Tampa Tribune
Aug 20, 2004

He Brought A Piece Of Cuba With Him


NEW PORT RICHEY - Juan De Sosa was discussing the photos of Havana on the wall at his little slice of Cuba, Juan's Black Bean Deli, on the banks of the Pithlachascotee River.

De Sosa, 77, pointed to a shot taken of him and his sister Martha as young children standing in front of their luxurious home. He talked about the Cathedral of Havana, built in the 18th century, and the Centro Gallego club that was a hot spot when rich Americans partied in his hometown.

Fidel Castro, once De Sosa's classmate at a Jesuit high school in Havana and then his lawyer, took the city and country he loved from De Sosa. Castro's communist revolution caused De Sosa to leave, prompted him to return and fight in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and resulted in De Sosa's capture and 30-month stay in a prison he figured he would never leave.

"Castro is my enemy,'' De Sosa said. ``I kill him if I see him.

"But you also must respect your enemy. Castro is intelligent, but dangerous and criminal. And so, I will never go back to Cuba with Fidel Castro in power. Americans have to realize that Cubans are still at war against Fidel Castro.''

Kevin Ziegel, 11, overheard his grandfather while doing homework at a deli table overlooking the Havana photos.

"So,'' said his grandson, ``even if Castro falls, you are not going back?''

``I am too old to move back there,'' De Sosa said. ``But I would go to visit. Still, I don't have no one there now.''

He reached forward and clasped his grandson's hand, saying, ``I have everyone I love right here. And this country is paradise, you know.''

One of six children born to Tomasa and Eugene De Sosa, the president of a Havana sugar company, Juan De Sosa has spent 33 years in New Port Richey. He was given the key to the city in June, and his deli has thrived since opening five years ago.

``I wanted to bring a little bit of my country here,'' De Sosa said.

He had four children with his first wife and three more with his wife of 27 years, Sandy, who works the deli counter. Daughter Michelle manages it and is scouting new locations for when the Main Street Landing project necessitates their moving.

De Sosa has 18 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and countless friends in Florida, which became home once he came to Miami in 1960.

He has become a leader in the local Latin community and will sell black bean jelly tonight at A Night in the Tropics, a Latin street celebration organized by Greater New Port Richey Main Street.

"We feel there are a lot of Latins in the area and want to bring them together for a festival,'' De Sosa said. ``There will be two Cuban orchestras.''

United They Stood

Although his feet are planted firmly in the United States, De Sosa, a decorated Vietnam Army veteran, always will have a significant part of his heart back in old Havana.

``I grew up there in a very happy family,'' said De Sosa, while seated on the wooden deck outside his deli. ``We were very united. My father was very strict, but he gave us everything we needed to be something in this world.''

De Sosa attended Bellen High School, which he called ``the biggest Jesuit school in the world at that time.''

``Fidel was there with me, a classmate,'' De Sosa said. ``He was a very interesting person, a genius really. He could study just one day for a test and score 100. And he was very good in sports.

``But, you know, he also could slap you in the face four times and then convince you he did nothing. That kind of person is dangerous, very dangerous.''

The kind who starts revolutions.

``Fidel killed everyone who resisted his revolution,'' De Sosa said. ``Then he went around South America and was received like a god. He wanted to unite the entire South America. He thought he was Simon Bolivar [the 19th century South American liberator]. But that wasn't going to happen. So, he turned to Russia and [Nikita] Khrushchev.''

De Sosa said Castro had someone forge his name on checks to help fund his first revolution attempt against Fulgencio Batista, ``taking $65,000 to $70,000 from me.''

Castro nearly took much more - the life of Juan's brother Eugene, a former Havana newspaperman who adamantly opposed Castro and communism.

``The only thing I am sorry about in life is that I owe Fidel Castro the life of my brother, Eugene,'' De Sosa said. ``They put him in jail and were going to kill him the next day. I went to see Castro and asked him to save my brother, and he did.

``My brother continued when he got out and was put in jail again. I went back to Castro, who told me, `I will get him out but don't come to see me again if this happens again.' It happened again, and Eugene spent 20 years in jail there before getting out in 1981 and moving to Miami.''

