He now hunts Cuban human-rights abusers in the U.S. Was he once an offender himself?

Juan Antonio Blanco, director ejecutivo de la Fundación por los Derechos  Humanos en Cuba.
Juan Antonio Blanco, director ejecutivo de la Fundación por los Derechos Humanos en Cuba.

Juan Antonio Blanco — the academic, activist, and executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba — recently announced an initiative to unmask and deport Cuban human-rights abusers now living in the United States. He declared that the drive was not “a witch hunt” against people just because of their political beliefs or affiliations with political organizations on the island.

What Blanco didn’t say: He once belonged to the Rapid Response Brigades, which were created by Fidel Castro in the 1990s to repress dissidents and contain popular unrest.

“I myself am a member of the Rapid Response Brigades in my building,” Blanco said during a conference in the United States in 1993, after he had broken with the Cuban government.

The brigades were organized along paramilitary lines and have been frequently deployed by the government to repress the dissident Ladies in White and other opposition groups. In 1994, Brigade members, along with police and military members dressed in civilian clothes and armed with clubs and steel rods, cracked down on a large Havana protest known as El Maleconazo, which gave way to the mass departures of the Balsero Crisis.

“It’s true that there have been cases where such encounters have gotten out of hand. I joined the brigade precisely because I think it is important to make sure that there will be no excesses or abuses,” Blanco added in 1993, according to the book “Talking About Revolution,” which was written by activist Medea Benjamin and based on conferences that Blanco held in several U.S. universities at the time.

Twenty-five years later, Blanco still finds it difficult to explain his statements.

“I did not belong to a Rapid Response Brigades unit,” he initially told el Nuevo Herald during a telephone interview. “The most that I recall participating in was one time when there was a protest against a neighbor in my building, and what I did was precisely to block any abuses against that person. What I did was to break up the activity.”

“I say there [at a 1993 conference] that I am a member because I belonged, not because I signed anything or was involved in anything,” Blanco said. “Sadly, the way that I was talking about that at that time, well, you evidently seize on that now and you take it out of context, and that doesn’t help.”

Pedro González, who preceded Blanco as head of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba and now sits on its board of directors, said the board discussed Blanco’s background before picking him to lead the FHRC. He added that board members knew Blanco had been “part of the Cuban government structures” but that he could not remember specific details such as Blanco’s statement on membership in the Rapid Response Brigades. González said Blanco has been “doing a very good job” directing FHRC programs. During a news conference in late June, Blanco identified two men who he said were former Cuban policemen who now live in the United States and have been accused by several people of human-rights abuses. He passed the accusations to federal authorities in order to have the ex-cops deported to Cuba, he added.

González said Blanco’s actions in Cuba could not be compared to the actions of the human-rights abusers identified by the FHRC and that Blanco did not lie to U.S. agencies about his background. To question Blanco’s past “after he’s been here so long,” Gonzalez said, “seems like a political assassination” by the Cuban government or rival exile organizations.

Before joining the FHRC, Blanco served in the Cuban government for many years, including nearly a decade as a diplomat and several years working for Manuel Piñeiro Lozada, known as Barbarroja — Red Beard — the notorious head of Cuban intelligence. Blanco said he resigned his post in the Americas Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1991 to work on civil-society activities and launched the Félix Varela Foundation.

Chris Simmons, a former U.S. intelligence official who has helped identify Cuban spies in the United States, cast doubts on Blanco’s story.

“Given that the Cuban exile and human-rights organizations are main targets of the Cuban intelligence services, I cannot grasp the idea that someone who was at the Americas Department, known for having the most political fanatics, some day sees the light and becomes a human-rights activist,” Simmons told el Nuevo Herald. “It just does not fly.”

Blanco traveled to the United States in 1993 for a tour organized by a group that promoted better U.S. relations with Cuba. Blanco told el Nuevo Herald that his statement during a conference about his role in the Rapid Response Brigades was motivated by his fear that Cuban government spies in the audience could report his words to Havana and torpedo the Félix Varela Foundation’s proposals for reforms.

“When you’re trying to keep the door open so they will listen to you … you also have to maintain a certain balance in your public statements, especially if you’re speaking from the United States,” he said.

Blanco said the question about the Rapid Response Brigades at a 1993 conference came from Ana Belén Montes, then the top U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst on Cuba and later convicted of spying for Havana and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The conference was held at Georgetown University and organized by professor Gillian Gunn, who later left academia amid allegations of cooperating with the Cuban government.

“I believe the question was asked by Ana Belén. That doesn’t mean I knew she was a spy, obviously. But I did know a couple of people there who had very close relations with the Cuban government, and who would report anything I said,” Blanco said.

Blanco, one of the authors of a book about “character assassination,” said his initiative to unmask Cuban human-rights abusers now living in South Florida has made him a target for Cuban authorities who are ready to use his past against him.

“Anyone who doesn’t know that I was a Communist, and that I worked in the Central Committee in the international department that Manuel Piñeiro directed, must not be following my interviews very closely,” Blanco wrote in an email to el Nuevo Herald. “Regarding what I said and not said during that talk in 1993, before an audience with two informants for G-2 [Cuban intelligence] and a top official of the Defense Department in charge of Cuba issues (Ana Belén Montes, who on top of everything also turned out to be a spy) it must be understood in that context,” Blanco added.

