Nicholas Britto (Andres Mera on left). Britto wrote a letter to Mayor O'Connor demanding that she produce the alleged statistics regarding Cubans in crime.
Today Ataricio Loriga Gomez’s right wrist works again, and Pablo Pena Valdez no longer shows the unmistakable symptoms of starvation. When the two former political prisoners were released from Cuba six months ago and introduced to each other on a flight from Miami to San Diego, Loriga couldn’t shake hands, and Pena could barely stand. Now the two sixty-eight-year-old Cubans, who were kept in jail by Fidel Castro for the last twenty-seven years, share an East San Diego apartment and try to avoid talking about life — and death — in prison.
Pablo Pena Valdez: “You were given five minutes to eat. Each man had a small can, about eight ounces capacity. The can was never full."
Last September 15, Castro allowed sixty-nine political prisoners to leave Cuba after a year-long release effort organized by the U.S. Catholic Conference. Explorer Jacques Cousteau is also credited with helping to free them, simply by asking Castro during a filmed interview if the Cuban dictator would spring some prisoners as a humanitarian gesture. Loriga, who had fought against Castro as a soldier in the Cuban National Guard in 1958, and Pena, a former officer in the Cuban National Police before the revolution, were among the four ex-prisoners and five family members sent to San Diego for resettlement.
Pena's Cuban passport. Pena was in the process of dying when he was released from prison.
Both men have received help from Catholic Community Services, as well as the local Cuban community, which includes between 3000 and 5000 expatriates. Like Cuban refugees everywhere, the local Cubans tend the embers of outrage against Castro and remain confident they’ll live to see him toppled. The two former prisoners still have family members in Cuba and refuse to believe they may never be reunited. “You have to have hope of seeing them again,’’ remarks Loriga in Spanish. “It would be our last day alive if we thought we could never go back.’’ Loriga would go back to fight, even at his advanced age. “I fought the Communists at one time, and they injured my arm, and now that it’s okay, I would go back and do the same,” he says excitedly.
Panchito Morales, who spent eleven years in Castro’s prisons, has gotten several copies of a bill from the U.S. Catholic Conference demanding $800 for his family’s air fare from Cuba to San Diego.
Loriga was among approximately 37,000 members of former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista’s army who were imprisoned by Castro in early 1959. Thousands of those soldiers were executed by firing squads. Pena was among some 7000 federal policemen arrested and jailed by the revolutionaries. “The majority were executed,” he comments quietly.
Sergio Mayea in Cuban navy, 1958. Mayea left Cuba in 1961 after hearing President Kennedy, over the Voice of America, say he would help Cuban exiles return to fight Castro.
Loriga had been injured badly fighting Castro’s forces on October 21, 1958. His right arm was struck by a bullet and his chest torn open by a fragmentation grenade. He was recovering in Carlos Finlay Hospital in Havana when, two months later, the victors came and emptied the hospital, replacing the patients with wounded revolutionaries. Loriga was taken to Holguin Penitentiary and later to the infamous prison on Isla de Pinos. His right hand hung limp at the wrist, useless. He received no further treatment until an orthopedic surgeon operated on him here in January and restored the use of his hand.
Mayea: “O'Connor insulted all Cubans here. Why? Because it was an election, and she didn't want to confront the Mexican-American community over drugs."
Both Loriga and Pena say they were moved to several different prisons and that executions were constant. Some of the killings were oiganized, as when the frequent death penalties were carried out by firing squad, and others were summary executions. “Civilians would be brought in to inspect the prisoners and would make accusations about someone having killed their relatives,” Loriga explains. “Then the accused man would be taken away and shot immediately. A lady dressed in black, who we thought worked for the government, would come in again and again. She’d lie down crying that a certain prisoner had killed her son, and they’d take the man away and shoot him. It was like the Christians in the Coliseum, calling for death.”
Other deaths came at the hands of the guards. “One man refused to eat, he went on a hunger strike. They bayonetted him in his bed,” Loriga relates. He remembers a man who was too slow in tying his shoes. “They stabbed him, perforating his intestine.” Another time he was riding in a truck full of prisoners on the way to a work detail, and a man's hat blew off. “He asked them to stop so he could retrieve it, and while he was getting it, they shot and killed him.” Loriga’s and Pena’s stories of death are corroborated in the [recently published prison memoirs of poet and author Armando Valladares, who spent time in the same prisons. In Against All Hope, Valladares writes of the early period after Castro assumed power in 1959.
