By Karen Lee Wald (originally published 1990)
(A few words updating this essay, May 10, 2003.)

The current situation made me think about the Ochoa case: although it wouldn't seem so at first glance, there are many similarities. First, Cubans are once again torn between their aversion to having to use the seldom-used death penalty and their belief that if they don't, many more lives will be lost. In the case of Ochoa, they later found that the CIA had been monitoring, if not provoking, those contacts with drug-runners and was just waiting for the right moment to use that as an excuse to attack Cuba. Similarly, the US has been stepping up its provocations of Cuba since Bush came into office in the hope that Cuba or Cubans would respond in some way that would justify an intervention at this time.

Another mass migration, or the continuation of hijackings that the US government could claim (as it has done) are a "threat to US National Security" would be all that would be needed for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell clique to unleash their storm troopers. So the Cuban government felt it needed to take drastic measures, and most Cubans on the island probably feel less sympathy for those currently incarcerated -- who probably WERE collaborating with the US -- and even for those who were executed than they did for Ochoa, who had been a national hero.

It's hard for most Americans to understand how Cubans would feel about those hijackers because they didn't see the images of those men holding knives and machetes to the throats of the passengers on the ferry, threatening to kill them or throw them overboard to the sharks one by one if their demands were not met. That kind of behavior doesn't elicit much sympathy from the general population anywhere in the world. But most US and foreign news articles completely omit reference to this -- although they would be harping on it over and over if the shoe were on the other foot -- so Americans can't understand why the government acted so "drastically".

Karen Lee Wald
May 10, 2003

By Karen Lee Wald


When it all began, it looked like just another series of events in Cuba's three-year campaign to root out corruption, inefficiency, Privilege and other sorts of "wrong-doing" in order to produce a better, brighter socialist society. Its end is not yet in sight.

In mid-June, two top Cuban government officials, one civilian, one Military, were removed from office under a cloud of accusations of Misconduct. The situations were apparently unrelated. One dealt With Diocles Torralba, minister of transportation. His removal came as no surprise, given the sorry state of public transportation, and a lifestyle that had already raised many Eyebrows. If anything, the question was "why did it take so long To remove him." stories of his flagrant misuse of public funds and Ostentatious gift-giving (including houses and cars), scandalous Behavior at private parties and similar tid-bits of gossip Circulated about Torralbas for some time, making people wonder how He had managed to hold onto his post in this period of "rectification."

But the investigation on similar charges of division general Arnaldo Ochoa, another Sierra Maestra veteran who headed the Cuban forces in Angola, uncovered corruption extending to until then unimaginable levels, and turned this bit of "rectification" into The biggest scandal in the thirty year history of the revolution.

The cases of Ochoa and Torralbas at first seemed unrelated, and were reported as such. Although General Ochoa had been criticized repeatedly for manifesting too much direct concern for economic rather than military matters in the various countries where he was posted, the deposed general had always justified his activities by saying he was looking out for Cuba's economic interests. He was always believed -- a sign of the trust and high regard accorded him because of his past.

In part, too, this belief was probably due to his apparently modest life-style. No one ever saw Ochoa flaunting luxury automobiles, living in mansions, sporting jewelry or new clothes. On his vacations in Cuba he behaved like any other citizen -- "even waiting on line at the grocery store"-- insist his friends and neighbors.

But somehow Ochoa did step out of line -- way out of line. The original list of accusations against Arnaldo Ochoa included references to "dissipation and corruption, " "corrupting officers under his command, " "improper use of funds and resources, Embezzlement" as well as the vaguer claims of moral impropriety. But the gravest accusations were saved for last: what Granma termed the "unprecedented" action by Ochoa and officials of the Ministry of the Interior "who are said to have made contacts with international drug traffickers, reached agreements with them... and possibly even cooperated with them in some ..."

Noting that these actions could have been the basis for "the Insidious campaigns against the revolution by [US] imperialism, " Which the government and most people had simply written off as anti-Castro propaganda, the editorial promised a complete investigation of the charges and a detailed accounting to the people of its findings.

Trying to end on a positive note, the editorial concluded: "although extremely surprising and bitter for our people, these events demonstrate that although grave defects of a moral as well as physical order can occur among individuals, in our country Absolutely nobody, no matter how great his merits, nor how high he may be in the hierarchy, can violate the laws and principles of the revolution with impunity."

