himself. A chain of export-import companies belonging to the Interior Ministry was closed, and a number of joint investments involving the Cuban state and foreign firms were purged of their Cuban personnel and some were ordered off the island.
In addition, Fidel Castro made two decisions that showed he was ready to impose a newly severe communist discipline on his island nation at the risk of isolating it internationally. On August 4 the regime banned the distribution in Cuba of Sputnik and the Moscow News, two popular Soviet publications that carry the message of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing glasnost. It was Castro’s most explicit move so far to deepen the ideological dispute between himself and the Soviet leader over socialist reform. “Those who are not firmly convinced of the historical need and possibilities of socialism could [by reading the two Soviet publications] doubt its viability and lose hope,” explained an editorial about the ban in Granma, the daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist party.
Two days later political police in Havana arrested Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, the de facto leader of the tiny Cuban human rights movement, and two other dissidents, Hubert Jerez and Hirám Abí Cobas, bringing to a close a two-year period in which the regime showed some tolerance for their activities. The dissidents were charged with “disseminating false news” in the interviews they gave to a number of American journalists, including myself, in which they criticized the lack of defense for the accused in the show trials, and said that the state had refused to turn the bodies of the executed victims over to their families for burial. Of the trial itself Sánchez said, “This was a public assassination dressed up in judicial clothing.” Sánchez faces up to four years in jail, and the others three years. The government has barred Amnesty International and Americas Watch, the human-rights monitoring groups, from attending the dissidents’ trials as observers, citing their presence as “unnecessary,” and has denied a defense request that I and another American reporter appear as witnesses.
The Ochoa affair has occurred at a time when Fidel Castro, now sixty-three, is facing extraordinary pressures for change in the Cuban revolution. With few exceptions, the same people have led the government for three generations without turnover or renewal. Although the regime has attempted to block news about the reform movements taking place in the Communist world, Cubans, who can pick up regular radio broadcasts from Florida and the Caribbean as well as the US government’s Radio Martí, are not unaware of them. Gorbachev visited Havana in April, and his nationally broadcast speech was a primer on the new Soviet thinking.
The Cuban economy has been stagnating just as the Soviets, whose annual assistance is estimated at $5 billion, are saying that their contracts with Cuba must be based on efficiency rather than solidarity. Consumer goods of all kinds remain scarce; there were even long bread lines in Havana in July. Many Cubans feel that after three decades of work and deprivation for the revolution, they deserve some material relief.
Yet Fidel has angrily rejected any form of free-market policies in Cuba. In the early Eighties he encouraged an experiment in setting up rural farmers’ markets where private sales took place; the markets prospered, putting greens on Havana’s tables and making some farmers modestly well-off. But in 1986 Fidel abruptly shut them down and turned on the farmers, accusing them in his speeches of vulgar avarice and portraying the private accumulation of money as a dirty capitalist sin. Fidel also warned that free trade would undermine the centralized power of the Communist party (which means, of course, of Castro himself).
In his speech Raúl Castro seemed concerned to reply to criticisms of the Castros’ policies that he implied Ochoa had made during a closed three-hour confrontation on May 29 between Ochoa, himself, and two other top army officers. “We can’t have people going around like that promoting themselves and saying, ‘That war in Angola, we made lousy decisions there,’ ” General Castro said. He gave the impression that Ochoa had also questioned some of Fidel’s health-care programs, the pride of the Revolution.
Raúl Castro even implied that Ochoa at some point had committed the ultimate heresy and had directly criticized Fidel, the commander-in-chief himself, and he also implied that Ochoa was not alone in doing so. Raúl Castro said, “I have been analyzing how people raise complaints against the commander-in-chief, how this is happening more than ever.” “The most important symbol we have is named Fidel Castro!” Raúl Castro said. In the confrontation that apparently took place, he had told Ochoa: “Look, if Fidel Castro had not been born, neither you nor I would be sitting here.”
Then he flew into a rage. “Military soldiers can have views on any matters!” (Here he banged his fist on the podium.) “But when an order is given you have to carry it out whether you agree with it or not. Or you can leave the armed forces!” He did not indicate what order Ochoa had failed to carry out.
