The Miami Herald
April 9, 1979, page 1

Secrets, Strife Led to Cuban Dialogue

Second of Three Parts
Herald Staff Writers

In Panama, a pot-bellied, carrot-topped banker sat down to lunch at a seafood restaurant with four other men. It was August, very hot. The five talked about people they knew in Miami and in Havana.

In Kingston, Jamaica, a bearded preacher whose black eyes hold a zealot's glint behind thick rectangular spectacles, visited an embassy to ask some questions. They didn't throw him out, but he got a very cold shoulder. The diplomats already thought he was a pest. Back in Miami people were calling him a crackpot.

In Washington, a slick-haired, jowly Carter Administration officials met a long-time friend for coffee and a chat. He had done the same thing often before, but this time the conversation made him uncomfortable. He immediately reported it to the National Security Council.

The banker, the preacher and the bureaucrat had heard about each other through the grapevine that binds all Cuban exiles, but they had never sat down for a talk.

There Were others, dozens of people from all walks of life, drinking inky black coffee in different cities at different times, listening to suggestions, making suggestions.

They were Cuban exiles. And they were talking to fellow Cubans - not to exiles like themselves but to representatives of Fidel Castro's Communist government.

The questions were always the same. Could some way be found to resolve differences that had fueled 20 years of mistrust and hatred?

Sometimes the exiles would share their conversations with friends they could trust. Most of the time they kept their own counsel.

Such contacts were the equivalent of treason in the twilight world of the Cuban exile. Retribution could be swift, deadly.

In the end, 75 exiles finally came together on a sunny Havana afternoon last November to negotiate an extraordinary agreement.

It became the first major diplomatic accord in U.S. history signed by a hostile government and an exile community.

The Banker, Bernardo Benes, the preacher, Manuel Espinosa, and the bureaucrat, Juan Rodriguez, were three of the major figures who laid the groundwork for the November conversation with Castro. They called it a dialogue. It focused on the release of Cuban political prisoners and the reunification of Cuban families.

Washington knew about the negotiations from the onset. It provided initial encouragement. Later, from the U.S. government, came advice and suggestions, despite cabinet-level disputes about the whole unlikely venture. Some of the men and women who called themselves the "Committee of 75" weren't U.S. citizens. Some didn't even live in the United States.

It was a diverse group - bankers, brokers, preachers, priests, educators, bureaucrats, businessmen. The 75 sat down in the same room. They talked with a man most of them hate. Exile was the only thing all 75 had in common.

They were never united. They quarreled, they bickered. They criticized each other privately and, later, in print. They defamed one another in lofty metaphysical disputes and vicious personal attacks. In many cases they met one another for the first time that day in Havana and wished they hadn't.

Nevertheless, since the dialogue, 900 political prisoners have been released from Cuban jails and 15,000 exiles have visited their homeland. Another 100,000 are expected to make the trip before year's end.

The results were tangible enough for the dialoguistas to have expected a hero's welcome.

Instead, traditional exile leaders attacked them for betraying the exile cause by even speaking with Castro. Other dissidents criticized them for squabbling among themselves and letting Castro manipulate them. Some critics accused the dialoguistas of profiteering, of becoming involved in the negotiations for personal gain.

Even the people who benefitted most from the dialogue - the prisoners who were released and the exiles who are seeing their relatives for the first time in years - have remained silent. There are no kudos.

"People don't care about the committee," said artist Siro del Castillo, a former political prisoner and opponent of the dialogue. "What they want is to go to Cuba. There is a grassroots consensus that this new policy of Castro's would have come with the committee, without the committee, with this 75, or another 75."

Many of the dialoguistas would not dispute the point. The end justified the means, they say. The numbers speak for themselves.

"I DIDN'T EXPECT applause or support," said Maria Cristina Herrera, a sociology professor at Miami-Dade Community College, head of the liberal Cuban Studies Institute and a participant in the dialogue. "The flights are going and the prisoners are leaving. The ones who are really grateful are the ones who are seeing their folks."

The dialogue did not suddenly spring into being without warning, jumping full grown out of the brain of Fidel Castro.

Practically all the dialoguistas at least suspected there was something afoot. Others helped make it happen.

"Honestly, all I ever wanted was to help Cubans worried about their families living in Cuba," said Espinosa, the Hialeah evangelist who by 1977 had failed twice to contact the Castro government in quixotic voyages from the Florida Keys.

