Soldier of Fortune
August 1980

Soldier of Fortune Special Report:

Cuban Blows Agent Covers in South Florida

by Jim Graves

FIDEL Castro probably couldn't believe what he was hearing on 31 January when Reverend Manuel Angel Espinosa ?Fidel's "Man In Miami" since 1976 ? called him "an unscrupulous beast" and threatened to denounce Cuban agents and operations.

Espinosa delivered less than a week later, blowing the cover on Cuban operations in South Florida in the first of a series of three press conferences. Later in February, he revealed additional details to Soldier of Fortune Publisher Robert K. Brown in a private interview.

As befits a person of his background, Espinosa has a theatrical delivery ? a rata?tat?tat tempo punctuated with sweeping, emphatic gestures ? and his documentation, like his past, is confusing and sometimes shrouded in mystery.

Espinosa, a one?time captain in Castro's army, has since then been: a political prisoner in one of Castro's jails; an anti-Castro revolutionary; a Pentecostal minister; a founding member of the pro?Castro Committee of 75; and by his own admission ? but he claims for his own purposes ? a collaborator working for Castro.

When Espinosa Spoke Miami Listened

For documentation Espinosa offered his personal testimony, collaboration from some friends and photographs showing himself with various luminaries of the Cuban government (including Castro). Despite his lack of irrefutable documentation, Espinosa's story was too detailed and too comprehensive to have been a complete fabrication. Thus, when Espinosa spoke, Miami listened.
Miami is a few miles and a world apart from its better known sister city of Miami Beach. In Miami Beach, you find luxurious hotels, fine restaurants, rich tourists and few signs that a communist country is only 90 miles away. Miami, because of its cost of living, proximity and similarity of climate, is where the vast majority of the Cuban exiles who fled Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s settled. Within Miami there is one section so Cuban, it's called "Little Havana." In "Little Havana," the signs are in Spanish and it doesn't hurt to know a little when ordering food, shopping or riding a taxi. The action is Cubano: girls have dark eyes; music has a Caribbean tempo; coffee comes in thimble?sized cups and is loaded with sugar; food is spicy; emotions run high; and La Revolucion is the topic.

Espinosa became an anti?Castro activist when he arrived in Florida in 1962. In those days almost every storefront was a CIA op ? or reported to be one. Men put on bandoliers to assert their machismo when taking their morning cup at the outdoor coffee stands. American customs turned a suspicious eye on every boat leaving port with too many gas tanks and too many crewmen.

But most of it was empty talk, as even Espinosa will admit: "I started drinking, and in large quantities ...started telling tall tales, lies, issuing false checks and phony war communiques, and there are leaders here [in Miami] who signed them and newsmen who read the press releases on the air who know what I'm talking about. I became the scum of the earth."

At the time, he was a member of the Committee of Help to the Cuban Resistance, associated with Dr. Orlando Bosch [who founded a terrorist group called Cuban Power] and he also had ties with militants from Alpha 66. In 1970, Espinoza moved to the Bronx, N.Y., where he trained at the "Institute of Love, Power and Grace" to become a minister. Espinosa drifted away from an active role in the anti?Castro movement when he embraced religion. In 1974, Espinoza opened the doors of his Pentecostal Evangelical Reformed Church in Hialeah, Fla. One year later, he made another dramatic move ? toward Castro.

Early Days Of The Committee

In 1975, Espinosa started actively calling for talks with the Castro government. At that time, he said his main goal was to reunite Cuban families that had been split when the "Freedom Flights" were stopped in 1973. Later the movement which Espinosa was involved in came to be called the Committee of 75. In addition to the resumption of the "Freedom Flights," the group wanted the embargo stopped, normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S., release of political prisoners in Cuba and permission from the Cubans for exiles to be allowed to return to Cuba to see relatives. In 1978, the Committee reached at least part of its goals when Castro met with the group (they numbered 140 by then, including some Bay of Pigs veterans) and gave his approval to the release of some prisoners and visits by exiles.

Needless to say, the boys in the bandoliers didn't like that and in 1979 two members of the Committee of 75 ? Carlos Miz Varela and Eulalio Jose Negrin ? were assassinated by terrorists from Omega 7 and Colonel Cero's group, respectively, both members of CORD (Commandos of the United Revolutionary Organizations). One Alvin Ross Diaz, a member of the Cuban Nationalist Movement and a suspected member of Omega 7, now serving a life sentence for his part in the assassination of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, said: "Those Cubans were picked by Castro," referring to the Committee of 75. Ross stated that Committee members involved in the exile trips were taking advantage of the exiles, charging exorbitant travel rates and putting American money in Castro's pocket because the travel companies which had the exclusive rights to bring exiles in were Cuban fronts.

