The afternoon light was beginning to fail when Fidel Castro arrived at his office in the Palace of the Revolution. His younger brother Raul, general of the army and second secretary of the party, was waiting to meet with him in order to discuss a report drafted by “dozens and dozens” of Cuban military counterintelligence officers. The report had been in the works for more than two weeks, with teams of drafters working in shifts around the clock to complete it. Its subject was the Hero of the Cuban Republic, Division General Arnal -do Ochoa Sanchez.
From that late Sunday afternoon on June 11, 1989 until the dawn of the following day, the Castro brothers closeted themselves in the palace. After fourteen hours of intense discussion they decided that the time had come to jail Ochoa, his aide-de-camp Captain Martinez, and two other top revolutionary apparatchiks, the de la Guardia brothers. The latter two men, Patricio and Tony, were Fidel’s closest confidantes. For many years they had run the Special Forces unit within the Ministry of Interior—the most secret, powerful, and trusted cadre of Fidel’s personal Communist court.
On Wednesday night, June 14, Raul Castro addressed the nation on radio and television. He spoke for two hours, at times almost incoherently, and his words betrayed a barely suppressed hatred for Ochoa—an envious passion toward a colleague who was a senior general officer in the fullest, most professional military sense. Raul accused Ochoa of being irreverent; he complained about Ochoa’s jokes; he derided what he called Ochoa’s “populist deviations” with the troops (referring, evidently, to the one thing which Raul himself has never enjoyed with the Cuban enlisted man—genuine popularity).
Raul’s objective, clearly, was to destroy the reputation that Ochoa had achieved for thirty years of service to the Cuban Revolution—in the Sierra Maestra during the Revolution itself, in Venezuela at the beginning of the 1960’s, and later in Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Angola, where he was named chief of the Cuban military mission in November 1987.
There was no more senior, tested, or successful officer in the Cuban army; but on the night of June 14, Raul Castro portrayed Ochoa as an inept commander. In Raul’s description, Ochoa’s fame was a myth. Ochoa was a nothing, a man who had taken credit for military successes actually designed by the great genius Fidel.
Not once during his two-hour speech did Raul mention corruption or drug trafficking. Yet two days later, on June 16, the party’s highest organ, Granma, published on its front page a long editorial emphasizing that it was precisely for these crimes that Ochoa and fourteen others had been jailed.
It took another week before details were released. On Thursday, June 22, Granma’s pages brimmed with a lurid tale of false passports and of trips by Ochoa’s military aide from Angola to Cuba, from Cuba to Panama, and then on to Colombia to set up drug deals. Granma also described meetings in Havana, where representatives of Pablo Escobar, a ringleader of the Medellin drug cartel, met surrogates of Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia. There were cameo appearances as well by Mexican smugglers and American experts on laundering cash who tried to deal with the Colombians through Cuban intermediaries. Cuba, it seemed, was being used as the final embarkation point for cocaine on its way to the huge market in the United States.
The day after this fantastic tale was published, the Cuban official press reproduced a message from the new chief of the military mission in Angola, Division General Leopoldo Cintras Frias—”Polo,” as Fidel called him. The message was addressed to Raul Castro on behalf of the Cuban generals, officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men in Angola. They asked that the full weight of revolutionary law be brought to bear on the “traitor Ochoa.” That Saturday, the party organ transmitted a similar message, again directed to Raul, this time from the “Bias Roca” labor brigade, also demanding punishment for Ochoa. The message ended with a salutation, expressing “our pride in being able to live in our Socialist Fatherland in the epoch of Fidel.”
With the publication of those two messages—from soldiers and workers—Raul could regard his task as successfully completed. The curtain was about to fall on the most important piece of political theater produced in the thirty years of the Cuban Revolution.
Once, when the revolution was young and Fidel’s popularity was beyond question, Cuba’s great helmsman decided to resolve the question of his political succession. In the Plaza de la Revolucion—that huge open space where he makes all his important pronouncements—Fidel told an adoring crowd that if he were to die, he would be followed by Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos. If Camilo were somehow to die, then Che Guevara would take his place. And if Che were to die, little brother Raul would take his place.
Not long afterward, Camilo’s small plane was lost over Cuban territorial waters. Seven years later Che was killed in the depths of the Bolivian jungle. Without Camilo and without Che, the only possible successor was Raul, who was only too happy to step into second place, finally tapped as the formal heir to the family business.