Raúl went on to say that “he who is addressing you today will be pro-Soviet until the day he dies”—but he quoted Stalin to clarify the kind of Soviet Union he favored, and issued what seemed an ultimatum:
Gentlemen, those who do not want our type of socialism can ask permission and go to the United States…. Those who do not wish to go that far…perhaps should go to Hungary, or to Poland…. And those who refuse to use their heads and who think that we are going to keep on copying after we’ve been copying the communists of the world for seventy years, well, they can go to—to—Armenia!
By the time Raúl Castro opened the honor tribunal ten days later he had regained his composure. Nevertheless, his outbursts hung over the trial, even though they were systematically expunged from the official transcripts of the speech published in Granma. They made it all too evident that there had been a cataclysmic falling-out between the Castros and Ochoa, even though the precise details remained secret. Both Castros would say during the trials that by the time Ochoa was detained they feared he was ready to defect.
In many ways the Castros’ pattern of action was similar in the Ochoa trials. Ochoa, though he was not well known outside the armed forces, had been among the revolution’s most respected military officers. In 1984 he became one of only five commanders ever to be named “Hero of the Republic,” Cuba’s highest military honor. But as Ochoa said in the courtroom, he became too independent of the Castros. To bring him down they weren’t content simply to judge the general for his alleged wrong-doings. The Castros used the trials to try to make Ochoa into a symbol of the corrupting power of capitalism in the eyes of the Cuban people. As Raúl Castro put it in a speech about Ochoa on June 15, “All businesses, any kind of business, even if authorized, if it goes beyond the established norm of financial control, sooner or later, will end up in corruption.”
It seems clear that the ultimate purpose of the trials was to justify and reinforce the Castros’ rejection of any attempts to liberalize Cuban socialism. In different forums Raúl Castro claimed that Ochoa had succumbed to what he called “gold fever,” and had “an obsessive desire to get involved in commercial activities.” In the culmination of his denunciation of the general before the military honor tribunal on June 25, the defense minister hurled what he evidently thought was his greatest insult: “His highest aspiration was to become a typical capitalist businessman.”
The Castro brothers provided other clues to the political background of the trials. They revealed that for many months before Ochoa’s arrest they had sharp differences with him over state policy as well as over Cuba’s conduct in the war in Angola.
The first extensive explanation of Ochoa’s detention was given to the world three days after it occurred, on June 15, by Raúl Castro in a speech to the officers of Cuba’s Western Army, a key defense force on the island. Anyone who saw Raúl Castro speak could be left with no doubt that some kind of explosion had occurred at the highest level of the armed forces. Before the television audience the defense minister, who usually talks like a tough Prussian, was nearly incoherent, a man who seemed to have come from the scene of some horrifying wreckage.
At moments he appeared to be searching his memory, trying to recall how Ochoa had advanced so high up in the armed forces. Ochoa had joined the Castros as a teenager in the mid-1950s, when they were guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains fighting the Batista regime. By 1987, after he had been decorated as a national hero, the Castros sent Ochoa to lead the military mission in Angola at the height of the critical campaign in the southern region which eventually led to a peace agreement between Angola, Cuba, and South Africa and the beginning of the withdrawal, after fourteen years, of Cuba’s fifty thousand troops. After Ochoa returned from Angola in January 1989, both Castros approved his appointment as commander of the western army, which would have put him in charge of the troops based in and around Havana, the capital city. Ochoa was scheduled to take over that command on June 14, two days after he was in fact arrested. The Castros’ sudden desire to block Ochoa from receiving that post was one factor that precipitated his arrest.
Raúl Castro’s speech set off rumors in the exile community in the United States that Ochoa had attempted a military Putsch. On June 15 the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation set up a conference call for several journalists with Rafael del Pino, a former Cuban general who defected to the US in 1987. He claimed that “Cuban counter-intelligence discovered a high degree of discontent among the officers of the armed forces, which could have caused an uprising…. They have taken urgent measures to eradicate the danger at its center.” But del Pino had no firsthand information, and no solid evidence of any broad conspiracy or troop movement against the Castro regime has emerged.
