Hartford Courant
November 7, 1999

Puerto Rican Independence: The Cuban Connection

The Untold Tale Of Victor Gerena

                By EDMUND MAHONY

                  LAREDO, Texas -- For the glory of the Puerto Rican motherland, for the
                  approval of his mother, for an injection of meaning into his meaningless life,
                  Victor Gerena went and robbed $7.2 million from the Wells Fargo depot in
                  West Hartford -- more cash than anyone in U.S. history had ever stolen.

                  He handed it over to Los Macheteros, the violent Puerto Rican radicals hoping
                  to finance the revolution that would win their island's independence. In return,
                  certainly Gerena could expect a substantial reward.

                  He would be legend among Latin America's anti-imperialists. He would at long
                  last please his mother, Gloria, the ardent independentista who had been so
                  proud of her eldest son's early success and so disappointed by the
                  listlessness that followed.

                  Perhaps even Fidel Castro himself, whose Cuban government nurtured Los
                  Macheteros and helped pull off the robbery, would show his appreciation. Life
                  could be a Caribbean idyll -- sweet rum and sugary beaches.

                  But Gerena was so wrong.

                  Days after his brazen September 1983 heist, he was lumbering south in a tired
                  old motor home -- south around New York City and along the Appalachians,
                  across the Mississippi River, south into Texas.

                  When the dusty border town of Laredo shimmered above the baked scrub,
                  Gerena found himself hiding in what would become a crude metaphor for the
                  rest of his life -- a coffin-like compartment behind a false wall, more than $2
                  million of his stolen cash stacked close around him like bricks.

                  It was inside this self-made tomb of money that Gerena was shuttled across
                  the new bridge connecting the United States with Mexico. Below, the Rio
                  Grande in early autumn was a muddy, yellow creek. Mexican customs officers
                  lounged in the shade and waved the boxy, white motor home on toward the
                  bucket-of-blood brothels that fill Nuevo Laredo.

                  When the camper stopped, finally, it was outside a private apartment in
                  Mexico City. There, the Cubans forged Gerena a set of Argentine identity
                  papers. A passport was hand-delivered by Jose Antonio Arbesu, a diplomat
                  and intelligence officer who would later lead the Cuban mission in Washington,

                  Gerena boarded a commercial flight to Havana. Just over $2 million, the first
                  installment from the Wells Fargo robbery, flew in Cuba's ``diplomatic pouch.''
                  As far as the police hunting him around the world were concerned, Gerena
                  vanished into thin air.

                  In fact, he vanished into a prison of history and politics and personalities far
                  beyond his control. Less than a year after his escape, FBI tapes show,
                  Gerena was a lonely exile on an isolated, impoverished island, pining for the
                  girlfriend he left back home in Connecticut.

                  ``For you and me, Cuba is an abstraction. For him it's not,'' a member of Los
                  Macheteros said, arguing to his comrades that Gerena's fiancee, Ana Soto,
                  should be allowed to join him. ``He knows 10 times better than you what's
                  involved because of the length of time he's been living there. . . . He knows
                  Cuba. You don't.''

                  Today, Soto is a vastly different woman from the one Gerena was supposed to
                  marry four days after the robbery 16 years ago. She's been in and out of prison
                  on drug charges. She never made it to Cuba, having failed to pass certain
                  ``political and revolutionary tests'' required by the doctrinaire Macheteros.

                  Like Gerena's mother and former girlfriends in the Hartford area, she hasn't
                  spoken publicly of her exiled lover.

                  Indeed, Gerena, who is paradoxically the most and least important Machetero,
                  was largely forgotten by the press and public until last summer. That's when
                  President Clinton surprised just about everyone with an offer of early release
                  from prison to 16 members of violent Puerto Rican independence groups --
                  groups that have been killing, maiming and blowing up U.S. targets for 30

                  The clemency became a predictable Washington controversy: It was a
                  shameful ploy to win Puerto Ricans to Hillary Rodham Clinton's U.S. Senate
                  campaign; or it was simply a reckless encouragement of potential terrorists.
                  Most of the imprisoned nationalists didn't wait to find out. They dropped any
                  pretense of indecision and snatched at the offer when it was threatened by
                  opposition in Congress and in law enforcement.

                  But no one, during all the discussion, has mentioned what has always been
                  the central element of the U.S. fight against the violent Puerto Rican
                  independence movement: Since Cuban President Fidel Castro took power, the
                  independentistas have operated as an adjunct of the Cuban
                  diplomatic-intelligence establishment.

                  Although the Wells Fargo robbery has been parenthetically referenced in the
                  clemency debate, nothing is ever said of the Cuban fingerprints on the crime.
                  Nor has anyone noted its role in Castro's revolutionary aspirations throughout
                  Latin America.

