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 smuggling.
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 house arrest.
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 Herald.
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 Tropas Especiales.
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 desks.
“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 to us.”
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 was lost.”