Exile recounts trips to Cuba that angered political foes
BY ELAINE DE VALLE
Being Bernardo Benes hasn't always been easy.
There have been bomb scares and death threats. He has been spat on, insulted in public, expelled from funerals. He has given up personal comforts and, perhaps, a spot among the hierarchy of exile figures -- all for his convictions.
But the controversial Cuban American -- vilified in the 1970s and '80s for promoting dialogue with the Fidel Castro government -- stood before more than 100 people at the Miami Book Fair International Sunday evening and said he had only one regret: that he didn't wear socks to his book's presentation, telecast live on C-SPAN.
``I thought this was going to be made of wood and not of plastic,'' he said, slapping the podium on the side and tugging up the legs of his pants to expose his bare ankles.
It was a brief moment of levity in an hour steeped in seriousness as spectators hung on every word from Benes and Robert Levine, the author of Secret Missions to Cuba.
The 300-plus page book tells the tale of Benes' life around his most defining years: the 75 trips to his homeland from the late '70s to the mid-'80s in a bid to normalize relations between Havana and Washington and how the effort helped free 3,600 political prisoners and led to family reunification flights to the island.
It might never have happened at all, readers learn in the opening
chapter, if Benes had given in to his initial reaction and declined an
invitation to lunch with Cuban
government officials during a 1977 visit to Panama.
But he gave in to curiosity instead, and the rest is history.
That history is meticulously detailed in the book written by Levine, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami and author of more than a dozen books about Latin America and Cuba.
Parts of Secret Missions read like a Robert Ludlum spy novel -- if not for the 553 footnotes, a testament to Levine's painstakingly detailed documentation. Benes thanked him for telling his story -- even though it is about those experiences that ultimately made him a pariah in many of South Florida's Cuban exile circles.
``My life has been destroyed by some anti-Castro people who don't know they are helping Castro,'' he said, explaining that the division in Miami's exile circles over the Cuba issue is what Castro wants.
Sounding more like an anti-embargo speech at times than an introduction
to his life story, Benes said the Cuban regime has been propped up by two
events at the
opposite ends of 40 years: the ill-starred Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Elián González saga in 2000 that widened the gulf between exiles and the Cuban
``At the moment the Elián González story came out, Fidel Castro was going down,'' Benes said. ``This gave him a second wind to keep control, total control, of 11 million people.''
Benes said Castro was ready to establish relations with the United States on three separate occasions. One of them was after one of Benes' trips. He left on May 18, 1985, thinking there would soon be normalization. The next day, a headline about U.S.-financed Radio Martí being launched told him it was all for naught.
It may not have been easy to be Bernardo Benes, but he said bringing families together made it all worth it.
``If I know that a Cuban in Miami was able to put a flower on the tomb of his mother [in Cuba], that is enough,'' he said.
``This is a modest contribution to the Miami community to see if we can break the silenced majority,'' he said, alluding to the book. He went on to warn the audience, before a question-and-answer period, that he would answer questions, but he would not take insults.
``My family has suffered enough. I will not acknowledge the question,'' he said.
There were no hecklers or protesters in the audienceOne man, Paul Max, did not ask a question, but rather praised Benes. ``You are a true patriot. You risked your life.''
Not everyone in the audience, however, was convinced.
Ramón Martínez, 26, said he would have liked a little more balance in the presentation from someone explaining why Benes became so hated by many exiles.
``Perhaps they thought it was a public relations victory for Fidel Castro,'' he said.
But Benes was not there to apologize, as he had told the crowd earlier.
``I've been very nice for 43 years,'' he said. ``The buck stops here -- with this book.''