Field Notes 4: Truth, lies and the Cuban American National Foundation

My goal in writing “Sting of the Wasp: The Cuban Five Connection” is to stick to the facts, reconstructing key events of the case in order to produce an in-the-moment narrative that will help readers understand the true story of what really happened even as it entertains them.

But whose facts? Whose truth? Those are especially tricky questions in a story such as the Cuban Five, which is fraught with emotion, ideology and vested interests.

Everyone is selling their own version of the facts, and everyone insists theirs is the only true one.

Let’s look at just one example.

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Jorge Mas Canosa

On September 10, 1997, when Cuban State Security announced the arrest of Salvadoran mercenary Raúl Cruz León for planting a bomb in the Copacabana Hotel that killed an Italian tourist, it added a stunning accusation: “The investigation revealed, without any doubt, that the operations were carefully planned and executed from Miami by a subversive organization controlled by the Cuban American National Foundation headed by counterrevolutionary leader Jorge Mas Canosa.”

The Cuban American National Foundation is the richest and most influential Cuban exile organization in the United States. Both its critics and its supporters would agree CANF played a central role in determining—and maintaining—America’s hard-line policies toward Cuba. Mas Canosa himself was one of Miami’s most respected businessmen, a confidant of American presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.

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Canosa with Bill Clinton

CANF, not surprisingly, denied Havana’s allegations; such charges, it said, were so ludicrous as to be “not worthy of a serious response.”

But, a year-and-a-half later, at Cruz León’s trial, the Cubans upped the ante. One of the trial’s key witnesses was a State Security agent named Percy Alvarado Godoy who claimed to have infiltrated CANF in the early nineties.

According to his testimony, senior CANF officials had set up a secret paramilitary wing of the organization at a meeting in Naples, Florida, in 1992 specifically to carry out violent attacks against Cuba.

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Percy Alvarado Godoy

Alvarado named names; he claimed he’d been recruited to act as an agent by Luis Zuñiga, a member of CANF’s executive board. He said that the organization’s president, Pepe Hernandez, had been his handler for a mission to plant a bomb inside Havana’s popular Tropicana Cabaret. Alvarado said the man who trained him to assemble the bombs and gave him the device to take to Cuba was none other than Luis Posada Carriles, the CIA-trained exile militant alleged to have been one of the masterminds of the 1976 bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455 that killed 73 people.

Again, the Cuban American National Foundation dismissed the allegations out of hand. As for Percy Alvarado? “If he had infiltrated [the Foundation],” spokesperson Ninoska Perez sniffed rhetorically, “you think he would go unnoticed? No one’s heard of him.”

And that’s the he-said-yes/he-said-no way the story played out for seven years.

But then, in June 2006, there was stunning confirmation of the Cuban version of events.

It came from the most unlikely source and for the least ideological of reasons.

Antonio “Toñin” Llama was not only a member of CANF’s board and inner circle but he was also a bona fide anti-Castro militant—with criminal charges to prove it. In 1998, he had been charged—and acquitted—in connection with a plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro.

That case, ironically, sowed the seeds for Llama’s discontent and his eventual decision to go public with what he knew about CANF’s secret paramilitary wing. Llama believed that CANF had reneged on a promise to cover his and his co-conspirators’ legal expenses. Worse, while he was on trial, some CANF members sold off $1.4 million worth of equipment he had personally financed on its behalf in preparation for the assault on Cuba.

In June 2006, Llama issued a public statement claiming he had been forced to file for bankruptcy because the bank, “which lent me part of the money to buy 10 airplanes, 8 ships and armaments” wanted its funds back. Llama called on CANF to “deliver the titles and assets that I bought and paid for the campaign that we carried out when I was a director, with the purpose of destabilizing Castro’s communist government.”

In a subsequent interview with El Nuevo Herald, Llama reported that the secret paramilitary project “started to take shape during CANF’s annual meeting in Naples in June 1992… About 20 of the foundation’s most trusted leaders agreed, and designated Jose ‘Pepe’ Hernandez, the current CANF president, and Mas Canosa to choose the armed group.”

In other words, Llama confirmed virtually everything Percy Alvarado and the Cubans had claimed seven years earlier.

By now CANF was—ever so slightly—more circumspect with its denials. Instead of denying the substance of what Llama had said, its spokesperson simply argued: “we consider that it is extremely irresponsible for a press organization to echo what clearly represents an extortion and defamation attempt.”

Whose facts?

Whose truth?

As the American writer Lillian Hellman once put it: “What a word is truth. Slippery, tricky, unreliable.”

Lies, however, are easier to spot.

***

If you’d like to see how this episode is portrayed in the book, you might be interested in reading this draft excerpt. The story will also be expanded in another section focusing on Percy Alvarado’s testimony during Cruz León’s trial.

Read more Field Notes.

 

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