What did become clear during the show trials was that Ochoa had been accustomed to considerable autonomy as a military officer and that he continued this year to increase his independence. For example, Fidel disclosed that Ochoa had sought to break with past practice by having the navy and air force in Cuba’s western region placed under his command along with the infantry. Raúl Castro claimed that Ochoa, in what the defense minister called a display of “unrestrained populism,” had been handing out presents during the spring to the officers who would serve under him in the western army, in order, Raúl Castro claimed, to create “debts of gratitude to his person.”
Meanwhile Fidel, seeking to discredit Ochoa’s military performance in Angola, gave a remarkably revealing account of the friction between himself and the general in his address to the Communist legislature on July 9. Fidel said bluntly that working from a command center in Havana he—not the Cuban officers based in Angola—ran the Cuban military campaign against a South African incursion in southern Angola in late 1987 and 1988. Reading from a sheaf of secret cables he said he had sent Ochoa during that period, Fidel gave a picture of himself holed up day after day in the war room, poring over maps, firing off cables, cursing what he deemed to be idiotic blunders by the Angolan high command and its Soviet advisers. Castro said that during 1988 Ochoa had proposed four different strategies for the southern offensive, and he had rejected all four of them.
One can only imagine what it must have been like for Ochoa to try to manage a war against South African tanks and artillery with tens of thousands of Cuban troops in a vast, war-weakened country under the incoming barrage of instructions from Fidel Castro, a hemisphere away. On February 15, 1988, after one South African assault near the outpost of Cuito Cuanavale in which fourteen Cuban soldiers were killed, Fidel said he sent a cable: “You have constantly underestimated the enemy’s possible actions. You must be more alert and conscientious to avoid mistakes.”
From the cables it appears that Ochoa simply ignored some of Castro’s demands. In one message Fidel said: “We don’t really understand how our orders, or even our views, are transmitted to our people in Cuito…. Something is going wrong in the transmission of orders.”
Since Fidel did not choose to read any of the replies he received from Ochoa, we don’t know what strategy the general proposed. But Raúl Castro, in his report to the honor tribunal, indicated that Ochoa’s dissent from Fidel Castro’s plans was often passionate. “In crucial moments of the fighting,” General Castro said,
when it was his duty to strengthen the combat morale of his officers, he was carrying on in front of practically anyone, sometimes even presenting himself as a victim because, and I quote his words: “They sent me to a lost war to make me take the rap for our defeat.”
Fidel Castro said that as the Angola campaign wore on, he began to bypass Ochoa and relied on Division General Leopoldo Cintras Frías, the field commander stationed in southern Angola.
The Cuban campaign was at least a partial success. The Cubans dug in along a line of defense in southwestern Angola. After months of standoffs South Africa began to conclude that its interests might be better served by a peace accord. In December 1988, Angola, South Africa, and Cuba signed an agreement in which Cuba agreed to withdraw its troops from Angola by mid-1991 and South Africa agreed to grant independence to neighboring Namibia. Fighting between the Angolan government and anti-Communist guerrilla forces backed by the US continues, despite a cease-fire declared last June, but the signers of the earlier pact so far continue to comply with their commitments.
In several speeches during the past year Fidel has referred, without elaborating, to an apparently angry dispute he had with the Soviet advisers in Angola about the southern campaign. This led several Cuba experts I interviewed—among them a thoughtful Latin diplomat in Havana and a defector from Cuban intelligence in Miami—to speculate that Ochoa, who had studied in the 1970s at the Frunze military academy in the Soviet Union, had probably sided with the Soviet advisers against Fidel in Angola, and might have become an advocate for a Gorbachev-style opening in Cuban politics. But the trials did not conclusively show that Ochoa had favored a coherent pro-Moscow platform in opposition to Fidel Castro. Rather, Ochoa seemed to be a veteran soldier, not an ideologist, who had become aware of rising complaints against the regime and was willing to say so. In his military life he seemed to want to carve out a well-defined sphere of action for himself and his particular way of doing things, in an intensely centralized system in which for the past three decades Fidel Castro alone has held the final decision-making power.
