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.
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 Muñiz 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.
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].
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.
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."
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.]
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.
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.