                  Interviews with law enforcement agents, and a review of the FBI tapes,
                  congressional hearing transcripts and other government documents, make it
                  abundantly clear: Los Macheteros were trained, supported and at least
                  minimally financed by the Cuban government.

                  After the robbery, an element within the FBI even argued for the indictment on
                  robbery-conspiracy charges of some of the same senior Cuban officials who
                  were guiding insurgencies in El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere in Latin
                  America. For reasons that are unclear, the Cubans were not indicted.

                  The current clemency controversy, now the subject of a congressional hearing
                  in Washington, is just another echo of the United States' decades-old
                  wrangling with Cuba. And the Wells Fargo incident, seen through the prism of
                  time, is one more blip on a timeline of events going back to the radical Puerto
                  Rican nationalists' attempted assassination of President Truman in 1950.

                  In fact, the fresh details and historical context of the robbery story offer a
                  primer on left-wing, anti-colonialist, Cuban-instigated international intrigue in
                  the latter half of this century.

                  The story encompasses the student radicalism on American and Puerto Rican
                  college campuses in the 1960s. And it reveals Hartford as an epicenter of
                  mainland nationalist activity during the 1970s and into the early '80s, with
                  remnants of that era still apparent today. Edwin Vargas, who headed the
                  Puerto Rican Socialist Party in Hartford in the '70s, for example, is now vice
                  president of the Hartford teachers' union.

                  The Wells Fargo tale has a powerful human dimension as well. Amid the swirl
                  of international and domestic politics lie two characters from opposite ends of
                  the Puerto Rican experience whose improbable encounter would forever alter
                  their fate.

                  One, Juan Segarra Palmer, embraced violent Puerto Rican independence at
                  the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., then at Harvard. It was he who
                  conceived the robbery and criss-crossed Latin America to plan it, living the life
                  of a privileged, if clandestine, revolutionary.

                  The other was an apolitical guy who grew up in a bleak public housing project
                  and substandard public education system in Hartford. For a time, this short,
                  smart, strong young man defied the circumstance of his childhood to become
                  a high school wrestling star and honors student bound for college and career
                  and a bright future.

                  But something went wrong. And by 1983, this second man was aimless and
                  down on his luck, a college dropout who was working nights at a boring,
                  low-level job loading cash into an armored car.

                  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, so-called domestic security experts were
                  snooping around Hartford. The world was suddenly a scarier place. The U.S.
                  was fighting a war in Vietnam. Fidel Castro was selling revolution to whoever
                  would listen. Rioters were burning down U.S. cities. And intelligence collectors
                  and communist hunters were in Hartford because they had decided terrorism
                  by the Puerto Rican independence movement was another thing the country
                  had to be protected from.

                  Hartford was, by then, a major population center for people of Puerto Rican
                  heritage. The migration began at the close of World War II and by the 1950s
                  and '60s was a flood. The city was the fourth-largest port of entry for Puerto
                  Ricans in the mainland United States.

                  They weren't drawn by the actuarial city's cultural cachet. They wanted work --
                  specifically in the Connecticut River Valley shade tobacco industry. Each
                  summer, the government moved Puerto Ricans north to Connecticut to work
                  the tobacco fields and back south to the Caribbean to harvest winter crops.
                  Each year, more and more people opted not to return to the island.

                  Hartford was becoming a center of Puerto Rican culture and politics. The
                  commonwealth opened an office in town. Issues affecting the island were
                  debated at Hartford forums. Sometimes candidates for office on the island
                  campaigned in Hartford.

                  In the 1960s, politics everywhere were radicalized. The Cuban revolution and
                  opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam charged the political climate in
                  Puerto Rico and, by extension, in Hartford. Not that radical politics was
                  anything new in Puerto Rico.

                  Cuba and Puerto Rico have long and common colonial histories. Both islands
                  fought together for independence from Spain. Cuba remained sympathetic to
                  the Puerto Rican nationalist cause when Puerto Rico became a U.S.
                  possession at the close of the Spanish-American War.

                  Castro has called the Puerto Rican independentistas who tried to assassinate
                  Truman and shot up the U.S. Congress in the early 1950s patriots who
                  inspired his revolution. When he seized power in Cuba in 1959, his government
                  became a magnet for Puerto Rican nationalists.

                  Among the first to arrive on the newly liberated island was Filiberto Ojeda Rios.