Espinoza Attacks Castro

Espinoza's announcement of 31 January shocked his fellow dialoguistas of the Committee of 75 because he agreed almost totally with Ross. In addition to his scurrilous remark about Castro and calling for an "all?out war" against him, Espinoza hinted he had the names of Cuban agents working in diplomatic circles in the U.S., of agents working for various travel agencies that sold trips to Cuba, of contraband shipments to Cuba and of violations of the trade embargo.
After his initial announcement, Committee President Rev. Jose Reyes said: "At this point, I'm speechless. I don't know where he is coming from. He never told me or any member of the committee about this. This is ridiculous."

While Reyes was speechless, Espinosa, a man who obviously delights in speaking on camera and through a microphone, was not. In two press conferences of three hours each on 31 January and 5 February, a third of two hours on 14 February and in a private interview later that month with SOF's Brown, Espinosa laid out his allegations in detail and explained where "he was coming from." He claimed that his attempts to blow the covers of Cuban agents and operations and his attack on the Committee of 75 did not represent a change of heart at all, just that he was showing his true colors. Espinosa says he openly cooperated with the Cubans in order to penetrate their operations and he told SOF's Brown he came out in January because he had learned from friends that he was to be arrested in Cuba on 7 February.

If what Espinosa was saying was ridiculous, it would have been hard to tell from the Miami newspapers, TV stations and radio stations which latched onto every word Espinosa spoke ? one carried him live. What he said was so well received that one columnist pointed out it was unnecessary to have one's radio on to hear the live broadcast: all one had to do was drive through the Cuban?exile areas with the windows rolled down and one could hear it coming from every home and store.

Espinosa's conferences also drew the attention of the FBI, the Dade County OCB (Organized Crime Bureau) and the Cubans. Espinosa and his supporters claimed there were Cuban agents or collaborators at his first press conference and to prevent them from disrupting the second, entry was controlled. One man who showed up ? with a Panamanian passport and Panamanian press credentials underwent a particularly detailed document examination since he neither looked nor acted like a journalist. [I agreed, even though his documents were flawless; he probably was there on behalf of the Cubans].

Espinosa's Charges

The key point behind Espinoza's separate allegations was that the Castro government had used the exile dialogue to penetrate South Florida's cultural, political and economic organizations. Organizations singled out by Espinosa were the Committee of 75 ? 10 members of which he claimed were agents (by his definition members of the security or armed forces of Cuba) ? the Antonio Maceo Brigade (a cultural organization), Havanatur (the Panamanian?registered company that had the exclusive contract with the Cuban government to sell exile trips to Cuba), Travel Services, Inc. of Hialeah (a company that processes travel documents for Havanatur), American Airways Charters, Inc. of Hialeah (also involved in exile trips), Southeast Airlines of Miami (a charter airline used to bring political prisoners from Cuba), Continental National Bank of Miami, the Alliance of Workers of the Community in Miami, the Imperial Seafood Company of Panama and Pasco's Seafood, Inc. of Hialeah.
Among the individuals alleged to be either agents or collaborators (which he defined as a person not on the intelligence payroll but who could be paid for individual missions) were small businessmen, clergy, politicians, educators, a banker, journalists and at least one Bay of Pigs veteran.

His stiffest charges were leveled at Jorge Debasa, manager of Havanatur, who Espinosa claimed was a colonel in the Cuban General Department of Intelligence (DGI); Carlos Alfonso, Havanatur owner, also DGI; and Maria Contreras, who works for Travel Services and who was the personal secretary to Salvador Allende, deposed Marxist president of Chile.

Havanatur was a blatant Cuban operation. It was on paper a Panamanian company but investigation proved that decision makers at Havanatur were Cuban agents and the profits went to Cuba. In December, the American State Department ordered it to stop operations in the U.S. The Cuban exiles in Miami were required to pay exorbitant prices ($450) for a four?day, three?night trip to Havana. Included in that price was a round?trip ticket for the 180?mile voyage and three days of room and board in a Havana hotel. Because the exiles were returning to visit family, very few stayed in the hotels and thus Havanatur (read Cuba) turned a nice profit.

In addition to what Castro made from Havanatur's inflated prices, he made still more by forcing Cuban exiles (U.S. resident aliens and naturalized citizens) to pick up a Cuban passport and visa from Travel Services ? and to exchange their dollars for Cuban pesos at a ridiculous rate.

At times the Cuban relationship with Havanatur was comical. Espinosa told SOF's Brown that in the early days, when the flights went from Florida to Jamaica to Cuba, a DGI agent would walk down the aisle of the plane with a pillowcase and the exiles paid up by throwing in cash ? a la Jesse James.

