Exile pariah has story told
``At another meeting, Castro sat with one leg crossed over the other and Benes noticed from the sole that his boots were Florsheims. He commented on this, saying that they were `middle-class' boots. Castro replied that they were `good American products.' Benes then told him that he could do better and asked for his shoe size. Castro . . . ordered his aide, Pepin Naranjo, to go . . . check his shoe size. The next time Benes visited Castro, he gave him a pair of Johnston & Murphy boots worth $650, which Castro accepted with pleasure. Benes recalled that Castro spent at least ten minutes admiring them.''
-- From the book Secret Missions to Cuba: Fidel Castro, Bernardo Benes and Cuban Miami, by Robert Levine
At age 66, long after having traveled the twisting, clandestine
inner passages between Miami and Havana, braving attacks and death threats
here for his pro-dialogue
position toward Cuba and living an often dizzying contradiction, the ostracized insider, Bernardo Benes is ready to tell his story.
A newly published book about Benes' years as an intermediary between the U.S. and Cuban governments says the polemic former banker made 75 secret trips to Cuba, 50 during the Jimmy Carter administration and 25 during the Ronald Reagan years. During these clandestine missions, he says, he secured 14 meetings with Fidel Castro.
Benes says he feels like the mute character in the old novela, El derecho de nacer, for years withholding a crucial secret at every cliffhanging end of each episode. And there are so many stories and so many "secrets'' in the files of the exile who played a critical behind-the-scenes role in the 1978 dialogue between a group of Miami exiles and Cuban government officials.
Those lambasted encounters led to the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners from the island and paved a bridge from the heart of Hialeah to the heart of Havana.
In Benes' unorthodox reasoning, buying Castro a pair of $650 boots was not a gesture of Cuban-style guataquería, of kissing up. It was an act of one-upmanship.
``I wanted to show them any way I could that our system was better,'' said Benes, who will discuss the book at 8 tonight at the Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 DeSoto Blvd.
There are plenty of such ``insider'' anecdotes woven into Secret Missions (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press) by the author Robert Levine, who heads the University of Miami's Center for Latin American Studies.
There's the time when Benes breakfasted in Little Havana's old Casablanca cafeteria with two Castro operatives. As the universe would have it, it was Aug. 13, 1978, Castro's birthday. Recognizing Benes, the waitress, to the shock of the Cuban operatives seated at the table, joked: ``Congratulations, Dr. Benes! . . . Today is Fidel's birthday!''
But lighthearted joking was not the usual greeting for Benes at Miami restaurants, where on several occasions he had to call the police to report death threats. And when he was vice chairman of Continental National Bank, his pro-dialogue stance triggered weeks of pickets and one late-night bomb.
In many ways, it was the worst possible time for Benes to advocate rapprochement. It was the volatile and intrigue-thick 1970s of Cuban Miami. City streets smoldered still from terrorist bombings. Yet Benes says he still believes he had a shot at bringing two enemy sides to the table.
Even in the hostile city that surrounded him, he found countless examples of exile success. And for whatever it's worth, he says, he brought such glimpses of American life to Castro and his inside men, and he will never forget their look of envy and defeat.