Asked by Escalona, the prosecutor, to explain the origins of such a “decline” as his, Ochoa reflected,
You start with grumbling when you get an order, and end up thinking that every order the higher command gives is a bad one. Then you begin to think independently and to believe that you are always right, and to justify to yourself the atrocious things you do.
What did the trial record show about the “atrocious things” Ochoa said he did?
Ochoa, Tony de la Guardia, his twin brother, Brigadier General Patricio de la Guardia Font (the head of Cuban intelligence in Angola when Ochoa was mission chief), and several other officers spoke at length during the court-martial about Ochoa’s trading on the black market, or candonga, in Angola.
With the Angolan economy in a state of virtual collapse, buying food and basic goods outside official channels was a standard and often necessary practice for Angolans and for foreigners as well. The Angolan government simply winked at it. Mostly, the trial witnesses testified, Ochoa sent his quartermasters to the candonga to trade surplus Cuban sugar from military warehouses for Angolan supplies for his troops. He also exchanged Cuban rations for kwanzas, the Angolan currency, in order to pay for the construction of barracks and airfields.
Ochoa admitted he sent his men to trade on the black market for two more controversial commodities, diamonds and Congolese ivory. Several of Ochoa’s aides told the court that Ochoa kept in his desk a small bottle which they gradually filled with 136 tiny diamonds. Ochoa took the diamonds with him to Cuba when his Angola tour ended, and sent Martínez to Panama to get them appraised. There, Martínez testified, he learned to his dismay that the diamonds had little value because they were too small for jewelry. Martínez said he sold them for only $3,500, which he turned over to Ochoa; nor was it clear if the diamond sales were reported to army accountants.
Ochoa also said he sent back a number of ivory tusks to Cuba from Angola and was paid for them in American dollars by Tony de la Guardia. Ochoa said he reported these transactions to Cuban military accounting in Angola, and no one disputed him.
He insisted to the court that at the time it was not illegal to take either diamonds or ivory out of Angola. His aides testified that they believed that the candonga purchases, including the diamonds and ivory, were a routine effort to obtain dollars to support the activities of the military mission. Captain José Llicas, a logistics officer who bought diamonds for Ochoa and who was not indicted, said,
That was my regular job, my duty, to make deals on the candonga…. I did it with pleasure, because it would represent dollars for Cuba. If they had asked me to get snake poison, I would have gotten it for them.
In order to buy the supplies his forces needed, Ochoa seems to have ventured into a commercial underworld that was an accepted part of life in Angola. Though it might be argued that barter for diamonds and ivory was an unseemly pursuit for the commander of a foreign military force, it hardly seems grounds for the charge of treason. But in his July 9 speech Fidel Castro called these activities “theft of state funds and resources.”
Ochoa had been the head of the Cuban military advisers to the Sandinistas between 1982 and 1985, and both Ochoa and Martínez testified to the court-martial about a weapons deal he had agreed to make on behalf of the Sandinista army. General Joaquín Cuadra, the Sandinista army chief of staff who arranged the deal with Ochoa, also sent a confidential report to Havana about the incident, which Fidel Castro chose to read to the legislature. When I spoke with Cuadra in Nicaragua in July he confirmed that Fidel had read the report Cuadra had written.
The Sandinistas said that in March 1987 they sent Ochoa, through Martínez, $161,000 in cash (a serious amount for dollar-starved Nicaragua) to pay for some specialized Western-made weapons which Ochoa had offered to procure for the Nicaraguan army. Martínez testified that on Ochoa’s orders he deposited $115,000 of the money in an account in Panama under his own name. An advance was made to a Panamanian middleman, Martínez said, but the Panamanian failed to purchase the weapons and refused to return the advance.