One trip aborted before he left. The other, to hear Espinosa tell it, ended with arrest and three days in a Cuban jail.

"I'm not a saint, but I'm not a crook either," Espinosa said. "The Cubans really didn't know what to make of me."

NEITHER DID anyone else. Those who believe Espinosa had actually been to Cuba were suspicious. Those who didn't thought he was crazy.

Espinosa is a hefty, bushy-bearded, 42-year-old whose thick spectacles give him the air of respectability generally associated with country preachers. That is what he is - estilo Cubano.

His speech is loud, liquid and bullet-quick, delivered in snappy street patter. He likes to look at himself in the mirror, but can laugh at himself when someone catches him doing it.

He is bombastic and charismatic on the dais, equally comfortable saving souls or selling improved Cuban-American relations. He makes his points with graceful movements of long-fingered, attractive hands, the only discordant note in a man who actively projects the image of an aggressive street hustler.

For years, Espinosa publicly advocated lifting the Cuban blockade. The boat trips, he says, were "acts of total desperation" to focus attention on the plight of split families. It was with the same idea in mind that he went knocking on the door of the Cuban consulate in Kingston.

"THEY HEARD my problems, listened to me unload my troubles all over them," Espinosa said. "I used to call them constantly. Sometimes they used to keep me hanging around for three days and wouldn't see me."

The pestering paid off. In June 1977, the Cuban government unexpectedly allowed a group of four members of Espinosa's congregation to travel to Cuba. Six groups followed in the 17 months before the dialogue.

In February, 1978, the Cuban consul in Jamaica held a buffet dinner party and Espinosa was invited.

By this time "I had gotten the idea that there were others involved in this, particularly Benes. I had heard about him."

In fact, what now appears to have been the crucial meeting that set up the dialogue had already occurred several months earlier, at the open-air Panamar restaurant along the waterfront in Panama City.

Benes, an ample man with a gourmand's stomach, bright orange hair and an insatiable cigar-smoking habit, refuses to speak about the meeting. "Reasons of state" forbid it, Benes says.

On any other subject, however, he is a nonstop talker, poking his cigar in the air and delivering homilies with the fervent aplomb of an archbishop. Benes is a gregarious activist, a man who prides himself on his receptivity to unorthodox ideas. He says that is what led the Cuban government to contact him.

BENES' RESUME lists membership in 45 different organizations. He displays autographed photographs in his Continental National Bank offices of everyone from President Carter to Cuba's former world featherweight champion, Kid Chocolate, and Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

When he eats at a restaurant, he is shaking hands constantly with friends and acquaintances who come by to wish him well. Other people, Benes concedes, will spot him and go eat somewhere else. Few people are indifferent to Bernardo Benes.

The lunch that began to shape the dialogue took place while Benes was vacationing with his family in Panama, a country where he has many business contacts.

On the morning of August 22, 1977 Benes received a telephone call during breakfast at the Hotel Panama. It was from a friend who said three members of the Cuban government wanted to talk.

They arranged a meeting for 1 p.m. at the Panamar, a restaurant locally renowned for its grilled shellfish.

BENES WORE an open-necked guayabera shirt. His Cuban-born Panamanian friend and the three Cubans, who turned out to be top-echelon national security officers, also were in shirtsleeves.

At first, each side asked about people they once knew who were living in Miami or still in Havana. The atmosphere was cordial, the chat inconsequential.

Gradually, the discussion got specific. The men began to talk about the possibility of a rapprochement between Cuba and the exile community.

The bill was $72, including $23 worth of drinks. Benes doesn't drink. Three of the men had lobster, the other two had corvina, a fish similar to whiting and common in Panama. The Panamanian paid; the tip was $7.

In the 15 months between the luncheon and the dialogue, Benes met several times with top-level Cuban officials in several different cities, including Havana and also Nassau, Kingston, Mexico City and New York.

BENES WON'T SAY how many meeting there were. Neither will he discuss the contents of the talks.

Several times Benes went to Washington to be briefed and debriefed by federal officials. In one contact he identified his Cuban luncheon partners from photographs.

Espinosa also was visiting Washington "although they never asked me. I informed them anyway just to keep everything legal, and even to this day I do it," he said. "They didn't view what I was doing in a bad light."