In the oldest Latin American tradition of making government a nepotistic affair, Raúl opted to take over the Cuban armed forces. He methodically assembled a corps of officers who were personally loyal to him, and he made sure that future army generals would be “raúlistas.” The “fidelistas,” or those who simply had not had the good fortune to work with Raúl before the seizure of power, ended up in the Ministry of Interior—that is, the political police. It was there, in the Special Forces section, that the de la Guardia brothers had their power base. They were men untrammeled by ideological scruples, always smiling, and they were avid devotees of the consumer culture, especially in its American forms, forbidden to ordinary Cubans. (According to friends, they always shaved with American shaving creams and made a point of visiting McDonald’s on each of their many foreign journeys.)
As for Ochoa, he too was and (at least until he developed his own ambitions) remained a “fidelista.” It was said that he called Fidel by his first name (without the usual obligatory servile embellishments). Ochoa, it was rumored, had even presumed to make friendly fun of Fidel’s advancing age—Fidel’s tendency to forget where he put things, or what he wanted to say, or what day it was.
From Raul’s point of view, Ochoa was also dangerously popular. As a military man he symbolized much more than the struggle of Castro’s tiny guerrilla army against the dictator Fulgencio Batista. More tellingly, Ochoa embodied a new Cuban military thrust into far more expansive conflicts: two wars in Africa and the Nicaraguan campaign.
Thus, when Ochoa arrived in Nicaragua at the end of 1983, he came invested with total authority as chief of the Cuban military mission. Dressed in a Cuban general’s uniform, medals glistening, surrounded by adjutants who lugged his maps and papers, Ochoa lectured the Sandinistas at length on military strategy and on the Soviet weaponry which would be needed to mount the expected campaign against the contras—the insurgents whom the Sandinistas were failing to defeat. Together with the Soviets, he decided against the imprudent, politically provocative step of importing MIGs into Nicaragua. Instead, he concluded that what the Sandinistas needed were armed helicopters—the famous MI-24s—which the Soviets were using with such lethal effect in Afghanistan.
The Sandinistas regarded Ochoa as somewhat arrogant, but at the same time they were forced to respect his technical knowledge. It was this respect which made it possible for them to stomach his endless demands—for vehicles in top working order, for luxurious houses. In time Humberto Ortega, Commander in Chief of the Sandinista army, had had enough of the Cuban general’s high-handed attitudes. He ordered Ochoa to replace his uniform with mufti, at least while he was performing duties in Nicaragua.
But in spite of such tensions, Ochoa remained in the country for two-and-a-half years, teaching the Nicaraguans how to use Soviet equipment and teaching Humberto and his boys the arts of professional warfare. The contra war turned around. Under Ochoa’s guidance the Sandinistas took the offensive and began to win.
It was not only the Nicaraguans, however, who were learning new lessons. Ochoa also learned something from his pupils—from Humberto Ortega and also from the Sandinistas’ sinisterly talented Interior Minister, Tomas Borge.
The Sandinista chieftains, all their Marxist ideology notwithstanding, were typical Latin American military bosses. As such they had to be able to reward their immediate followers—with foodstuffs, cars, cash, visas, airplane tickets, medicines, electrical appliances, cigarettes, clothes. These things are normal articles of everyday commerce in a market economy. But in an economy of both planned and anarchic scarcity, such as in Nicaragua (and Cuba), selective abundance is the ultimate weapon of political power. These Sandinista military chiefs could say to their followers: “The Revolution cannot give it to you, but I can—if you obey all my orders and are unfailingly loyal to me personally.”
It was from the Sandinistas that Ochoa discovered how to accumulate the dollars necessary for dispensing such patronage and playing this game. Later he made use of his new business skills while serving in Angola, where he became heavily involved in the sale of diamonds, zinc, marble, radio sets, valuable hardwoods, art objects, high-quality foodstuffs, even arms.
Before Ochoa’s arrival in Nicaragua, the Cuban officials operating there belonged to the Special Forces of the Ministry of Interior, at that time under the command of Patricio de la Guardia, with a little informal help from his brother Tony. Without doubt, the Special Forces were Fidel’s favorites: their responsibilities included providing security for the Commander in Chief’s private plane and his personal yacht. Their military base in Havana Bay had the best facilities, including a gymnasium which boasted—in the words of one of its long-time visitors—”everything an American gymnasium has.” There was also a dining room which was—again according to this witness—”a perfect replica of the same thing in the United States.” The Special Forces also enjoyed standing reservations at the best restaurants and night clubs in Havana and had an inexhaustible supply of Cohiba and Montecristo cigars. In the people’s paradise of Cuba, these perks constituted the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
In Havana, Tony de la Guardia played racket-ball with Fidel’s son, and lived in a house in the seaside municipality of La Playa, the furnishings of whose three principal rooms came from three different countries. Tony was driven to work in a Russian Lada with a Sony music system, which often blared Frank Sinatra recordings. On holidays, he would take off on his own into the Havana streets behind the wheel of an MG sports car, a Colt .45 strapped to his waist.