- The army officers, police agents, and officials of the deposed regime who had been charged with crimes — unproven in many instances — had already been shot. But Castro had found a new enemy — the enemy within — and no one was safe from this threat of ‘instant justice.’
- It was during those months that a group of women dressed in black would come into the [cells], peering intently, scrutinizing every face. All it took was for one of these women to lift a finger and point: ‘That one! That ’s the one who killed my son! ’ The man stood accused. That testimony, without any other corroboration, was enough. The prisoner was shot.
Pena was held for a time at La Cabana prison, an eighteenth-century Spanish fortress built on a hill to protect the port of Havana. He says that its capacity was about 3500 prisoners, but when Castro took over, its population swelled to about 14,000. “The inside of the prison was divided into galeras, small rooms that were twenty-seven feet by eighty feet,” he explains. “Between 300 and 340 people were confined in each galera, with one bathroom.” People slept on bunk beds, stacked three-high, and on the floor between the beds. The galeras opened out onto the dry moat surrounding the prison, the opening covered with two iron grates. It was in this moat that men were executed, the report from the rifles echoing off the three-foot-thick stone walls of the fortress. (Valladares called La Cabana “the most terrible of all the jails” because of the constant firing squads.)
Pena says the only time the prisoners were allowed out of the galeras was for meals.
“You were given five minutes to eat,” he recalls. “Each man had a small can, about eight ounces capacity, and at nine in the morning, they gave you plain macaroni. The can was never full. At night they gave you thin soup, sometimes with bread, which you couldn’t take back inside the galera. If they caught you doing that, they put you in solitary confinement, in a little closet.”
Unlike Loriga, who was released from prison about six months before he was flown to the U.S., Pena was in prison one day last September, taken out to a bus, dropped off at the airport in Havana, and flown to Miami that evening. When he arrived in San Diego, a Cuban doctor here, Ramon Moncada, examined him and observed symptoms of starvation. Pena was in the process of dying when he was released from prison.
Moncada says that when he examined Loriga, the former soldier was still paranoid from his quarter-century behind bars. “There’s only one thing I want to know,” Loriga asked him. “Are they going to put me in jail again? Am I safe here?” Now Loriga has the effusiveness of a man who has regained his freedom, and although he has little prospect of finding a job here, he says he likes San Diego and will stay. Pena, however, has friends in Miami, and like many Cuban refugees who come to San Diego, he is leaving for Cuba’s capital-in-exile.
Part of his reason for going, he explains, is that one of his few friends here, Francisco Morales, nicknamed Phnchito, will be driving east to Miami this month. He says he already feels completely alone most of the time, especially on the Holy Days, and would miss being able to walk from his apartment on Thirty-seventh Street to Panchito’s two blocks away.
Twenty-nine-year-old Francisco Morales spent eleven years in Castro’s prisons. He also arrived here last September, with his wife Josefa and their two children, Joson and Idierys. When Cuban-Americans took the family to K-Mart for the first time, Josefa collapsed in shock at the abundance. Joson cried for a toy rifle.
Josefa, who is very pregnant, flew back to Miami with the kids in late February; Panchito Morales and his friend Pena will drive there in late February. They’ll take the former’s ten-year-old Buick, which was donated to him by someone in the Cuban community here. Morales, a sturdy-looking welder with a bashful grin, hasn’t been able to find work in his trade. He figures that Miami, where Cuban businessmen look for Cuban labor, will be a better place to feed his family. His employment experience here has soured him on San Diego.
Public assistance in the form of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) is supposed to ensure him an income of $750 a month. Whatever he brings home as wages is subtracted from that amount. He currently works for minimum wage ($3.50 an hour) at a car wash on El Cajon Boulevard. Before that he worked briefly for a custom car-detailing firm. His last check from there was $46.
