Migrants' flight may help Cuban spy's ex-wife, too
BY JENNIFER BABSON AND LUISA YANEZ
The ex-wife of a notorious Cuban spy has made a legal move to seize an aging biplane that eight Cubans flew to freedom a week ago.
Ana Margarita Martínez wants to sell the Antonov-2, a rattletrap Russian-made rig outfitted for crop-dusting, as partial payment toward the $27.18 million judgment a Miami-Dade Circuit Court awarded her for a sham marriage to Cuban agent Juan Pablo Roque.
Last year, Judge Alan Postman ordered the Cuban government to pay Martínez that amount to compensate for its role in perpetrating a scheme intended to infiltrate Miami's exile community.
On Monday, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court clerk approved an order filed by Martínez's attorneys that requires the Monroe County Sheriff's Office to place a levy on the plane to serve as the first payment -- if the federal government or another court doesn't step in to block the highly unusual legal move.
The money would barely dent the unpaid bill -- similar antique planes are valued at $40,000 to $50,000. But seizing the plane, now under deputies' guard in Key West, would make a powerful point to the Cuban government, said Fernando Zulueta, one of Martínez's attorneys.
''It's a kind of crappy plane, but it's symbolic,'' he said. ``Cuba should pay their debts like anyone else.''
Martínez, who has rebuilt her life and written a book
about her marriage to Roque, which ended when he fled Miami for Cuba in
1996, called the move ''fair.'' She had
watched the drama over the Cubans' flight to Key West unfold last week never imagining it might affect her, but ''whatever it takes to get what's due is fine with me,'' she said.
The court order doesn't necessarily mean Martínez will wind up with the plane, and her attorneys acknowledged that the federal government could step in.
CUBA DEMANDS PLANE
For one thing, the Cuban government, which denounced the flight
as a ''skyjacking,'' has demanded the plane back and called for anti-American
nationwide Monday night. Cuban planes diverted to the United States by Cuban migrants have routinely been returned.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said Monday night that the federal government didn't have enough information about the case yet to comment.
The ploy poses sticky legal and diplomatic problems.
Mark Willis, general counsel for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, said he would consult today with federal authorities before deciding what to do.
It's difficult, Willis said, even to determine who legally owns the plane.
''I just got the paperwork this afternoon,'' he said. ``I'm not sure we can proceed with the levy because I am concerned about the title.''
Keeping deputies on 24-hour watch over the plane is costing Key West International Airport $960 a day, airport manager Peter Horton said.
''My fear is that this action will further delay the State Department's processing of this aircraft so that it can be flown back to Cuba,'' Horton said.
The 1950s aircraft wouldn't be a windfall for Martínez, with newer models offered on websites between $37,500 and $75,000, but the satisfaction would be priceless, she said.
''That's not much. I just want to be a thorn in their side,'' Martínez said. ``I want to aggravate the Cuban government so they won't forget what they did.''
To date, collecting on her judgment has been difficult.
One legal hurdle is that Martínez won her case in Miami-Dade civil court. The precedent for her claim was set in Miami federal court by the relatives of the victims of the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down. Three of the four fliers' families sued the Cuban government.
In 1997, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King awarded the families about $50 million in damages, plus $35 million in sanctions against Cuba. Last year, the U.S. government transferred about $93 million, including interest, in frozen Cuban bank accounts to the Brothers families.
That success emboldened others, such as Martínez, who have claims against Cuba, to take the Cuban government to court.
''This is an issue that's going to continue to occur,'' said Victor Diaz Jr., one of the attorneys who argued the Brothers case.
``When the assets do come into the jurisdiction, people with judgments have a complete, 100 percent total right to try to collect their judgments.''
Former U.S. Attorney Bob Martínez, another Brothers lawyer, also applauded the legal action.
''I hope they follow the Castro government to the ends of this earth until they satisfy every penny of all judgments against them,'' he said.
Herald staff translator Renato Perez and staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.