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Bernardo Benes dies: Banker and exile leader played key role in 1978 dialogue with Cuba

Bernardo Benes
Bernardo Benes

Former Cuban American banker and community leader Bernardo Benes died Monday in Miami. He was 84.

Benes’ work as a middleman in an effort toward closer relations between Cuba and the United States led to a 1978 dialogue between the two countries and Fidel Castro’s release of 3,600 political prisoners.

But it also made the red-haired banker a controversial figure among sectors of the Miami exile community that attacked him for meeting with Castro and being too close to the Cuban dictator.

“Bernardo worked very hard, but the exiles did not understand. Many talked bad about him, they called him ‘The Red One.’ But he did a lot for the Cuban exile community,” said his friend, Jose Carlos Prado.

Prado recalled that Benes played a key role in fostering dialogue between Havana and Washington under Democratic President Jimmy Carter as well as Republican Ronald Reagan.

“He arranged a very important meeting between Carlos Rafael Rodríguez and Gen. Alexander M. Haig in Mexico,” Prado added, referring to a secret meeting between the then vice president of Cuba and the U.S. secretary of state in the fall of 1981.

Filmmaker Jorge Ulla remembered Benes as a “humanitarian” who always sought solutions to problems. That spirit led him to launch what Ulla described as adventures, from resolving the U.S.-Cuba conflict to a rapprochement between Israel and the Vatican.

“Bernardo was a pure democrat. He had a high sense of justice and the law, and did not believe in totalitarian positions. He was not hypnotized by the Cuban revolution,” Ulla added.

The filmmaker recalled an anecdote that Benes shared after one of his meetings with Castro in 1978.

Benes took a video to the island showing the prosperity of Cuban exile businesses in Miami. Among them was a shoe factory that produced 15,000 per day.

“During the showing Castro asked several times. ‘Bernardo, the factory produces 15,000 shoes per month?’” Benes said he repeatedly answered that it produced 15,000 shoes per day, Ulla recalled.

Incredulous, Castro asked again. “Could it be 15,000 shoes per week?” Ulla said. The Cuban ruler was clearly stunned by the high level of production, in contrast with the inefficient Cuban and Soviet bloc factories on the island.

“Bernardo told that story with great delight. He did not make fun of Fidel because the honest story itself was enough, and did not need to be seasoned with adjectives,” he said.

Bernardo Benes, with sociology professor Mauricio Font and Richard Nuccio, a political adviser to the White House, during a conference on the Cuban economy in Miami in 1995. Roberto Koltun el Nuevo Herald

Benes was born in Matanzas, Cuba, on Dec. 27, 1934, the son of Jewish immigrants from Europe. His mother’s surname was Baikowitz. His father owned the successful Perro T-shirt company.

He graduated from the University of Havana with degrees in law and accounting and went to work for a prominent law firm while doing pro bono work for the Jewish community association in Havana.

He went into exile in 1960 and one year later founded the Cuban Hebrew Congregation on Miami Beach. In 1975, he founded Continental National Bank of Miami, which helped thousands of other exiles launch their own businesses.

He was vice president of United Way in Dade County from 1965 to 1977 and in 1977 founded United Way International.

“Bernardo did not need money. He dedicated his time to the cause of Cuba and creating bridges between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community,” Prado said.

He praised Benes as a great friend to all, and said, “If you had a problem, he made it his own.’

Ulla remembered Benes as a sincere man “without filters” — a part of his character that helped him to “deal with guys who are histrionic and who think they’re bigger than history, like Fidel Castro.”

That lack of filter in part helps to explain a famous photo of another successful Miami businessman and participant in the 1978 dialogue, cigar maker Orlando Padron, giving some of his cigars to Castro.

Bernardo Benes, center, in a controversial photo in which Miami cigar maker José Orlando Padrón, right, offered one of his company’s cigars to Fidel Castro.

Benes told Castro that Padron’s cigars were better than Cuban cigars, and then Padron offered his product to the Cuban leader, Ulla said, adding that the photo of the event was interpreted in Miami as an effort by Padron and Benes to ingratiate themselves with Castro.

Benes’ standing in the exile community took a hit amid the dialogue. He was criticized as a traitor and was forced to sell his share in Continental National Bank.

Yet his work also led to the release of the 3,600 political prisoners, including some jailed for more than 20 years, and more than 2,400 of their relatives — whose departure for Miami strengthened the exile community’s resolve to oppose Castro, Ulla said.

Friends said Benes was to be buried Tuesday in a private ceremony.