While speaking of his jobs in Spanish through interpreter Nicolas Britto, Morales suddenly remembers something. He digs through a drawer of paperwork and hands Britto a bill. Morales says he’s gotten several copies of the bill, from the U.S. Catholic Conference, which demands $800.00 for his family’s air fare from Cuba to San Diego. Morales is mystified by the charges, which to him represent an enormous sum of money. He doesn't recall being told in Cuba that he'd have to pay his air fare, and besides, he had no say in coming to San Diego. He couldn’t have found the city on a map, and he had no friends or relatives here. Like Loriga and Pena, he briefly saw friends in Miami after the flight from Havana, and then he was whisked off from the southeastern tip of the country to the Southwest. (A clerk in the collections office of the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C. says that all the refugees signed forms before leaving Cuba, stating that they would repay their travel loans once they found work.)
On the bottom of the bill is an ironic admonition that Morales might someday find funny. “Failure to repay your travel loan promptly may result in your account being reported as delinquent to a credit reporting agency which could adversely affect your credit rating.” Ah, sweet freedom!
But Panchito Morales and his wife and children express no bitterness at their newfound travails. They laugh often, for Morales feels lucky to have made it out of jail alive and become one of the estimated 1,036,000 Cubans living in the U.S. “The day I arrived in prison [in 1976], they shot four of my cellmates,” he mumbles. Although Amnesty International claims that there hasn’t been an execution in Cuba for three years. Morales says executions are still common there today.
Morales was seventeen years old when he and five friends took to the hills above Havana to become counterrevolutionaries. “Our family has never been in favor of Castro, so it was our duty to fight,” he explains. Bands of anti-Castro guerrillas have been a constant irritant in the Cuban countryside since 1959, and Morales and his friends meant to join the fight. But they didn’t last a week. One of them came back to Havana and turned in his compadres.
Morales says the boys were tried for “advocating against the government,” and the prosecutor wanted the death penalty. “When you go before the judge, you already know what the sentence will be,” he remarks. “The police tell you before the trial starts.” The boys were given ten years, rather than death, because they were minors, even though the only evidence was the testimony of the Judas among them. “They have what they call a ‘moral conviction’ that they use to convict you even if they can’t prove you’re guilty of anything,” Morales says. “They’re convinced you’re guilty, so you’re guilty and sentenced.”
In his book, Valladares describes how political prisoners are “convicted” by the Political Police, during interrogation, and how these convictions are relayed to the courts, which carry out the sentencing. He reconstructs his own interrogation/conviction:
- The officer told me they were sure that I was an enemy of the people.
- “You studied in a school run by priests,’* he said to me.
- “Yes, in Escolapius. What difference does that make?"
- “A big difference. Priests are counterrevolutionary, and the fact that you went to that school is one more piece of evidence against you.”
- “But Fidel Castro studied in a school taught by Jesuits. He went to Belen.” “Yes, but Fidel is a revolutionary. You, on the other hand, are a counterrevolutionary, tied to priests and capitalists, and so we are going to sentence you to jail."
- "There isn’t a shred of evidence against me. You have discovered nothing that incriminates me in any way.
- "It's true— we have no proof, or rather no concrete proof, against you. But we do have the comiction that you are a potential enemy of the revolution. For us, that is enough."
Cuban-Americans have been steeped in these kinds of stories for almost thirty years now, as a result of listening to the refugees who come by various means to the U.S. Most of them settle in Miami, and the San Diego population of Cuban-Americans has remained fairly small — estimates range at about 3000 to 5000, though the outdated 1980 census lists only 1531 Cubans in San Diego County. Several hundred Cuban refugees were brought here in 1980-81 as a result of the Mariel boat lift, when Castro allowed the exodus of some 125,000 Cuban citizens. Longtime Cuban residents believe that many of these Marielitos have since left San Diego for Miami, just as Panchito Morales and Pablo Pena Valdez are doing. But the recent emigres to San Diego found that a strong local Cuban community was in place here, and it's beginning to stir itself toward a political awakening.