In those happy days, nobody imagined—nobody could have imagined—Ochoa and Tony ending up facing the same firing squad.
One Sunday morning—just two weeks after the decision to jail Ochoa—the Court of Honor, composed of 47 Cuban generals and vice-admirals, gathered to decide his fate. As usual, Raul was the first to speak, and he proceeded to unleash a stream of charges against the “unrestrained populism that characterized Ochoa’s actions in the last few months. . . . On the strength of his business card he was showering gifts and valuable objects to the four winds, but principally to officers, contrary to all established regulations, in a delirious exercise of self-satisfaction, with a view, evidently, to creating an image and special ties of gratitude to his person.”
This was the one thing that Raul and Fidel could not tolerate. Nobody in the country needed to be told why. In Cuba only Fidel has the right to confer the precious Rolex watches, the cars, the houses, the trips abroad. If some general decides to distribute similar booty, he must do so only in the name of the Supreme Leader. Otherwise, such “spontaneous” generosity becomes high treason—because it competes with Fidel’s power.
But after accusing Ochoa of “unheard-of disloyalty to our Commander in Chief,” Raul—his voice acquiring a markedly threatening tone—asked him to consider the future of his three children, and “leave them a worthy legacy of self-criticism and of mature reflection, which will allow them to understand the unequivocal correctness of the decisions of this court and of the military court that will decide his fate.”
The following day, Monday, June 26, it was Tony de la Guardia’s turn to testify. He said that Ochoa had realized the possibilities of drug trafficking while he was serving in Nicaragua. He referred to nineteen different operations between 1987 and 1988, of which fifteen had proved successful, transshipping six tons of cocaine through Cuba to the United States and producing a profit of three-and-a-half million dollars. He provided details—how the launches entered the country through Varadero beach and how the Cuban Coast Guard drew up next to the launch as if it were engaged in a normal act of commerce. And he told of meeting with Ochoa in Angola, where he went to visit his brother Patricio. There the topic of discussion was the disastrous state of the Cuban economy and how the two could assure themselves of earnings between two or three billion dollars in a six-month period, if drug laboratories could be built and major shipments made in Cuba.
How much, if any, of this is true? Probably Tony de la Guardia was involved in drug trafficking, and possibly Ochoa was guilty, too. But if so, it is impossible to believe that in a country as tightly controlled as Cuba, drug trafficking on this scale could have gone on without authorization from the Commander in Chief himself. And it is also impossible to believe that drugs were the real reason for the purge of Ochoa.
In any case, that same Monday, the Court of Honor recommended that Ochoa be placed “at the disposition of the Special Military Court, to face charges of high treason to the fatherland.” When these deliberations were concluded, Ochoa was allowed to address a few words to his old companions-inarms. He limited himself to saying that he continued to be “at the service of the Revolution, and if this same cause which I have served should condemn me to death, I promise that my last thoughts will be for Fidel.” Stalin could not have scripted a better courtroom scene. When Fidel learned of Ochoa’s promise, he referred to his now-disgraced associate as a courageous man. As Raul had played with Ochoa’s children’s future in order to get him to humiliate himself before the court, now Fidel dangled before Ochoa the possibility that his life might be spared at the last moment.
To no avail. On July 4, at 6 P.M., the Special Military Court asked for the death penalty for Ochoa, Tony de la Guardia, and two others (with jail sentences for the remaining ten), and then, by unanimous vote, the Cuban Council of State decided not to commute a single one of the death sentences.
On Thursday, July 13, Granma published a very tiny news item: “The sentence of the Special Military Court has been carried out in the cases of Ochoa, Martinez, La Guardia, and Amado Padron.” The rumor in Havana is that they were executed in the dawn breezes; that they were required to kneel down and face the wall, rather than the firing squad; that they were executed in the very same spot in the La Cabana fortress where the first victim of the old Batista regime in Havana—Captain Pedro Morejon Valdes—fell to the bullets of the victorious Revolution on January 31, 1959.
With these fresh executions, the historical circle of the Cuban Revolution has been closed: yesterday it was Batistianos, today it is the children of Fidel. (I cannot help wondering what Ochoa asked himself as he knelt with his back to the firing squad in those dawn breezes. Did he really think of Fidel—if only to curse him eternally?)
The day after the shootings, five generals from the Ministry of Interior were replaced by seven generals from the Ministry of the Armed Forces loyal to Raul, who is now firmly positioned to take power when Fidel, against his own expectations, proves to be mortal after all.