Finally, in September 1988, according to the Sandinista report, Ochoa sent a shipment of Eastern-bloc rifles and munitions to Nicaragua from the Cuban arsenal in Angola. The Sandinistas took this to be compensation for the earlier, failed deal for American weapons, but their dollars stayed in Martínez’s account in Panama. According to the Sandinista report, “neither Ochoa nor Martínez told us that the money was safe in the Panama account; we had given it up for lost.”
“Ochoa, don’t you think that the Nicaraguans might think we just kept that money?” the prosecutor, Escalona, asked.
Ochoa: No, no, the Nicaraguans might think that I wanted to keep that money, but not that Cuba wanted to keep it.
Ecalona: That Arnaldo Ochoa wanted to keep the money?
Ochoa: Yes, they perfectly well might have thought that, and many people do think it.
Ochoa testified to the effect that the unused Sandinista funds were an administrative problem he had put off dealing with, and he said he intended to return the money. It was another instance of murky, though not necessarily criminal, conduct by Ochoa, but Fidel Castro portrayed it as larceny.
The most serious episode involving Ochoa that plainly came out in the trials was a trip he ordered Martínez to make to Medellín, Colombia to meet with the drug boss Pablo Escobar. Ochoa admitted that he had authorized Martínez to go to Colombia; Tony de la Guardia said he had got Martínez a visa for the trip; Amado Padrón, de la Guardia’s assistant, said he met in Havana with Martínez and several Colombians sent by the Medellín cartel in April 1988 to prepare the way for Martínez’s trip; and Martínez described the meeting, which took place in May 1988.
As it turned out Escobar, according to Martínez’s account, was not particularly interested in making cocaine deals with the Cubans. Escobar wanted them to provide him with surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Colombian drug enforcement helicopters, and to arrange for him to take refuge in Cuba if he needed to do so. Escobar casually raised the possibility of setting up a laboratory to process cocaine in Cuba, or even in Angola, but Martínez said that such a possibility was rejected on several occasions.
During the following weeks, both Martínez and Ochoa testified, Martínez repeatedly briefed Ochoa by telephone to Angola or in person in Havana on his discussions with Escobar. But no evidence came out at the trials that Ochoa ever did anything for Escobar. Yet in explaining his actions, Ochoa told the court martial almost matter-of-factly that he had hoped to conduct “really big business, not just a business of kilos” with the Colombian cocaine cartel by helping the cartel to ship drugs through Panama and Mexico, without bringing any narcotics through Cuba. Ochoa said he planned to work with an unnamed friend of his in Panama, who was to launder the profits from the drug deals by investing them in Cuban tourism:
Ochoa: That third party was going to handle the investment, not me.
Escalona: Investing in Cuba?
Ochoa: Yes, him.
Escalona: But with money from—
Ochoa: From the drug trafficking.
How Ochoa would benefit personally from such investments never became clear. But, in contrast to the other charges, it would seem that these plans of Ochoa’s could have been a legitimate basis for legal action—action, not summary execution—against a commander of his stature.
Although it is difficult to assess the reality of what is said in such trials, a portrait of a man who was increasingly disaffected began to emerge from the testimony and from Ochoa’s own confessions. Even the fellow officers who condemned him acknowledged their admiration for him. Ochoa’s troops, according to Brigadier General Leonardo Andollo Valdés, an honor tribunal member who had fought with him in Ethiopia, “appreciated, admired, and respected him.” Brigadier General Gustavo Chuí Beltrán, who served under him in Angola, said, “We regarded him as an excellent man, a comrade, and a charismatic, decisive officer.” But some said he had become bored with Communist party activities. Ochoa apparently enjoyed trading in the markets in Angola. Raúl Castro and several other senior officers complained that he was constantly asking them to get the army involved in a wide variety of money-making businesses.
Ochoa also said that he had become weary. After all, though he was only in his late forties, he had taken part in five wars. After the Sierra Maestra, he was sent to Venezuela in the mid-Sixties to join a guerrilla force, which was routed with all but a handful of its Cuban members killed. In 1977 he led Cuban forces to victory over Somalia in Ethiopia’s Ogaden. He headed several hundred military advisers in Nicaragua at the height of the Sandinista war against the US-supported contra rebels. Then he went to Angola.