Nicolas Britto has befriended the four former political prisoners who recently arrived in San Diego, because he makes it his business to know as many Cubans as he can. Britto is president and co-founder of the Cuban American Political Association, which was established last fall and which he now claims has about seventy-five members. Like many established Cuban-Americans, he views local politics as an extension of Cuban politics. “If we can get 5000 Cubans in this area — and we will — voting in one direction, we’ll swing an election,” he says, and the person elected could eventually have influence in this country's Central American policies. Britto and other local Cuban activists see American politics as a whole cloth — with local politicians as much a part of the weave as national leaders. And the Cuban-Americans invariably have one ultimate political goal: Castro’s downfall. “You're going to find the Cuban community becoming very nonpartisan,” he predicts. “Cubans voted for Reagan by eighty-nine percent or something, but not because he’s a Republican; it was because of his stance toward Communism in Central America. But we realize now that in order for Castro to fall, it’s going to take both [political] parties.”
Britto envisions a day when Cuban expatriates on the West Coast are as strong a political force as their compadres in Florida. Cubans there claim to have been the key in electing Governor Bob Martinez, as governor, as well as State Senator Ileana Ros, eight representatives to the state legislature, and Mayor Xavier Suarez of Miami. “Cubans set a goal and work for it,” Britto says. “There are some people who’ve abused the Cuban community here; we’re going to make them see the light.”
Though Britto, a veteran political operative in local Republican circles, recently changed his registration to Democrat, he and the Cubans in the Cuban American Political Association are decidedly conservative and unfriendly toward Democratic Mayor Maureen O’Connor. They’re still outraged over televised comments O’Connor made last May 28 on KFMB Channel 8, during her campaign for mayor. In response to a question from moderator Carl Sisskind about how she would attempt to deal with the flow of drugs from Mexico, O’Connor replied, “Well, the control of the border is all federal. The control of Mexico and the U.S. is a federal concern. If we are talking about the drug problem, we are talking about not only Mexico, but you are talking about the influx of Cubans in this community, and if you talk to any police officer that is on the drug task force, they tell you that the key dealers and key pushers in this town right now are the Cuban element in this community, and I think that is where we should start attacking it.”
At this point, Sisskind pointed out that Cuban involvement in drugs resides with a very small segment of the Cuban population and that from his interviews with the police, the Cubans deal only with marijuana. And he again tried to ask O'Connor how she would address the problem of reducing the flow of drugs through Mexico.
“Well, absolutely, I don’t know, Mr. Sisskind, I just went out on a ten-hour ride-along. I can debate all night about whether the Cubans are involved strictly in marijuana or heroin, because I rode by some rock houses that police officers took me to, and they specifically cited the houses, but' — ”
“But being your first ride-along,” Sisskind interjected, “I can understand your excitement —”
“It was more than that, dear!” O’Connor snapped .
Word of the interview spread quickly through the Cuban community here, and within days, an apology was being demanded of O’Connor. After receiving two such demand letters from Jose Alonso, a local Cuban-American businessman, O’Connor exacerbated the imbroglio by writing him a letter that contained misinformation about Cubans involved in crime. “The police officer with whom I rode gave me the information regarding Cuban involvement in drug trafficking,” O’Connor wrote. “His comments were based upon San Diego Police Department research and resulting statistics. I am sure that the police department would be willing to provide you with those statistics, and to point out to you the ‘rock houses’ mentioned on television.” (Actually, the San Diego police department, like most police departments in big cities, is sensitive to the appearance of discrimination in its handling of suspects and does not keep statistics about the national origin of local miscreants. Arrest reports only list broad categories of race, e.g., Hispanic, black, Asian, or Caucasian.)
Nicolas Britto wrote a letter to Mayor O'Connor last August 9, demanding, under the federal Freedom of Information Act, that she produce the alleged statistics regarding Cubans in crime. On August 27, he received a reply from city attorney John Witt, who stated that no such information exists.
Britto had written his letter as chairman of the Cuban American Political Association, a group that O’Connor’s comments catalyzed into existence. “She maligned the entire Cuban community and refused to apologize,” Britto relates. “So we wanted to take some action and get organized, and when election time comes, we’re gonna be ready.” Paul Downey, press spokesman for Mayor O’Connor, says the mayor would have no comment on the issue herself. He and another staff member met with some of the Cubans last fall to try to resolve the dispute, “And we explained our position, and they explained theirs, and we agreed to disagree,’’ Downey explains. “Her intention was not to say that all Cubans are drug pushers or that, only Cubans are drug pushers. She had just been taken by a couple of rock houses that were busted and happened to be run by Cubans. All segments of the community are involved in drugs. We don’t feel that she really has anything to apologize about. What she intended to say, they read one way, and she meant it in another way.”