Juan De Sosa, sent to study in Canada and live in New York, had returned to Cuba after his father died and started his first business. He opened a dairy in Havana when he was 18 and then owned a rice farm and became a cattle rancher.

Fighting For Freedom

By the end of 1960, at 33, he took a plane to the United States, leaving behind his riches and starting over.

``I left because I believe in freedom,'' De Sosa said. ``I could've been in [Castro's] revolution, but I am not a communist.

``When I got to Miami, the CIA was recruiting Cubans to fight Castro. I joined and spent one year in Guatemala training for the assault. I decided I had to do something for my country.''

The 2506 Cuban Brigade, numbering more than 1,400, was composed of poor, middle class and wealthy Cuban exiles, he said. Members of that brigade now have a Web site, www.brigada 2506.com, 2506.com,and a Bay of Pigs Museum & Library in Miami.

The counter-revolutionaries landed in the Bay of Pigs, southeast of Havana on the south side of the island, on April 17, 1961. Cuban planes destroyed ships carrying them as they approached their beach landing, with nearly all killed or captured in the covert attack.

``Marines came in the U.S. Navy boats, and our brigade came on three big boats,'' De Sosa said. ``And I am so proud of the men I fought with because they all kept their mouths shut when we were captured. None of us would say the Marines came in with us, even though the Cubans knew. We hurried to bury the dead Marines.

``Our boat just exploded, and we swam at least a half mile to shore and fought until we were out of ammunition. We went three days without water, and then they caught us.''

He recalled a conversation Brigade Cmdr. Jose ``Pepe'' Perez San Roman had with President Kennedy.

``Kennedy asked if we wanted out,'' De Sosa said. ``Pepe San Roman said, `Mr. President, you put us here to die. We will stay here.' Kennedy had a lot of bad advice on this invasion. It is nothing against Kennedy but the politicians around him.

``I and others spent 2 1/2 years in a concentration camp until Kennedy got us out by negotiating a deal with Cuba, sending $65 million in medicines and medical supplies as donations from U.S. companies. He had to feel guilty.''

They nearly starved to death in prison, and De Sosa recalled meals of rat stew with rotting black-eyed peas. He said they were told they would be killed.

``But we believed in God and trusted God,'' De Sosa said. ``We prayed the [Catholic] rosary every day, and that trust made us survive. Our prison was on a hill above Havana and they could hear thousands of men praying the rosary together up there. That sound converted thousands against the communist revolution.

``The people could not see how we could be so happy in our praying and singing. But when you get out, you do not believe it.''

De Sosa praised the leadership of San Roman and his second-in-command, Erneido Oliva, and third-in-command, Manuel Artime.

De Sosa saw Castro only once while a captive and has not seen him since.

"Fidel said, `Hi,' and I said nothing to him.''

'Fidel Is Just Fidel'

Forty-three years have passed, but the country, years and money Castro took from him remain a bitter pill to swallow.

``Fidel is still playing with us, you know,'' De Sosa said. ``He is showing `Fahrenheit 9/11' in Havana. But Fidel is not really a communist. Fidel is just Fidel. He used that and the Catholic religion for his own purposes.

``Castro is like [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini. He dies, and it is over.''

De Sosa returned to Miami after his prison release and joined the Army, serving one year in Vietnam. He eventually attained the rank of major and received the bronze star for heroism and the Legion of Merit award for meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service to the United States.

``But I don't like to talk about that because a thousand men did more than me,'' De Sosa said. ``The biggest reason I talk about the Brigada is because this is close to my heart.

``I want people to remember the Bay of Pigs and the suffering of the men who were there.''

De Sosa got out of the Army in 1970 and soon moved to New Port Richey to be closer to his in-laws. He worked in maintenance, landscaping and the food industry before opening his deli. And he has worked 17 years at The Bonati Institute in Hudson, most recently as a security guard.

A gentle breeze blew in off the nearby river, and De Sosa smiled as he enjoyed the day on the deli deck. Shaded from the bright sun by an umbrella, he loves gazing at the docks and parks across the street in his adopted hometown.

``If a guy like me can come here without a penny and make it here,'' De Sosa said, pausing. ``God, this is heaven.''

Reporter Steve Kornacki can be reached at (813) 731-8170.