In a contemplative tone, Ochoa said,
I can tell you there was a time in my military life when I felt very tired…. I felt dull…. I think because of that, and because I had been able to act on my own for so many years, I took the wrong path. To certain extent, I lost my sense of reality.
This statement, though couched in confessional language, can also be read as a straightforward assessment by Ochoa of his situation. It can be taken to say that the “reality” of Cuba is that the Castros do not allow anyone they do not strongly control to question their policies. The evidence indicates that Ochoa was executed because of his impatience with this reality, not because of specific acts that he committed.
The drug smuggling of Tony de la Guardia and his associates was in a different sphere from Ochoa’s. As head of the MC department, Tony de la Guardia had for years been in charge of a complex contraband organization that included speedboat drivers from Florida and a network of Cuban intelligence agents doubling as export merchants in Panama. One of these agents was a young Interior Ministry captain, Miguel Ruiz Poo, who was a cousin of the Cuban-American Reinaldo Ruiz, who lived in California and happened to be in the business of providing small planes for drug flights by the Medellín cartel. Ruiz Poo arranged for the fifty-year-old Reinaldo Ruiz and his twenty-two-year-old son, Rubén Ruiz, a pilot, to go to Havana in January 1987, where they met for the first time with Tony de la Guardia and suggested a drug deal.
In the first cocaine shipment they made in collaboration with de la Guardia, the Ruizes flew up from Colombia on April 10, 1987, with 240 kilograms of the drug and landed, with a Cuban air force escort, at Varadero military airbase, on the north coast, near Cuba’s best-known beach resort. The cocaine was transferred to speedboats, which were guided through Cuban waters toward Florida by the Cuban Coast Guard. Later, the cocaine was dropped in fluorescent packets to the speedboats in Cuban waters. On some occasions de la Guardia’s team, coordinated on the ground by his assistant Amado Padrón, looked after the empty drug planes that returned for refueling in Varadero.
Fifteen shipments succeeded. Several were intercepted by US authorities and more than a ton of cartel cocaine was lost. But the team’s main weakness was that it was infiltrated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. On May 9, 1987 a DEA pilot-informant named Hu Chang flew four hundred kilograms of cocaine to Varadero for the Ruizes. The DEA placed secret cameras in the offices in Miami where Hu and the Ruizes were conferring, and the unwitting Ruizes boasted on videotape about their Cuban exploits.
De la Guardia and Padrón continued to move cocaine after the Ruizes were arrested. Cuban government investigators said they recovered 156 kilograms of cocaine and $1.1 million in cash stashed in iceboxes and freshly laid sidewalks in or near the houses of six de la Guardia ring members after they were arrested.
Inevitably the trials raised the familiar question: What did Fidel Castro know and when did he know it? Fidel Castro claimed that he and Raúl did not learn about the involvement of either Ochoa or de la Guardia in drug activities until after they were arrested on June 12 on corruption charges deriving from their trading on the Angolan black market. Fidel said that his investigators first realized that Ochoa could have been linked with drug sales when they found in Martínez’s Havana house, in the hours after he and Ochoa were picked up, a room card from a Medellín hotel and a letter referring to Martínez’s trip.
Fidel made his case in a long and detailed statement. On the other hand, how could an extensive drug operation such as de la Guardia’s, involving dozens of members of the Cuban military forces, have gone on for more than two years without the Castro brothers having some inkling of them? For example, Reinaldo Ruiz has claimed to US investigators that Raúl Castro was at the Varadero air base when the Ruizes arrived with their first shipment, although they did not deal directly with him.
We may never learn just how much the Castro brothers knew about de la Guardia’s drug smuggling. But there is no doubt that in the past Fidel Castro has sponsored, or at least tolerated, narcotics activities by Cuban officials to further the political goals of the regime. In 1982 US authorities broke up a drug ring with Cuban connections led by a flashy Colombian financier named Jaime Guillot Lara. Johnny Crump, a Colombian indicted in the case, testified in Florida that he was the link between Guillot and Fernando Ravelo Renedo, the Cuban ambassador to Colombia at that time, in an operation in which Guillot smuggled marijuana to the United States and brought back rifles for Colombia’s leftist M-19 guerrillas, whom Cuba was supporting. When the United States sought to extradite Guillot from Mexico, Cuba gave him refuge.
