Posted on Sunday, 06.22.14
Arnaldo Ochoa — a problem for Castro brothers 25 years ago
Castro's fears led to a revolutionary hero's execution and drunken
binges by his brother Raúl, according to a former security officer.
BY JUAN O. TAMAY
Fidel Castro was so afraid of a revolt in Cuba's most elite paramilitary
unit that he ordered his motorcade to avoid driving past its base, his
top bodyguard at the time says. Raúl Castro was so depressed that he was
going on drunken benders and soiling his pants.
Cuba's top military hero, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, had been executed by
firing squad for drug smuggling. And a longtime member of Fidel's
innermost circle, Interior Minister José Abrantes, was in jail awaiting
trial for failing to stop the trafficking.
That summer 25 years ago posed one of the toughest challenges ever for
the Castro brothers — to show that their top deputies had trafficked
drugs without their consent, and to avert a backlash from other soldiers
who believed the Castros were lying.
"That was the drop that overflowed my glass," said Juan Reinaldo
Sánchez, 65, who served 17 years on Fidel's personal security detail and
now lives in Miami. "That he would send to the firing squad a man who
was a true hero."
Ochoa, 59, was Cuba's top military icon. He was a veteran of campaigns
in Angola, Venezuela, Ethiopia and Nicaragua, had won the country's
highest honor, Hero of the Revolution, and sat on the Central Committee
of the Communist Party.
Nevertheless, he was executed on July 13, 1989, along with three senior
officers of the Ministry of the Armed Forces and Ministry of the
Interior (MININT), after a military court convicted them of drug
smuggling and treason.
Ochoa was not plotting to overthrow Fidel, as was rumored at the time,
said Sánchez, who in 1989 stood at Fidel's elbow as keeper of the diary
of the Cuban leader's daily activities. Ochoa did not have the troops or
the means to carry out a coup, he added.
But evidence presented at their trial showed that Ochoa and the three
others who were executed — Antonio de la Guardia, Jorge Martinez and
Amado Bruno Padron — had arranged cocaine shipments through Cuba and to
the United States for Colombia's Medellin cartel.
Abrantes, one of Fidel's oldest and closest aides, a former head of his
security detail and a general, was arrested later with six other MININT
officers for failing to stop the drug traffic and corruption. He died of
a heart attack in 1991 while serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Fidel had approved Abrantes' involvement in drug trafficking, Sánchez
alleged. And Raúl, then minister of defense, had approved Ochoa's
involvement. Military Counter-Intelligence (CIM), which reported
directly to Raúl, had to have known of Ochoa's activities, yet no CIM
agent turned up at either trial as defendant or witness.
"Fidel and Raúl handled everything well because in the end they achieved
their objective — to survive," said Sánchez. "Ochoa, who could have
fingered Raúl, was executed. And Abrantes, who could have fingered
Fidel, died in prison. Done."
But there would be side effects from the two cases, especially for Raúl,
who has a documented history of heavy drinking when under pressure.
Raúl went "into a major depression" soon after Abrantes' arrest, said
Sánchez, who included the anecdote in his recently published book, The
Secret Life of Fidel Castro. His version of events cannot be
independently confirmed, but he has proven to be reliable in the past.
Raúl feared that if Fidel were capable of sacrificing Abrantes for
"failing" to know about the drug smuggling at MININT, Fidel might also
sacrifice his younger brother for "failing" to know about Ochoa's crimes
in the military, Sánchez wrote in the book.
The head of Fidel's security detail, Col. Jose Delgado Castro, told
Sánchez that Raúl's security detail had reported that he was often so
drunk "he was urinating in his pants and soiling his pants," the
bodyguard told el Nuevo Herald in an interview last week.
Raúl's wife, Vilma Espín, had asked his security detail to contact
Fidel's bodyguards and ask the older brother to intervene because she
was afraid her husband might kill himself during one of his drunken
binges, Sánchez added.
Espín's request was delivered to Fidel on a Friday, Sánchez said.
Delgado phoned Raúl's security detail to say that Fidel would meet his
brother that Sunday at Raúl's home, known as La Rinconada, near Fidel's
own home in western Havana.