Same Dog, Different Collar

When Havanatur was shut down the operation of the exile flights was turned over to American Airways ? a move Espinosa describes as "same dog, different collar," since he says American Airways' owner, Fernando Fuentes Coba, is a collaborator. Fuentes Coba was the pilot of the plane that inserted Rafael del Pino, a noted anti?Castro activist, into Cuba in the early 1960s. Espinosa claims Fuentes Coba flew the plane in, pulled the keys out and left del Pino sitting inside to be surrounded by the Cuban DGI. Del Pino died in one of Castro's prisons. Espinoza says he was not released, ` . . . because he could testify against the man who calls himself Fernando Fuentes Coba."
The day after his first press conference, Espinosa got action as Hialeah Mayor Dale Bennett ordered the offices of American Airways and Travel Services closed, since neither company had an occupational license. Both companies had applied for licenses which had not been approved when Bennett acted. Hialeah Councilman Raul Martinez, who heard Espinosa's broadcast, informed Bennett of the situation and asked him to act. Martinez said, "I don't want that agency [Travel Services] in Hialeah at all."

Despite what Bennett and Martinez wanted, the two companies had supporters. John Bushnell, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, called Bennett and recommended that they be reopened because the trips were humanitarian in nature. Bushnell says State is of the opinion that American Airways is not under Cuban control ? he described it to SOF as a "Mom and Pop" operation ? and that while there were legitimate questions as to who controlled Travel Services, its participation in the exile trips was temporary.

Bennett said Bushnell told him that State was negotiating with Travel Services to encourage them not to operate in this country. [The State Department considers the exile trips to be humanitarian and therefore appears to be unwilling to disrupt the trips by forcing the issue.] The Treasury Department has frozen Travel Services' assets as part of an investigation of its operations.

Bushnell's pressure tactics didn't work but American Airways received its license on 7 February and went back into business. Travel Services, which operates out of the same building as American Airways, went back in action on 12 February when a U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order allowing it to operate. American Airways and Travel Services have since filed suit, for approximately $1 million, against Hialeah for violation of their constitutional rights. In their suit the companies claimed Hialeah officials "...have used a simple occupational license tax as a tool of oppression . . . . " To that charge, Bennett responded to SOF, "They have taken quite an advantage of the American system."

Contraband Shipments

Espinoza's second press conference produced the most substantial results, as his documentation was solid. On 5 February, he revealed that Southeast Airlines of Miami had been used to send embargoed goods to Cuba. The cover for shipment of the goods was a Hurricane Frederick disaster relief ? effort called Operation People?to?People organized by the Alliance of Workers of the Community (AWC).
The AWC, whose leader, Marcos Raul Correa, Espinoza branded an agent, chartered the planes from Southeast and donated the flights to the Committee of 75 to return released political prisoners to the U.S. On five separate occasions in December and January Southeast Airlines President Mike Acosta admitted that goods had been taken to Cuba on his planes. But Acosta claimed, "In every case, the shipments were manifested and cleared by U.S. Customs." The goods carried on the plane included automobile batteries and tires, both embargoed items.

The goods had been going through customs without a hitch until 24 January when an anonymous call led to a more thorough examination. The shipment was stopped when Customs officials found tires among the items. George Martinez of the U.S. Commerce Department in Miami said it was legal to send food and clothing to Cuba as long as it was a donation from one family to another or from one religious organization to another but that shipments of tires were illegal.

The customs examination of the manifests for the five flights Espinosa singled out showed that one ? the 4 December manifest ? listed only rice, evaporated milk, dry beans, canned sausages and canned chicken but that manifests for 27 December, 3 January, 9 January and 18 January listed only tires and batteries but no food.

Robert Battard, regional director of customs in Miami, said: "An absence of experienced personnel in our export control section, compounded by the fact that the word ‘donation’ appeared on the manifest, apparently caused the issuance of inappropriate clearances."

Hildo Romeo, a spokesman for the AWC, said the tires were a donation from the relatives of the political prisoners to the Confederation of Cuban Workers, and Acosta said the labels on the tires were addressed to that organization. A total of 1,996 tires got out to Cuba.

Battard said customs would turn the matter over to the U.S. Commerce Department to ". . .determine whether or not any penalty action is warranted." [At press time no legal action had as yet been taken.]

The Seafood Caper

In his third press conference, on 12 February, Espinosa struck out at prominent Miami banker Bernardo Benes, whom he called an agent of the Cuban government and "the brain" behind Castro's financial espionage in South Florida.
Benes, who along with Espinosa was an organizer of the Committee of 75, is a vice chairman of the Continental National Bank of Miami, Florida's 30th largest bank.