Castro never publicly ordered an investigation of the charges in the Guillot case, and Ravelo, although indicted in the United States, is currently serving as Cuba’s ambassador to Nicaragua. A Cuban American convicted in the case, David Lorenzo Pérez, testified that Cuban officials told him that they “were happy we were bringing so many drugs into the United States,” since they saw it as a form of sabotage.
In a quite different case, the Panamanian government defector José Blandón told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year that he attended a meeting in Havana in June 1984 when Castro mediated a dispute between the Panamanian strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega (whom Castro supports against the United States) and Colombian representatives of the Medellín cartel. Castro vehemently denied Blandón’s story.
In April 1989, a federal indictment in Jacksonville, Florida charged that a convicted Medellín drug magnate, Carlos Lehder, moved a ton and a half of cocaine through Cuba in 1984 with the help of the fugitive American financier Robert Lee Vesco, who was said in the indictment to have arranged Lehder’s trip with Cuban officials. Lehder’s former wife, a thirty-four-year-old woman named Yamel Nacel, testified in a Jacksonville court on October 13 that Lehder once paid $10,000 to an official of the Cuban Tourism Ministry to ensure a refuge in Cuba from US law enforcement. Vesco, who is wanted on narcotics charges in the United States, still lives comfortably in Havana.
Whenever Fidel Castro found out about the drug deals of the de la Guardia group, in June he appears to have made an abrupt about-face, so far as the Cuban regime’s position is concerned. Castro suddenly turned against the drug activities that his regime had previously allowed to take place. In fact, virtually everyone implicated in the case insisted that they thought that what they had done was authorized under standing orders from the top level of the regime, in order to obtain Western currency for Cuba. During the court martial Ruiz Poo broke into sobs and swore that Ochoa’s aide Martínez had once told him that Ochoa was in the drug trade because “he had discussed it at the highest levels.” Ochoa and Martínez were quickly recalled to the courtroom, where they denied that they had had higher authorization.
Tony de la Guardia explained at length that his principal worry was to find ways to deposit his drug proceeds in the Interior Ministry treasury without identifying their origins. In 1989 alone, de la Guardia said, he placed $1.3 million in Interior Ministry accounts. He said one of his “tasks” at the ministry was to “support my organization with foreign currency”—which he took to be the foreign currency he obtained from his deals with the Ruizes. De la Guardia said: “In my zeal to excel, to advance and attain these goals, I didn’t stop to analyze what I was doing.”
During the year before the scandal broke in Havana, events—including the arrest and confessions of the Ruizes—had closed in rapidly on the Interior Ministry drug ring, making it impossible for Fidel Castro to ignore it. US drug-enforcement officials believe that Castro finally exposed the de la Guardia ring to the world as a tactic to exculpate the regime and limit its political embarrassment.
With the indictment of the Ruizes in February 1988, some details of their use of the Varadero airfield (though no highranking Cuban officials’ names) were made public by prosecutors in Florida. In the summer of 1988 Cuban Foreign Ministry officials sent word to Washington that they wanted more information about the case. They were offered a copy of the indictment, which they probably had already. No exchange took place, US and Cuban officials said. Meanwhile, according to Granma, “friends of Cuba” in Colombia told Fidel Castro early in 1989 that the Medellín cartel was preparing to go to him with a complaint that some cocaine had been lost in shipments with Cuban government officials. Castro said that in April 1989—soon after extensive details of Reinaldo Ruiz’s confessions were being circulated in Miami—he ordered Cuban counterintelligence to look into the various allegations of drug dealing, and by early June counterintelligence was on the trail of de la Guardia’s assistant, Amado Padrón. Finally, whether by coincidence or not, on June 12 a key US Customs informant named Gustavo Fernández, who was intimately familiar with the Cuban drug ring, escaped from customs agents in Miami, and disappeared. A few hours later Ochoa and de la Guardia were under arrest in Havana.
