Branded as a terrorist by both the Cuban and U.S. governments, Tomas Ramos says he is essentially a non-person in Havana — no job and no identification papers, but lots of harassment by State Security agents.
“We are always persecuted,” said Ramos, 70, one of several former South Florida men freed after serving long sentences in Cuban prisons for armed raids against the island in the 1990s — but prohibited from returning to the United States.
Cuban authorities monitor them tightly and with deep suspicion. And the U.S. State Department has denied them visas and political asylum, they say, because of their past involvement in political violence.
“We are watched all the time, even in our private lives. Our lives in Cuba are worth nothing. They can kill us anytime,” Ramos said. “And nevertheless, the U.S. does not allow us to go there because they say that we are violent.”
All told, 21 raiders from South Florida are known to have been captured on the island from 1991 to 1996, when some exiles believed Cuba was vulnerable to an anti-Castro revolt during the devastating crisis after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
At least 16 are still in Cuba, including eight in prison and seven released after completing long terms, according to several former prisoners and supporters in Havana and Miami interviewed by el Nuevo Herald. One other died in Cuba from natural causes. Two were allowed to return to Florida because they were U.S. citizens.
Some have acknowledged that they infiltrated Cuba with weapons and plans to attack or sabotage government targets. Others claim they went to the island only to deliver supplies or information to others already there.
Their stories were highlighted last week when Havana announced the arrests in April of four Cuban men from Miami who were allegedly plotting to attack military installations on the island on orders from three exile activists still in South Florida.
On Saturday, the U.S. Interests Section issued a statement confirming a May 8 meeting with representatives of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the arrests. It said, “The Cubans provided some information about the allegations which we are now reviewing.”
Cuba’s Interior Ministry has identified the men as Jose Ortega Amador, Obdulio Rodriguez Gonzalez, Raibel Pacheco Santos and Felix Monzon Alvarez. It said they were detained in late April for planning “terrorist actions” masterminded from Florida.
Egberto Angel Escobedo Morales, whose Association of Current and Former Political Prisoners in Havana tries to help the raiders, said their conditions both in prison and after their releases are almost unimaginably horrible.
The raiders are usually sent to the worst prisons, where guards treat them with special brutality, beating them and putting them in isolation cells, said Escobedo, a Havana man who served 15 1/2 years for trying to promote a military revolt in 1995.
Some of the imprisoned raiders became “sick with nerves from the constant beatings” and were regularly denied food and medical care, Escobedo told el Nuevo Herald by phone.
Jesús Manuel Rojas Pineda, 70, a raider captured in 1994 and freed in 2013, said he went on a hunger strike for 18 days to demand treatment for hemorrhoids. On day 19, he was rushed to a hospital and underwent emergency surgery, he said.
And once the raiders complete their sentences and are set free, said Escobedo, “they have no possibility of anything.”
“No government opponent can find legal work here. And if it’s illegal, State Security comes after us, so we don’t do that,” Ramos said. “I have been arrested and beaten so many times I can’t even remember.”
Rojas said police took away his U.S. parole card when he and six other armed members of the militant exile group known as PUND were captured near the north central fishing town of Caibarién, following a raid in which a local Communist Party official was killed.
“I don’t have American papers, and I don’t have Cuban papers. I am nobody,” Rojas said from the city of Matanzas, where he has been living with a daughter since his release.
Rojas fled Cuba during the 1994 “Rafter Crisis,” which saw more than 30,000 people leave the island aboard homemade vessels. He had been in Miami only a month when he went to the funeral of two rafters who had drowned in the crossing. Two months later, he joined the plot to infiltrate Cuba.
He said he is now almost deaf, suffers from high blood pressure and circulatory problems, and wants to return to the United States because “I want to spend my last days quietly.”
Rojas said he was denied a U.S. visa because he has no identity document and because of his past. Ramos, Escobedo and another former raider, Jose Benito Menendez del Valle, said they were rejected because of their records of political violence.
Menendez, 67, said he was first jailed for anti-Castro activities from 1969 to 1973 and left in 1980 for Miami, where he worked as a handyman and obtained U.S. residence. He infiltrated the island in 1994 but was quickly captured and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was freed after serving 16 years.
He once spent 16 months in an isolation cell and has been arrested dozens of times since his release, Menendez said by phone from Havana. He has not found work because of his record and relies on assistance from friends abroad and on the island.
Menendez said he wants to return to Miami because he has three grown children and three siblings in South Florida, and “at my age, and with my years in prison, I know that my life is ending.”
Escobedo said he was angry that while scores of Cuban government officials and supporters regularly receive U.S. visas, “men who have spent years in prison and remain under constant harassment are denied visas.”
The asylum office in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana “is not doing a good job,” he added. “The Obama administration has practically abandoned us.”
A State Department official said there are “many reasons why a visa application may be denied” but declined to comment on the specific cases of the Cuba raiders because of confidentiality restrictions.
Tomas Ramos is a lot more critical of the U.S. mission, calling it “a nest of Cuban security agents” because many of its day-to-day functions are handled by the several hundred Cuban citizens employed there.
Jailed from 1960 to 1970 for anti-Castro activism, Ramos left for Miami in 1989 and returned to Cuba in 1990 as part of a two-man infiltration team from a Miami exile group that called itself the Cuban Liberation Army. Prosecutors said the team was part of a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, brother Raúl Castro and other senior government officials.
Ramos said he suffers from Parkinson’s disease but remains steadfast in his opposition to the Castro brothers.
“At no time will I stop feeling proud of having belonged to violent organizations,” he said. “I do not regret what I did or what I tried to do at one point.”