Day in the Five: Cruz León arrested

September 4, 1997
5:30 p.m.

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Copacabana explosion site

It had been a good day. Four bombs. At $2,000 a bomb, that was $8,000. Not to forget the thousand Gordito still owed him from the last trip. Cruz León would be able to pay off his debts and have plenty left over for other, better things. He should call Yohana in San Salvador. Tell her… not the truth, of course. She didn’t need to know what he was really doing in Havana. Just that he was happy, having a good vacation. Perhaps next time she could come with him… He had called her three nights ago to let her know he’d arrived safely. “Tell mama I’m fine,” he’d said, “and I’ll call back Wednesday or Thursday.” It was already Thursday. He’d better call. He’d been dating Yohana Flores for 10 years. Maybe it was time to—

It had been so easy. After planting the first bomb in the ashtray at the Copacabana, Cruz Leon had walked 300 metres up First Avenue to the Miramar, another oceanfront hotel, placed the second plastic bag containing the second device behind some furniture in the lobby and then did the same a few minutes later in Hotel Triton 500 metres along.

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Cruz León

By the time Cruz León made his way back to the Copacabana, the first bomb had already exploded. The scene was pandemonium. Some journalists, foreign he guessed, had tried to quiz him about what he’d seen. “No español, no español,” he’d answered. But they persisted, asking him again in French and English. He kept shrugging his shoulders as he walked quickly away. The first police officers had already arrived with their sniffer dogs; no need to stick around for that. Not that there was any way anyone could connect the bombs to him. He was just another nameless tourist.

Like other nameless tourists, Cruz León enjoyed a late lunch that afternoon at a rooftop table at La Bodeguita de Medio, the famous, funky bar and restaurant in old Havana where Ernest Hemingway had once imbibed more than his share of mojitos. In fact, it was claimed that the mojito—a rum drink with fresh spearmint and club soda—had been invented here. Cruz León saw Hemingway’s signed, framed declaration—“My mojito in La Bodeguita; my daiquiri in El Floridita”—on the wall behind the bar. He’d admired the photos, signatures and initials the famous—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Salvador Allende—and the unknown had scrawled on or carved into the restaurant’s walls as mementoes of their visits.

Cruz León didn’t write his own name anywhere, but he did leave something behind so people would know he’d been there. After he finished his meal, he reached into his backpack, took out his last plastic bag containing yet another bomb, stealthily armed its timer for later that night and slipped it between a wall and a restaurant freezer. Then he calmly walked out of the restaurant and made the six block trek back to the Hotel Plaza where he was registered in Room 314.

Like the Ambos Mundos, where Cruz León had stayed in July, the Plaza was an upscale historic hotel in the tourist heart of old Havana. Built as a home for a wealthy colonial family more than a hundred years before, it had served briefly as a newspaper office before being bought by an American named Fletcher Smith in 1901 and eventually converted into a two-storey luxury hotel. Before the revolution, its famous guests had included everyone from Albert Einstein to Babe Ruth (Ruth’s former suite, 216, had been made over into a museum, complete with a Ruth bat and ball). After Castro took over, the hotel’s casino was shuttered. By the 1970s, the hotel itself had closed. It was finally reopened in the early nineties, freshly renovated and refurbished as part of the island’s about face on tourism following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The hotel was conveniently close to all of old Havana’s attractions.You could wander around the nearby Museo de la Revolución, the former presidential palace with its “wonderful works of art and stunning architectural details, including a replica of Versaille’s Hall of Mirrors, ornate bas-relief work, and interior decorations by Tiffany,” which were now counter-balanced by the symbols of the revolution that filled the grounds: trucks, tanks, planes, a piece from a shot-down U2 spy plane, and of course the glass-protected Granma, the motor launch Castro, Guevara and their band of revolutionaries had used to bring such dramatic changes to Cuba in 1956. Stroll a block in the opposite direction and you were at the long staircase leading to the stunning El Capitolio Nacional, which had been designed to look like the Capitol Building in Washington. That, of course, had been in pre-revolution days, back when Havana still aped American style, It was now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.

None of that especially interested Cruz León. But it was another sweltering September day. Perhaps instead he would take a stroll down the 10 blocks of the Prado, the equally famous, tree-shaded, marble-balustraded, terrazzo-floored central boulevard linking Parque Central to the Malecon and enjoy a little cooling breeze from the Bahia de la Habana.

But first he needed to call Yohana. He picked up the phone. Began to dial. As he did, the door to his room burst open. Police and Cuban State Security officers filled the hotel room. Raúl Ernesto Cruz León wan no longer just another nameless tourist.

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