Last August the founders of the Cuban American Political Association met at Andres’ Patio, a Cuban restaurant run by former dentist Andres Mera on Morena Boulevard. They seethed over O’Connor’s remarks while feasting on a dinner of Cuban-style fried rice, red beans, Cuban-style pork and chicken, yuca (a kind of tuber), moros (a rice and black bean mixture), followed by fried bananas and cafe con leche. Joining Mera and Britto were Dr. Ramon Moncada, attorney Jose Alonso, and Sergio Mayea, a sheet-metal fitter who has worked at National Steel and Shipbuilding Company for seventeen years.
Now nearly eight months after that first meeting, Mayea, a fiery counterrevolutionary who belongs to the Cuban liberation group called Alpha 66, speaks with serene confidence about how O’Connor’s comments will return to bite her. “We aren’t going to forget what Maureen O’Connor said,” he explains, sitting in his comfortable living room in a San Ysidro town house. “She insulted all Cubans here. Why? Because it was an election, and she didn't want to confront the Mexican-American community over drugs. She didn't even know there was a Cuban community in San Diego. We can get organized now and wait for the right moment to act.”
Mayea well knows that there are in fact many Cubans involved in crime in San Diego. He has sponsored the resettlement of dozens of Cuban refugees here, and some of his own household goods have been stolen by the emigres. “But every ethnic group has criminals,’’ Mayea explains. “O’Connor had a nephew arrested for drugs — does that mean that all Irish people are criminals? According to her, it means he must have been a Cuban.” The forty-eight-year-old Mayea is accustomed to and obviously enjoys a good fight, especially one in which a politician figures most prominently. “Politicians always make things worse in this country,” he says. “The military, the CIA, do good until the politicians come in.”
Like Nick Britto, Sergio Mayea purposely blurs the line between local politics, national politics, and the overthrow of Fidel Castro. “The Cuban community here has been involved more in American politics than in the Cuban revolution,” he observes. “Because the first thing Cubans think, about is national security. We know what it means to lose our freedom. We see liberals as a danger, because we’ve seen what they can bring about.” In the Cuban press, former National Security Council staffer Oliver North, who helped mastermind and carry out the arms-to-Iran, cash-to-the-contras caper, is touted as a national hero.
Mayea, a family man with a daughter in college, a newly adopted infant daughter in the crib, and a son in Cuba, owns an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, as do most members of Alpha 66. And he keeps up with his target practice. Alpha 66 was formed in 1961 in Puerto Rico, its sixty-six founding members still smiting from their abortive attempt to invade Cuba through the Bay of Pigs. The organization has helped supply rebels fighting in the Cuban hills against Castro, and it has tried to orchestrate a campaign to cripple the Cuban economy by burning crops and destroying tractor motors. Mayea says Alpha 66 members have helped train the contras fighting in Nicaragua. He believes that Cuba, Nicaragua, and other Central American countries are being manipulated by the Soviet Union in a kind of global diversionary tactic. “Cuba is already in the hands of the Soviets,” he says, “but not Nicaragua yet. Costa Rica is weak, Honduras is weak, Guatamala is unstable; the U.S. will be kept busy putting out small fires on its patio while Russia moves into West Germany.”
Ever since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April of 1961, Alpha 66 and other Cuban exile groups have remained ready to fight Castro anywhere, but the dream has always been to return to the island for another try. In fact, Mayea originally left Cuba in 1961 after hearing President Kennedy, over the Voice of America, say he would help Cuban exiles return to fight Castro. Mayea had once been a part of Castro’s revolution when he joined with Che Guevarra’s forces in the city of Caibariem in 1958. “But immediately, I saw Castro going to the Communists,” he says. After Castro assumed power, Mayea had to wear women’s shoes because of the shortages of goods, and he turned to the black market as a source of income. (He made and sold deodorant for a time, mixing talc, cologne, and glycerine.) Though he had briefly joined the revolution, he soon realized that his disaffection with former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista was easily overmatched by his disillusionment with Castro. “Batista was the disease that created that cancer that is Castro,” he declares. By 1961 he had become an implacable enemy of Castro.