Sánchez said he accompanied Fidel that Sunday. The brothers walked to an
open-sided shelter nearby, and Fidel signaled to him and Delgado to stay
back. The guards took up positions near the shelter, but Sánchez said he
could easily hear the conversation.
"Fidel said, 'I replaced Abrantes because he's not my brother. But you
are my brother . . . The only way I would replace you is if you continue
with this degrading and shameful behavior," Sánchez told el Nuevo Herald.
Raúl promised to stop drinking.
But the Abrantes case would continue to concern the Castro brothers.
Worried about the loyalty of the MININT, which was in charge of domestic
security, Fidel fired almost all the heads of its agencies — the
Directorates of Intelligence (DI) and Counter Intelligence (DCI),
police, immigration, border guards and even the fire department.
Some were offered jobs with the foreign companies then starting to
appear in Havana, and others were transferred to lesser state positions.
The official retirement age for MININT employees was dropped to 45, and
many were forced to retire.
"I took the retirement at 45 because I knew what I knew," said Raúl
Diaz, a former propaganda and counter-propaganda specialist with the DCI
who now lives in Central Florida.
He had been tasked to write a book and to film a documentary refuting
the charges that Cuban officials were helping drug traffickers, Diaz
said. Instead, he saw evidence that they were, indeed, involved in the
As Abrantes lingered in jail, Army Gen. Abelardo Colome Ibarra was named
interior minister and military counter-intelligence officers filled
hundreds of MININT jobs, said Lazaro Betancourt, a former member of
MININT's elite Tropas Especiales — Special Forces.
Tropas Especiales was Cuba's most experienced, combat-tested unit at the
time, a veteran of everything from guerrilla warfare in Latin America to
conventional wars in Africa. It had suffered more casualties than any
other unit in the military.
But it also had been the home unit of Abrantes and Antonio de la Guardia
and his twin brother Patricio, sentenced to 30 years in prison in the
Abrantes case. Patricio remains in Havana, last reported to be under
After Abrantes' arrest, all members of Tropas Especiales were denied
access to their guns, and their units, from the battalion level down to
the platoon level, were put under the command of CIM officers for five
months, Betancourt, 52, told el Nuevo Herald.
Unit members were denied even their pistols for the traditional July 26
ceremonies in 1989, marking the birth of the Castro revolution,
Betancourt, who defected in 1999 and now lives in Miami, told el Nuevo
Sánchez said Fidel gave strict orders that his motorcade was not to
drive near the unit's home base in western Havana, off the capital's
well-known Fifth Avenue, because he was afraid of a revolt within the
By December 1989, the unit and its main combat force, Batallion 20270,
had disappeared, Betancourt said. The only survivors were a super-elite
squad, Comando 43, and the unit's intelligence and counterintelligence
"The CIM occupied us. I call it an occupation," said Betancourt. "That
was my first big disappointment with the system, what Raúl's people did
Sánchez said that to this day, some of the Tropas Especiales' former top
officers remain under constant watch and their phones are tapped. He
doubts they would ever be allowed to leave the island nation.
The Ochoa-Abrantes cases still had other consequences.
In 1993, U.S. prosecutors in Miami drafted an indictment charging Raúl
as the head of a 10-year conspiracy to send tons of Colombian cocaine
through Cuba to the United States. The indictment was never executed.
And MININT's Directorate of Intelligence, once regarded as one of the
best spy services in the world after the United States, Russia and
Israel, suffered heavily after it was taken over by military
intelligence officers with little or no experience in foreign operations.
"We know from defectors and émigrés that the post-Ochoa purge of the DI
resulted in the firing of about 500 intelligence officers," said Chris
Simmons, a retired Cuba counter-intelligence expert at the Pentagon's
Defense Intelligence Agency.
"However, the impact of such a massive loss of talent was so severe that
about 300 officers were subsequently recalled to duty . . . within years
of the purge," Simmons added in an email to el Nuevo Herald.
Said Sánchez: "Ten years of work in intelligence and counterintelligence
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