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A 30-Year-Old Trial Still Speaks Volumes about Castro

“While Eastern Europeans were celebrating the arrival of democracy in 1989, Cuba went through one of its darkest episodes.”

This year will mark the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. In 1989, this was the first step towards a unified Germany and the first piece to fall in the domino of Communist totalitarian regimes. At the time, it was predicted that, ultimately, Cuba would also be one of the falling pieces. Without Soviet support, the thinking went, the regime could not stand on its feet by itself.

The prediction, of course, has not come to pass. While Eastern Europeans were celebrating the arrival of democracy in 1989, Cuba went through one of its darkest episodes. Whereas Stalin’s influence was dissipating in the Old World, in the New World, it was being reinforced in one of the most shameful trials in Latin American history. With all the hallmarks of the judicial proceedings straight out of the Soviet Union of the 1930’s, Cuban General Arnaldo Ochoa was tried in a kangaroo court and shot by a firing squad on July 13th, 1989. We would do well to revisit this story because it still has its implications today, and no one documented it better than Andres Oppenheimer in his extended, objective, and well-informed account Castro’s Final Hour.

Foreseeing that Gorbachev’s Perestroika would result in eroding Soviet support for Cuba, Fidel Castro began to seek alternative sources of revenue for his nation in the 1980’s. He created the Department of Convertible Currency, which would encourage smuggling operations with exiles in Miami, so that they would bring much-needed equipment (mostly electronics) to Cuba by boat, thus bypassing the long-standing trade embargo imposed by the United States.

The head of that department, Tony de La Guardia, eventually realized that it would be more profitable to use Cuba as a transport base for drugs coming north from Colombia and Panama. Then, exiles in Miami would smuggle drug cargo into Florida with their private boats. De La Guardia surely took a major slice from that scheme, but he was also motivated by a sense of patriotic duty; he reasoned that the only way to save the revolution, given the collapse of the Soviet empire, was by making pacts with the drug-smugglers in Florida.

General Arnaldo Ochoa also had a patriotic mindset, but apparently he did not dare to go into the drug smuggling business. Nevertheless, he engaged in the illegal trade of diamond and ivory in Africa, as he was the head of the Cuban forces in the wars of Angola. Ochoa was a war hero, and as the Cuban people desperately wanted Perestroika-like reforms, Ochoa was increasingly seen as a pragmatic yet patriotic reformist who could get Cuba out of its impended post-Soviet crisis.

Castro, ever the ambitious hard-liner, had different ideas. He imprisoned Ochoa, accusing him of planning drug smuggling operations with the Florida exiles. His trial, transmitted on national TV, was a Cuban version of a Stalinist show. For example, one associate of Ochoa, Ruiz Poo, claimed while trembling that Castro himself was the head of the drug smuggling operations. The prosecutor, one Juan Escalona, immediately interrupted the testimony, and told the physicians to take the witness away. The very next day, a more relaxed Ruiz Poo said that “El Comandante” knew nothing about the operations.

Ochoa ultimately confessed to all of the charges. In a Stalinist trial (presumably with all sorts of torture behind the scenes, both physical and psychological), this, of course, proves nothing. Oppenheimer is skeptical that Ochoa was really deeply involved in the drug smuggling operations. He seemed interested in communications with famed Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar but did not get beyond that point. In any case, Ochoa felt entitled to contact Escobar because drug smuggling activities permeated throughout the Cuban administration, so he believed it was the natural thing to do to save the revolution.

Did Castro play a role in all of this? In the show trials, Castro’s image was thoroughly cleansed. Ochoa seemed to be a mere scapegoat. Oppenheimer does not venture to decisively claim that Castro was indeed involved in the drug trade. But, in a country with a totalitarian regime, where the Head of State controls every minute detail of the administration, it is hard to believe that Castro was not complicit (or at least aware) of these schemes. We now know that Castro’s personal and fiercely loyal bodyguard, Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, claims that he was shocked when he overheard El Comandante discuss the details of a drug smuggling operation with some cronies.

Ochoa’s trial sent shockwaves throughout the Cuban population in 1989. Much has changed ever since, and the new generation of Cubans knows little about that case. Yet, that particular moment in Cuban history is still relevant after 30 years. After the Soviet collapse, Cuba found a new sponsor: Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela. This allowed the Cuban regime to survive. According to many observers, Cuba managed to exercise a great measure of control in Venezuelan politics, with allegations of dealings in the drug trade still rampant. 

But, on the whole, the Ochoa affair should raise questions about the purity of Castro’s moral integrity in a world where young people are increasingly fascinated by his figure. Most of his biographers pay little attention to the Ochoa case, when in fact, it may be the greatest indictment of his legacy.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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