So he and four compadres left Cuba one night in a twenty-foot boat powered by a five-horsepower motor. The motor quit on the second day of the voyage, and the men drifted, lost, for two more days after that. When they struck land, they thought they might have drifted back to Cuba. And when a green-clad soldier approached them, they were sure of it: the soldier addressed them in Cuban Spanish. But soon they discovered that all was well; Mayea says they had landed at a secret CIA training base near Miami.
After six months in the U.S., Mayea joined the army, even though he couldn't speak a word of English. He trained in Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, for six months, where he says each company of American soldiers had a Cuban platoon. His ID card carried the mysterious abbreviation U.C. — United Cubans. They were being trained for another invasion of Cuba, one that never came. “Everything went liberal, left wing,” Mayea says. “They said, ‘That’s it, no invasion.’ Many Cubans left the army, but I stayed. I was still hoping.”
Mayea was discharged from the army at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in 1966, and he came directly to San Diego. His brother Armando had just escaped from Cuba to Mexico, and he had made his way to Tijuana and crossed over into the U.S. Bothe brothers have lived in San Diego ever since.
There were only about one hundred Cubans living here then. says Mayea. The first one we met was Lou Conde, who eventually was elected to the county board of supervisors, where he served for a tumultuous four years between 1973 and 1977. Conde now lives in Miami. Mayea marks the passing of time by the protests he participated in. "I first me Lou Conde in 1966 when the Russian Circus came to the Sports Arena,” he recalls fondly. “It was my first protest. I met Gary Kreep of the Young Americans for Freedom there too. We demonstrated a lot in those days, a lot.''
The Cubans and the YAF ran counter-marches against the anti-Vietnam War protesters, whom Mayea considered Communist sympathizers. “We learned during the Vietnam War that the Communists use the media and the universities to portray their voice as the voice of the people,” he says with knowing assurance. “So when they organize a demonstration, we organize one right in front of them.”
Mayea helped organize just such a disruptive counter-demonstration last October at the Federal Building downtown, when Congressman Jim Bates made an appearance at a protest vigil against President Reagan’s Central American policies. Mayea and his fellow anti-Communists tried to shout down the congressman and other protesters.
Mayea organized a protest against Jesse Jackson, too, when Jackson came to the Mexican border during the 1984 presidential election. “He came in a limousine to the border” Mayea says with contempt, “and he had to pass our pickets.” Mayea says Jackson “betrayed even the black people when he embraced Castro. He forgot that Cuban troops occupy Angola and Ethiopia.” He laughs at the memory of Jackson almost running back to the border from Tijuana when, during his appearance at a rally, a group of anti-American protesters burned an American flag.
Mayea has helped to raise money here for Alpha 66, some of which goes directly to the contras trying to topple the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Many veterans of the Bay of Pigs disaster have gone to help fight with the contras, believing that if Nicaragua falls, its Cuban alliance will thereby be weakened. But to Mayea, the contra war is a short-term project. “We want to fight on Cuban soil, not Nicaraguan soil,” he declares. “When you have a cancer, you have to go right to it and remove it. And the cancer in Central America is Castro.” Once Castro is gone, Mayea says Alpha 66 plans to become a bona fide political party in Cuba, and he himself will return to teach constitutional principles to Cuban soldiers.
In the Cuban-American, connect-the-dots view of politics, the Cuban political prisoners are linked to Fidel Castro, who is connected to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and through him to the contras, and on to President Reagan, who has a distant political connection with Maureen O’Connor. To turn it around, O’Connor’s maligning of the Cuban community harms their image, making it more difficult to establish themselves in the respectable work force. That makes it more difficult to organize as a block to help elect conservative local and national politicians who might be sympathetic to their anti-Castro cause. So Cuban-American activists like Mayea and Britto have much to keep them busy. “To maintain the love for your country and to act, you have to be very strong,” Mayea reflects. “I'm probably the only real revolutionary in San Diego, because most people are so busy and have to work so hard here to make a living. There’s no time for anything else. For me, it’s easy. This is the second independence of Cuba we’re fighting for. The first was from the Spanish, this one is from the Soviets. I maintain my faith in freedom and my faith in Cuba. I believe Castro will be overthrown, and I’m more sure now than ever that I chose the right direction.”