Tony de la Guardia and his twin brother, Patricio de la Guardia (who was sentenced to thirty years in jail for his part in Ochoa’s Angola businesses), were by no means colorless bureaucrats who sank into corruption. Before their fall, the de la Guardia twins were the kind of revolutionaries the regime had carefully trained, employed in many difficult underground tasks, and recognized with honors for three long decades.
They were elite intelligence officials, who, so far as we know, were never much concerned with ideology. To be something other than what they appeared, to have special exemptions from the routine observance of law—that was what the revolution had meant for them in practice. They had been members of the Interior Ministry’s Special Troops, a versatile, sophisticated corps that Fidel Castro used as a kind of personal force to carry out Cuba’s radical policies overseas. In 1973 Patricio reportedly worked closely with the socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile shortly before he was slain in a coup. Tony was in Nicaragua in 1979 during the Sandinistas’ triumph over the US-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and he coordinated visits to Cuba by Miami exile-community groups during a brief thaw in the late 1970s.
After years of secret missions, they had become part of the group of high Communist officials—“Rolex watch men”—who drive Mercedes limousines, shop in diplomatic stores, and live in relatively luxurious houses. Rubén Ruiz once recalled with awe before a hidden camera in Miami a glimpse he got of the Interior Ministry style when he had a meal with De la Guardia’s team at Varadero:
You got a table about half the length of this room and you get big, big pork legs and steaks this big…. No one else eats that way over there [in Cuba]. Man, we were eating oysters!
Fidel Castro, attempting to recover from the political damage of the show trials, has told Cubans that lapsed Communist zeal was the main cause of the crimes of the convicted men; he talked with scorn of the caste of privileged Communists his regime has long fostered. Abrahantes, the former Interior Ministry chief, was sent to jail, Granma said, because he turned the agency into a nest of “venal, wasteful cliques” that encouraged “pettybourgeois lifestyles, laxity, cronyism.”
The Castro brothers promised a program of “deep rectification” to restore homogeneity. Fidel said: “We will not rest until there is only one world in Cuba, not the world of the bourgeoisie, or the petty bourgeoisie, only the world of our working class.”
The show trials gave the Castro brothers ample opportunities to be seen attacking corruption and elitism; they evidently feel that they must do so if they are going to demand continued sacrifices from Cubans, deny them any opening toward pluralism, and take them down the road of the austere, state-controlled communism from which other communist countries are now turning away. “We have been put on notice,” the human rights leader Elizardo Sánchez told me after the trials, “that from now on to recognize any gray tones in the political world will be a grave act of defiance.” In his most recent remarks, on October 29, Castro railed against the changes taking place in some Eastern European countries, saying,
Nobody can deceive or confuse the Cuban people because we have faith in our solid conviction in Marxism-Leninism…. The red banners of the revolution will never be lowered and/or substituted by the white or yellow banners of counterrevolution.
The purges have left the Castros firmly in control of their regime. But Fidel Castro’s current plans for Cuba are just as contradictory as the policies that ensnared Ochoa and de la Guardia. He says he is determined to modernize Cuba’s economy, but he wants to seal Cuba off from the flow of ideas from both the United States and the Soviet Union. He wants to project Cuba’s image favorably and increase its influence overseas, but he does not want Cuba’s representatives to be changed by the ideas they find there, and he does not want to tolerate demands for greater political freedom at home. He says he wants Cuba to be a uniform, egalitarian society, yet he reserves the right to confer privileges on those he deems worthy of them. He wants Western tourism to be Cuba’s principal source of foreign exchange yet insists that Cubans not be attracted to the values of their guests. He talks of a new, confident culture, yet at times during the show trials his regime appeared to consist of submissive adolescents.
“We are all sons of Fidel,” a leading general told the military honor tribunal—and as the trial proceeded, the same words were heard again and again.
December 7, 1989