He added that his invitation to speak at the 1993 gathering “was really a trap to test my loyalty to Havana. That’s how I perceived it, and how I acted as a result.”

Blanco proved his loyalty to the regime in Havana for decades.

The son of prominent members of the pro-Moscow Popular Socialist Party before the Revolution — his mother was Elena Gil, founder of a plan to improve the lives of women — he spent four years in Fidel Castro’s armed forces, studied history, and became a professor in the University of Havana’s Philosophy Department.

Even though Raúl Castro ordered the department to be shut down in 1971 and the faculty was accused of spying for the CIA, Blanco joined the Cuban Foreign Ministry, in charge of the department handling relations with the Non-Aligned Movement at the Cuban diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York.

After nearly 10 years as a diplomat and with a recommendation from Cuban intelligence officers Tony and Patricio de la Guardia — the notorious twins who were later convicted of drug trafficking — Blanco joined the Americas Department in 1984 as a main analyst of U.S. affairs.

Although the Americas Department technically worked on foreign policy and was not part of the Interior Ministry’s General Intelligence Directorate, known as DGI after its name in Spanish, it operated “as a parallel intelligence apparatus,” said Enrique García, a former DGI captain who deserted in 1989.

The background checks for joining the Americas Department were similar to those for future intelligence officials, García added. “Only unconditional supporters were there. They were jobs requiring high political trust,” he said.

Blanco’s task at the Americas Department “was to imagine how the Americans would think in any scenario, for which I had the perfect training as a child. I had studied in a [private] American school [before 1959] and lived in New York for a long time,” he said in a 2015 interview with a Venezuelan journalist. “My area was Congress, the White House, the business people, the interest groups.”

But in 1991, Blanco again decided to switch careers and quit his Communist Party post in order to promote civil society on the island and to establish the Félix Varela Foundation, one of the first non-governmental organizations officially recognized by the regime, he told el Nuevo Herald.

Blanco nevertheless remained close to people in the world of espionage. Blanco and Mercedes Arce, another Félix Varela member, had worked together in Cuba’s mission to the U.N. — considered the center of Cuban intelligence operations in the United States. Arce was later identified as a Cuban intelligence official and was convicted in Cuba of spying against Havana, along with husband Miguel Álvarez.

Although he was officially no longer working for the Cuban government, Blanco participated in a 1995 initiative by the Norwegian government to open a secret channel of talks between Washington and Havana. Blanco, in an interview with Miami news website Cubanet, said Ricardo Alarcón, then head of Cuba’s National Assembly, and Richard Nuccio, then-President Bill Clinton’s special adviser on Cuba, gave him their approval for the secret channel.

Vegard Bye — a Norwegian academic, former senior U.N. official, and at the time an adviser to Norway’s deputy foreign minister — confirmed Blanco was present in the negotiations but said he did not play a central role. Bye said Blanco’s involvement was the result of interest in including a Cuban civil-society organization in the conversations.

“We knew that he had high trust in the government, but our direct contacts were Isabel Allende, at the time deputy foreign minister, and Max Lesnik. Max really was not an official contact, but I would call him an unofficial facilitator who guaranteed a direct consultation with his personal friend, Fidel Castro,” said Bye.

Lesnik, who lives in Miami, confirmed Blanco was part of the contacts because Bye “was looking for legal channels, and Blanco held a government job and later created something of a more moderate foundation and started to project himself as a member of an incipient civil society.”

Roberto Robaina, then Cuba’s foreign minister, traveled to Norway to discuss the contacts with the United States but had to rush back to Havana following the 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes by Cuban MiGs. Four Miami-Dade residents were killed. The shootdown ended the negotiations, and Blanco’s days in Havana.

Juan Antonio Blanco, speaks in 2011 at Florida International University during the presentation of the book “The other execution wall: Character assassination in Cuba.”

He emigrated to Canada the following year and became a human-rights activist and director of international cooperation with Human Rights Internet. He later emigrated to the United States and landed a job as deputy director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. In 2012, he was named executive director of Miami Dade College’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Initiatives.

In 2016, he was hired as executive director of the FHRC, which was created by the Cuban American National Foundation with the stated goal of “supporting and empowering Cuban civil society in its efforts for a non-violent transition toward a free and democratic Cuba that does not tolerate human rights violations.”

Lesnik said Blanco, who at one point stayed in his Miami home, now has a political job of searching for supposed violators of human rights, “something that surprises me because he was more moderate” when he first arrived in Miami.

Benjamin, the activist and book author, said Blanco’s statements during the 1993 U.S. tour that she organized seemed sincere.

Blanco proposed reforms to Cuba’s version of socialism, defended the government’s foreign policies, criticized the Miami “ultra-right,” and called the late CANF founder Jorge Mas Canosa a “clown.”

“I believe he was genuine. He believed in the socialist ideals,” Benjamin said in a telephone interview. After a brief silence, Benjamin, best known for her public protests for the Code Pink organization, said she was surprised that Blanco had wound up in Miami, leading an organization that supports the opposition in Cuba and defends human rights.

“I must say he always looked like someone who liked to live well. He was not working class,” said Benjamin. “He was someone who wanted to have a position from which his voice would be heard.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres
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