Espinosa charged that Benes had met in Panama with top Cuban government officials in 1977, had accepted free trips to Panama from Imperial Seafood of Panama and that Imperial was shipping Cuban fish to Miami to a company called Pasco's Seafood in Hialeah. Espinosa had previously pointed out, and it was confirmed, that Benes' bank held a $200,000 surety bond from Havanatur.

Benes responded angrily to Espinosa's charges two days later, calling them, "Brazen lies without basis or a bit of credibility." Benes stated he had invested $5,000 in Imperial Seafood but had divested himself of that interest in 1978 and it did not buy seafood from Cuba. Benes called the Miami press irresponsible for printing Espinosa's charges and offered to finance a team of reporters to go to Panama to investigate Imperial.

Flavio Mora, president of Imperial Seafood, denied that his company imported seafood from Cuba or exported food to Pasco's in Hialeah, He did say his company had paid Benes' fare to Panama when the company was investigating the possibility of sales in Florida, that he had business relationships with Benes and that he had an account at Continental National.

Manuel Chaves, president of Pasco's Seafood, also has an account at Continental. He said his company did buy fish from Panama but that it did not buy direct from Panamanian companies and that he had never heard of Imperial Seafood.

Espinosa's Connections

While some of the charges Espinosa has made have to be filed in the category of unsubstantiated gossip, others and his general premise that Castro's government has made a substantial penetration into various South Florida organizations are strongly supported by his own admission that he acted in behalf of the Cubans. There is no doubt but that Espinoza had access to some top Cubans and was involved in Cuban operations.
In the private interview with SOF's Brown, Espinosa claimed he deliberately sought contact with Cuban intelligence puce agents and received a call from a DGI major named Ramon de la Cruz to go to Jamaica on 7 February 1976 to meet an important Cuban official in the Hotel Pegaso. Espinosa says he got two instructions from the man, who he says he later learned was a colonel in the DGI: "I) To prepare the minds of the Cubans here [in the U.S.] to request the lifting of the blockade to Cuba, and 2) to ask for relations with Cuba." [Cuba watchers have said from the very beginning that the reason why Castro was willing to release some prisoners and to allow the exile flights in, was to bring pressure to bear on the U.S. to end the embargo against Cuba and to get American recognition of his government. Additionally, it has provided him with a source of much?needed foreign exchange.]

After gaining the Cubans' trust during a period in which they watched him carefully, Espinosa's stock shot up when Castro told American journalists on 6 September 1978, he was going to open a dialogue with the exiles and mentioned the Reverend Manuel Angel Espinosa as one of the men who had helped him reach that decision.

When the exile flights to Cuba started under Havanatur, Espinosa got a slice of the action. Espinosa says Castro ordered Havanatur to cut Espinosa in so that he would be able to present himself as an ambitious, prosperous man. Espinosa claims he got a fee of $10 from Havanatur for every seat he sold on one of the flights. He also claims Castro enabled him to get a loan on an $80,000?dollar house in Miami with only a $10,000?dollar down payment. Espinosa claims Benes helped him get the loan.

Havanatur's Charges Of Profiteering

Havanatur admits that Espinosa, through a company called Christian Charters, one of the few agencies through which exiles could buy trips, was involved, but Havanatur owner Carlos Alfonso says Espinosa got more than $10 a trip. Alfonso claims Espinosa was booking 350 seats a week in 1979 and got $30 for each ($10 a seat by check and $20 a seat in cash). He claims Espinosa has handled over $15 million worth of travel business through Havanatur.

He also produced 14 checks signed by Espinosa for $1,734,000 and says Espinosa had paid back only $1,400,000 of that amount and thus owes Havanatur $430,000, including interest charges. Alfonso says the checks were guarantees of payments for flights to be booked by Espinosa.

Alfonso, who has been called a Cuban agent by both Espinosa and sources in the State Department, claims Espinosa made charges after Havanatur stopped him from selling independent flights to Cuba and when American Airways' owner Fuentes Coba refused to continue making $20 cash payments.

Espinosa claims he was never paid more than $10 a trip and denies he owes Havanatur $430,000. He also claims that the money from his independent flights went to the Cuban government through Central Travel, an agency of Havanatur.

The Cuban DGI And Ministers

Another example Espinosa gave of his work for the Cubans involved his trip to Costa Rica to meet a Hugo Assnan, who he claims is both a DGI and KGB agent. Assnan, at that time supplying information and equipment to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, was in charge of a KGB opera-

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