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Cubans lament dirty pasts of hundreds living safe in exile

Havana activist Elizardo Sánchez says he bears no ill will for the Caamaños, neighbors who collaborated with State Security agents to harass him for years. After all, he heads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

But his sister Marcela, who lives with him, has no problem denouncing the two Caamaños and a son-in-law, who now live in Miami.

“The first thing I would do is bring them back,” she said. “It is not a grudge. But it IS a lot of pity for the many people suffering here, while they live without any kind of problem over there.”

Former Cuban provincial prisons chief Crescencio Marino Rivero made headlines over the past month amid allegations that he abused some prisoners and ordered guards to abuse others before he moved to Miami two years ago.

But uncounted hundreds of other Cubans with nasty pasts are also living here, including State Security officers, snitches and collaborators, judges, policemen and members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood watch groups.

Most were small cogs in the communist system’s machinery for political repression. They did not beat or torture. But they were not harmless.

Their work could land dissidents in prison or block their children from getting into the right universities.

Yet like hundreds of thousands of other Cubans, they eventually moved to Miami, legally or illegally, for valid or suspect reasons. And their victims fumed when they spotted their former tormentors living in the capital of Cuban exile.

“The fact is that he screwed up my life,” Jose Varona, 73, said about the State Security officer whose court testimony in 1973 helped send him to prison for 6 ½ years. Varona was freed and moved to Miami in 1979. The officer arrived two years ago.

Frank Parodi, a retired official of the human rights violators’ unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that after the arrest of one Cuban abuser was announced in 1992, his office received 250 tips and leads about other abusers in Miami. He was transferred to Washington afterward and does not know what happened to those tips.

Elizardo Sánchez said “hundreds upon hundreds” of full-time officers of State Security, the Interior Ministry branch in charge of political repression, moved to the United States in recent years. Ironically, he claimed, some went searching for a safe haven.

“The smartest ones perceive that the regimen is in its final stage” and fear revenge attacks, he said by telephone from Havana. “They are looking to put themselves in a safe place.”

U.S. government officials acknowledge it is difficult if not impossible to weed out the bad apples when Cubans apply for U.S. visas, residency or citizenship.

State Security officers use pseudonyms to hide their identities when cracking down on dissidents, and Washington does not appear to have extensive databases that could alert to Cubans with dirty pasts.

Marcela Sánchez said she warned U.S. diplomats in Havana that three of her Caamaño neighbors had obtained U.S. visas and were preparing to leave. They settled in Miami in 2000 or 2001.

In the absence of full U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, Havana does not cooperate in confirming the personal details of Cubans seeking visas or citizenship, and almost never accepts U.S. deportations.

Rivero and his wife apparently did not reveal in their visa or residency documents that they had held the rank of colonel and captain in the Interior Ministry and belonged to the Communist Party — facts that might have triggered deeper U.S. looks at their cases.

“The checks and balances we have for migrants of other nationalities were not that effective with the Cubans,” Parodi said. “These are people who should not be here, but whatever they put on paper is all we have. And once they’re in Miami, they’re in.”

The former agents and collaborators also could pose a security risk for the U.S. government because they could cooperate with Cuban intelligence agents, willingly or under pressure, said Elizardo Sánchez.

Miami human rights activist Oscar Peña said it’s time for Cubans to stop nursing old wounds, “not to forget, but to draw a mental line and say ‘this stops now.’ ” The same goes for islanders still holding grudges against exiles, he added.

But that’s a tough idea for victims, their relatives and friends to accept.

After El Nuevo Herald published the first story about Rivero, it received a dozen complaints against other alleged abusers in South Florida.

One Miami man emailed the newspaper to denounce the Havana judge he said had refused to give a break to a mutual friend convicted of a non-political crime in the 1980s.

Another alleged that a former prison guard in Camagüey province named Eugenio Salgado had worked at the Palacio De los Jugos restaurant on Flagler Street. Owner Apolonia Bermudez said Salgado quit 10-12 years ago and El Nuevo Herald efforts to find him were unsuccessful.Miami author Rodrigo de la Luz said he was stunned some years back when he ran into the policeman who watched but did nothing as another cop beat him 20 years ago in Havana, for being disrespectful during his arrest.

“I was handcuffed, and you laughed,” de la Luz, now 43, recalled saying to the man, who admitted that he had been a policeman but denied ever abusing anyone and insisted that was old history.

“After all, we’re all here” in Miami, the man added.

De la Luz said he denounced the policeman to the FBI but does not know whether the bureau pursued the case. His name was Jose Luis, but de la Luz does not recall if he ever learned his surname.

Marcela Sánchez, 62, said the Caamaños supported the Castro government strongly for decades and allowed State Security to use their home, across the street from hers, as a base and permanent site of a video camera that filmed all her brother’s visitors.

A son-in law, Ernesto Estevez, punctured the tires of some of her brother’s foreign visitors and in 1992 joined a violent police raid that carted away virtually all of his human rights archives and busted up his office furniture, she added.

Estevez told El Nuevo Herald that the Caamaño and Sanchez families had “differences of political criteria” but denied that he helped the 1992 raid or punctured tires, or that State Security agents had a base and a camera at the Caamaño home.

He only lived with the Caamaños because he was married to a daughter, Estevez said, and did not share their strongly pro-Castro views. “I was apathetic. I am allergic to politics. Why do you think I left the country?” he said.

Oscar Alvarez, another Sánchez neighbor now living in Miami said there was indeed a video camera in the Caamaño home and that he believed Estevez was a full-time State Security official. Estevez denied he ever served in Cuba’s security services.

Varona, now a security consultant, said he still bears a grudge for Eloy Mederos, the State Security officer, childhood friend in Camaguey and prosecution witness in the trial that convicted him of plotting to topple the government. The charge was true, he said.

Mederos, now about 80, arrived in Miami about two years ago, Varona said. El Nuevo efforts to contact Mederos at the address and phone number provided by Varona, and to locate him independently, were not successful.

He has denounced Mederos to the FBI, immigration officials and Sen. Marco Rubio’s office and considered organizing a group protest at the address. “The least I would do is to slap him,” Varona told El Nuevo Herald in an interview.

Instead, he mailed Mederos a one-page note, written in inch-high black letters:

6 years of prison

6 years of hunger

6 years of cold

6 years of suffering

You lack divine justice