Napoleon Vilaboa was famous in Cuban Miami. During the heyday of the Mariel boatlift, he was all over Little Havana radio, exhorting exiles to go get their relatives in Cuba. Exiles called him the "Father of the Freedom Flotilla" and accused the Miami car salesman of being a Cuban spy.
After the 1980 boatlift ferried 125,000 Cubans to Key West, Vilaboa disappeared from the headlines and from Miami.
Nine years later, Vilaboa has returned to Miami to say his critics were right. He was a Cuban government agent----and the boatlift's mastermind---after all. His story offers the first internal glimpse at the planning of South Florida's most dramatic refugee crisis.
Vilaboa, 52, now spends his days under an assumed name in a motel room in Miami Beach. Last week, he described his general mission as a Cuban government agent: to promote relations between the exile community and the Castro government.
What he really wanted during his years as a collaborator, Vilaboa now claims, was to assist in a revolutionary coup against Castro.
"I was never a Communist, a socialist. I wasn't even a Social Democrat. My links in the Cuban government were all based on old friendships," says Vilaboa, who has written about his adventures in an unpublished book.
His most important friendship, he says, was with Cuban official Rene Rodriguez Cruz, head of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with Peoples and one of four Cuban officials indicted by a Miami federal grand jury on drug trafficking charges in 1982.
Theirs was a relationship cemented, ironically, during the Bay of Pigs invasion. During the exile offensive, Vilaboa, a member of the invading Brigade 2506, says he intercepted Rodriguez's jeep and spared his life.
His good rapport with Rodriguez and several other Cuban officials peaked during the Mariel boatlift, he says.
Vilaboa was in Havana in early April 1980, days after a handful of Cubans drove a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy, setting off a cross-fire that left a Cuban guard dead.
In retaliation for Peru's refusal to give up the gate crashers, Castro withdrew his guards and exhorted malcontents to take refuge in the embassy. More than 10,000 Cubans stormed the embassy.
Vilaboa says Rodriguez knocked on his door at the Havana Riviera Hotel and announced Castro wanted to see him. They took the elevator to the 20th floor, where Castro awaited in a suite.
"Fidel was violent, desperate. He said, 'Come here, chico. What do you think we should do with these embassy people?"
Vilaboa says he suggested a "Camarioca solution," referring to the 1965 Castro-initiated boatlift that brought 5,000 Cubans to Florida through the port of Camarioca.
He suggested Varadero as a port of departure but was shot down by Castro and his group. He claims Rodriguez cited "other operations" in Varadero.
Vilaboa was told to return to Miami and await word from Cuba.
Days later, his contacts told him "El No.1," Castro, said the plan was on----from port Mariel.
Vilaboa took to Little Havana radio, urging Cubans to go pick up their relatives. He set the example, boarding a 41-foot fishing vessel named Ochun and leading a small flotilla across the Florida Straits.
"He was doubly responsible in this matter: First, he offered Castro an escape valve for the Peruvian Embassy mess. Then, he incited exiles to violate U.S. laws by going to Cuba and picking up their relatives," says Siro del Castillo, who worked in emergency resettlement efforts in the aftermath of Mariel. "He detonated the Mariel crisis."
Vilaboa says Castro betrayed the original plan by loading some boats with criminal and mental patients.
If he spotted a betrayal, why didn't Vilaboa denounce it at the time?
Vilaboa says he simply worked in good faith for an apertura, an opening within Castro's ranks to allow participation from exiled former revolutionaries.
Used by Castro?
Exile Jenaro Perez believes Vilaboa was used by Castro. Perez, who in 1978 coordinated exile flights to Cuba and later claimed to have penetrated Cuban intelligence circles, believes Mariel was planned by Castro months earlier to rid Cuba of dissidents.
"Vilaboa was used and mashed like a sweet potato on a dinner plate," says Perez, whose denunciations against "infiltrators" helped create a case against key figures of Miami's Cuban travel business.
Vilaboa says his dealings with Cuban government began in 1968, when he was recruited by a controversial Hialeah preacher, the late Manuel Espinosa, a man who would later admit his ties to the Cuban government and launch a Miami campaign to "unmask" Castro agents.
Espinosa set up three meetings with Ricardo Alarcon, the Cuban envoy to the United Nations. They discussed Vilaboa's idea for an apertura and made him a captain in the Cuban intelligence service, the DGI, he says. In two subsequent Havana "ceremonies," he would be promoted to major, then lieutenant colonel, he says.
Those first meetings charted the course of Vilaboa's activities, he says. In the exile community, he preached dialogue and family reunification.
Invitation for dialogue
In November 1978, Vilaboa flew to Cuba for the first time, joining a group of exiles who accepted Castro's invitation for a dialogue. That event prompted the eventual release of more than 4,000 political prisoners and the start of Miami-to-Havana flights for family reunification.
After Mariel, Vilaboa moved to Costa Rica. He says Rodriguez, his friend in Havana, suggested he "get out of Miami" because several pro-dialogue activists were murdered.
One former state intelligence officer believes Vilaboa left for another reason: He was suspected of taking thousands of dollars from exiles who wanted to bring their families form Cuba during Mariel, then failing to deliver.
"We were looking for him everywhere," said Sergio Piñon, a former agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "We knew all along he was a Cuban agent. He was very dedicated to the revolution. If he's coming out now, I think it's because he was told to."
Vilaboa denies the accusation that he stole money from exiles.
Mysterious seven years
Vilaboa's activities in Costa Rica for the past seven years are a mystery. He says he operated as a $3,000-a-month "consultant" to the Cuban government, while exporting tropical fruit and running a restaurant.
Vilaboa claims he began plotting his desertion from Cuban ranks about two years ago. But it wasn't until robbers ransacked his house in San Jose, Costa Rica, last summer, stealing his manuscript, that he made concrete plans to flip.
After his house was robbed, Vilaboa says his Cuban contacts tried to lure him to Havana to live. "That was the call of the devil," he says.
Some exiles who remember Vilaboa question his motives for emerging now. To some, his defection rings familiar---it sounds like the Rev. Espinosa's controversial about-face in 1980.
"What is this, Manuel Espinosa, Part Two?" said Jenaro Perez, who did his own about-face and later publicly denounced Vilaboa as a Castro agent.
Vilaboa says his new mission is to denounce Castro's infiltrators in exile. He plans to reveal the identities of those exiles----on the left and right----who are collaborators, he says.
As for himself, Vilaboa believes he basically fooled the Cubans.
"To eat with the devil," he says, "you must have a long spoon."