                  Born in Barrio Rio de Naguabo in 1933, Ojeda was enrolled at the University of
                  Puerto Rico by age 15. But he wanted to play the trombone and left school
                  after two semesters. He moved repeatedly between Puerto Rico and New
                  York, where he joined Local 802 of the musicians' union. He blew his horn at
                  the El Morrocco. In 1961, two years after Castro took power, Ojeda moved to
                  Cuba with his wife and two sons and joined the Cuban DGI, the Spanish
                  acronym for the General Directorate of Intelligence, Cuba's principal
                  intelligence agency.

                  He soon was spying on the U.S. military in Puerto Rico, using his trombone
                  as cover. He played with an orchestra called La Sonora Poncena and lived in
                  Santurce using the name Felipe Ortega. His first mission lasted a year.

                  Castro, meanwhile, consolidated his position in Cuba and, capitalizing on
                  growing anti-Americanism over Vietnam, moved to take control of the leftist
                  insurgencies brewing in Latin America. He built more than a dozen training
                  camps for terrorists around Havana. One of the first graduates was Ilich
                  Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelen who became infamous as Carlos the
                  Jackal after slaughtering dozens of people in Europe and the Middle East.

                  Ojeda by the late 1960s was second-in-command of the Puerto Rican
                  independence movement's diplomatic mission in Havana. It was a period
                  during which the movement was reshaping itself. In the great debate of the day
                  -- whether to achieve independence through nonviolence or make like Castro,
                  fielding an army of guerrillas and taking to the hills -- Ojeda preferred Castro's

                  Ojeda ``wanted to engage in forms of armed resistance,'' said Domingo
                  Amuchastegui, a former Cuban diplomat who now lives in the United States.
                  ``We granted them some support, essentially training. Those people were
                  facing critical situations, so support was essentially underground training. And
                  Ojeda is always the key figure here. He was absolutely convinced that they
                  had to go back to the old traditions of the independentista.''

                  Many academics say it is preposterous to suggest that Castro would be so
                  foolhardy as to support a group that launched armed attacks on U.S. interests.
                  Amuchastegui and other intelligence sources have a ready response: Castro
                  doesn't consider Puerto Rico part of the United States.

                  During the 1960s and '70s, the Cubans were intimately involved with groups in
                  the United States such as the Black Panther Party and Students for a
                  Democratic Society, but never considered giving them military training,
                  underground assistance or any other illegal support.

                  ``There was never a decision to do this inside the United States with American
                  entities, American institutions, American organizations,'' Amuchastegui said.
                  ``Puerto Rico is different. For us in Cuba this was a part of a sacred policy or
                  principle. For us, until this day, Puerto Rico is a colonial case.''

                  Amuchastegui said it may be impossible for the average American to
                  understand the deep cultural and historic bond between Cubans and Puerto
                  Ricans. But, he said, that bond has motivated Castro in all his government's
                  decisions on Puerto Rico.

                  ``Fidel Castro has stated privately many times that the day in history where
                  only two people in the world may advocate for the independence of Puerto
                  Rico, one of those two persons will be him,'' Amuchastegui said.

                  ``For him, Puerto Rico is not the United States. And any action connected
                  with the Puerto Ricans should not be seen as connected or threatening U.S.

                  Ojeda emerged from talks in the early 1970s in Cuba over the future shape of
                  the Puerto Rican independence movement at the head of a militant splinter
                  group calling itself the Armed Commandos of Liberation.

                  He would later change the name to Los Macheteros -- ``The Machete

                  The meetings in Cuba set off years of violence in Puerto Rico and on the
                  mainland in New York and Chicago. In 1970, Ojeda and three others were
                  arrested for bombing a tourist hotel in San Juan. The police caught him
                  carrying Cuban government documents and secret codes. He jumped bail and
                  ran back to Cuba.

                  The campus at the University of Puerto Rico during the same period had
                  entered a state of near-continual riot, the result mostly of protests against the
                  war in Vietnam. The same year Ojeda bombed the tourist hotel, the Puerto
                  Rican state police riot squad shot and killed a university student.

                  In retaliation, the Armed Commandos of Liberation killed two American sailors
                  in San Juan. More bombings soon followed, many ostensibly detonated in
                  support of striking labor unions. The group bombed a Miss Universe pageant.
                  One day, 17 coordinated bombs exploded at U.S. banks, stores and industrial

                  On the mainland, people were consumed by violence in the inner cities and on
                  college campuses. The bombings in Puerto Rico were the small headlines on
                  the bottom of the inside pages of American newspapers. But on the island, the
                  Armed Commandos of Liberation were a constant threat.

                  In 1970, the same year Ojeda's guerrillas killed two U.S. sailors in San Juan, a
                  tiny woman with a thick Spanish accent moved her family of four sons and a
                  daughter from the Bronx to Hartford, hoping the smaller, quieter, safer city with
                  an energized Puerto Rican population would afford her children a better life.

                  Her name is Gloria Gerena.