Echoes from Washington were perplexing.

The idea of a dialogue was being sharply debated by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who favored it, and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzinski, who was opposed.

One of those most aware of the infighting within the administration was Juan Rodriguez, a round-faced Cuban exile political insider with a liberal reputation.

IN EARLY 1977, Rodriguez won political appointment to a $42,000 job as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the highest post held by a Cuban exile in the Carter Administration.

Soon after arriving in Washington, Rodriguez had coffee with "a friend who told me that the Cubans from the United Nations mission were interested in talking to me," he recalls.

"I told him I couldn't meet anyone without notifying the National Security Council."

A Brezinski aide sent Rodriguez to the FBI. The FBI told him to meet with the Cubans. Everything went smoothly for awhile in delicate overtures Rodriguez calls "really the beginning of the dialogue."

But in May, 1977, during a barbecue at the White House, Rodriguez discovered that Vance and Brezinski were at odds over the contacts with the Cubans.

"I APPROACHED Carter, and said it would be a good idea to have a meeting with Fidel in a yacht," Rodriguez said. Soon after, Security Council officials told him to stop "interfering" in foreign policy.

Later, during preliminary talks in 1977 and 1978, the would-be dialoguistas got some subtle help behind the scenes from Rep. Dante Fascell (D,. Miami) who saw to it that Brezinski and Vance got crucial progress reports.

"I called Vance and told him these people should be taken seriously, not run in and out of the door. Vance met Benes and considered what he had to say. There was a breakthrough," said Fascell.

By September, the groundwork was completed. On Sept. 6, Castro spoke to foreign and Cuban exile reporters at a news conference in Havana.

He astounded them by suggesting that "members of the Cuban community abroad" come to the Cuban capital to discuss the liberation of political prisoners and the reunification of families.

THE NEWS electrified exile communities around the world, but many of the dialoguistas were less than surprised.

"We knew what Fidel was going to say in May," Rodriguez said. "We knew Fidel would break the game open. They asked me if I wanted Fidel to mention my name, but I was a coward and I said no."

In the end, Espinosa was the only individual mentioned by name during the news conference. Also mentioned were groups like the leftist Antonio Maceo Brigade.

The Cuban Interest Section in Washington, established in September, 1977, sent a form letter of invitation to the people that Cuban wanted as participants in the dialogue.

That the list came from Havana, that Castro picked the dialoguistas, immediately became the focus for attack by traditional exile leaders. They condemned the dialogue concept from the outset, and their hostility persists.

"OF THE 75, I knew maybe 55," said sociology Professor Herrera, who characterizes her role during the dialogue as an "observer,"

There was no chance for the exiles to get together before the meeting with Castro, she said, because there was no time and many of the exiles didn't know one another, she said. The invitations from Cuba for the meetings Nov. 20 and 21 were marked "personal and private."

"They did it that way because they didn't want a united group," Herrera said. "They wanted a mosaic, that was the object. Any stronger group would have made problems."

Many of the dialoguistas arrived in Havana on a Saturday night, Nov. 18. Problems only dimly foreseen emerged immediately.

"When we got to Cuba everything we had planned went straight out the window because of emotion," Rodriguez said. "I compared myself to Hernan Cortez, when he landed in Mexico and looked back to see his burning ships and knew there was no way back."

RODRIGUEZ PASSED a nostalgic night drinking and singing. With Espinosa and other exiles, he blearily waited for dawn to light Havana's Malecon.

(The exiles' celebrating that weekend included a visit to the Tropicana night club. In a "very Cuban evening" with1950s vintage entertainers and songs, they finished with a conga dance through the hallways of the Riviera Hotel.)

Sunday morning, Rodriguez was in no shape for a promised tour of the city. A knock on his hotel room door awakened him at 1 p.m.

"They told me that 'some people' wanted to greet me,'" Rodriguez said. The greeters turned out to be Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and Cuban defense minister, and his wife, Vilma Espin.

"I extended my hand, but he gave me an abrazo [brotherly hug]," Rodriguez said. "Eighteen years of hatred were wiped away."

The visit lasted a half hour, Raul saying he saw the dialogue "in a good light," Rodriguez said.

APPROVAL FROM RAUL, the number two man in the country and a known hardliner, made clear to Rodriguez that the Cuban government was behind the dialogue.

At 10 a.m. Monday, the dialoguistas were ready for business, but Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Ricardo Alarcon told them the meeting would not be held until the afternoon.

He started to brief them, then watched the conference deteriorate as the dialoguistas started arguing among themselves. The exiles couldn't even agree what they wanted to talk about.

"Benes said that the points that he had presented to the government should be the agenda discussed," Rodriguez said, and an uproar ensued. Benes would not comment on the incident.

"Alarcon was laughing," Rodriguez said. "Everything fell apart and I thought the whole thing was going to be destroyed.

"'My God,' I thought, "no prisoners are going to leave here and neither are we. They're going to have to call the Red Cross.'"

Eventually the meeting ended with a strong hint by Alarcon that guayaberas would not be de rigeur for the afternoon dialogue. Coat and tie would be required.

THE NEXT STORM brewing in the minds of the dialoguistas was the seating arrangement, a touchy matter given the morning's events.

"We figured that the way they place the chairs was going to indicate the importance of each person," Rodriguez said. It was not to be. Cuban officials sat the exiles in alphabetical order.

"At the time there was still doubt that Fidel was going to be there," Rodriguez said. "We thought that if he came it would be only a protocol appearance."

Castro met them at the entrance to the main conference room in the Palace of the Revolution. He shook everybody's hand. Briefcases and papers were not allowed at the meeting. "There will be paper and pencil on your seats," the exiles were told.

Inside the conference room, one look at the array of Cuban officials sitting at the table in front of him was enough for Rodriguez.

"I realized that we were playing hardball. This is a goddamn professional game. But I saw the lineup didn't have much effect on a lot of people, who didn't know who these people were.

"ONE WOMAN began to cry when she saw Castro and I said to myself, 'My God, what are we coming to?'"

The lineup, according to Herrera, had Alarcon on the far left, with Jaime Crombet, a Central Committee member next, followed by Jose R. Machado, a Communist party Secretariat member, Juan Almeida, a member of the politburo, Castro, Sergio del Valle, the Interior Minister, Osmani Cienfuegos, Minister Secretary, Aleida March, Ernesto "Che" Guevara's widow and Rene Rodriguez, head of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples.

"The fact that these people were there meant that they had made an effort not to have the most renowned antipaticos (hardliners) there," Herrera said.

Rodriguez said Castro "took his gun off before he sat down, saying 'I guess we don't need this here.'"

First to speak was the Rev. Jose Reyes, the Baptist minister who would be chosen the next day as the titular leader of the group, Rodriguez said. "I was fifth."

HE SAID that practically everyone spoke. After a while, the meeting got "repetitious." It lasted 12 hours. Everyone came back for another long session the next day. Castro stayed for all of it, both days.

In the end, the exile accepted Castro's offer concerning the release of 400 political prisoners a month, group visits to the island, and a still-undefined principle of family reunification.

The dialogue ended then, but the participants returned in December to sign the agreement.

By then, the original "Committee of 75" had grown to 140. Disagreements about the way to handle the prisoner releases had shattered whatever fragile unity the original group had encountered.

Reyes, a dapper man of 47 who always dresses in suits and has a quiet reserved manner, said he "dreamed of playing a big role, but I never thought I was going to play this role that I am playing." Being chosen leader of the group "was a surprise."

Rodriguez and other dialoguistas said Reyes was picked for several reasons: Unlike Benes or Espinosa, he was not controversial. He was a Baptist minister. He was supposed to be a friend of President Carter.

Since the dialogue, Reyes has been unable to maintain any semblance of unity among key members of the group. He is sharply criticized by his fellow exiles every step of the way as he tries to implement the dialogue.

The committee that was only a committee in name to begin with is now more fragmented than ever. It made only one joint decision - to go to Cuba and sign the agreement.

Perhaps that was enough.

"It was a good thing and a necessary thing," said Herrera. "The prisoners had to be gotten out for humanitarian reasons. We had to break the stalemate.

"The price was to take a risk, and ethical and historical risk.

"I am not anti-anything, I am pro-Cuba,"she said. "Castro will die one day and Cuba will prevail and I am more interested in that than in Castro. Fidel Castro is just a piece in Cuban history."

For exiles like Herrera, treating with Castro is less a concession of old principle than an acknowledgment of new reality.