As the investigation unfolded, it became clear that the scandalous Behavior attributed to Ochoa didn't stop there. The discovery that 14 high-level officials of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) And Ministry of the Interior (MININT) security forces were engaged In a variety of illegal and corrupt actions, including involvement with international drug traffickers, was the most devastating -- And for awhile, the most demoralizing -- event in three decades. And the harsh sentences meted out -- the firing squad for former General and war hero Arnaldo Ochoa, MININT colonel Tony de La Guardia and their two top aides, and 10 to 30 years for the rest -- is by no means the end of the story. Only a thorough, all-encompassing house-cleaning leaving no stone unturned and no official - no matter how highly-placed -- immune can repair the damage done by these fourteen individuals. What hangs in the balance is no less than the survival of the revolution itself.

The 14 defendants were initially investigated on charges of carrying out illicit business deals and black marketing in the countries where they were based, in the case of the far officers, or through businesses set up to get around the us embargo, in the case of MININT.

Arnaldo Ochoa, general in charge of the Cuban military mission in Angola, third-ranking military leader in the country, and close confidant of President Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, minister of the armed forces, one of two men designated "hero of the Republic, " was in every way Cuba's shining star. Part of the rebel Force that overturned the Batista dictatorship in 1959, he had until now an uninterrupted and unblemished military career. for Cubans who pride themselves on their national independence and Their internationalist concern for helping third world countries, he was the symbol of everything good and pure in the Cuban Revolution.

Tony de La Guardia and his twin brother Patricio also fought with the "Fidelistas" in the 1950s, and went on to reach the top levels of the ministry of the interior, the institution which controls the police and all of the country's security forces. Like Ochoa, they were considered among "the best and the brightest" of the Cuban revolution.

To a lesser degree, the same could be said about each of the men and one woman who were involved with Ochoa or the La Guardia brothers. All or almost all had long, notable histories in defense of their country and its ideals. All considered themselves revolutionaries (and at their trial, insisted they still do). All of them confessed and criticized their actions -- some in a spirit of cooperating with the security people who until that moment had been their friends and colleagues, others only when confronted with the incontrovertible proof of their actions and the testimony of their alleged accomplices or subordinates.

It took almost no time for Bush administration spokesmen and the anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami and Washington to air charges of political intrigue, uprisings in the armed forces, and threatened coups d'etat, on the one hand, or the idea of Ochoa and friends being used as a scapegoat for a crime Fidel Castro actually authorized. They would have liked to build a campaign around these new "political prisoners, " but the attitude in the world just now is not ripe for gaining support for international drug traffickers. The ideal would have been to convince the world that these men were really political victims of Castro's Machiavellian designs. Failing this, that he too was implicated.

To Cubans, this made little or no sense. If Ochoa, La Guardia or any of their group had been a "pro-perestroika faction" within the Armed forces, as claimed by the wishful-thinkers in Miami, someone Inside Cuba would have heard about it. That was never an element Considered by rumored about on the island. If Fidel and Raul Castro considered these men political opponents, the easiest way to dispose of them without arousing public indignation would have been to accuse them of counterrevolutionary activities. There would have been quick popular support for their incarceration or eradication. But the government eschewed this easy way out -- and instead, accused them of crimes that would be most embarrassing for the government on an international level. After years of irately denying that anyone in Cuba was in any way involved in international drug traffic, the last thing Fidel Castro would have invented was that some of his most trusted military and defense aides were doing just that.

The trial itself put an end to any such rumors for most people inside Cuba. The details of the operations, how and when people became involved, and the revelation of a special unit within the Ministry of theInterior engaged in authorized smuggling of blockaded articles into Cuba went a long way toward explaining how These men could have gotten away with what they did without higher authorities becoming aware. After hearing the testimony, even Western diplomats from countries traditionally hostile to Cuba expressed doubt that the Cuban president knew what these men were doing. The government was faulted not for having authorized these activities, but for having so little control and accountability of such officers, that they could do what they did. One of the main criticisms voiced inside the country: that there was so little control that high officials could decide to live above the law and get away with it -- a situation which this trial and the severe sanctions were designed to bring an end to.)

Most Cubans believed that all of the accused committed high treason against the far, MININT, the people, the country, and most of all against Fidel Castro. They tended not to ask whether Castro was guilty, too -- which few would have believed -- but rather, "how could they do that to Fidel?! How could men with a history like theirs have gone bad?" and "what's wrong with our system that such flagrant abuses could go unnoticed for nearly three years?"

In his statements to the court during the military tribunal which convicted and ultimately executed him, Ochoa vehemently denied the Miami claims that there had been political intrigue against the leadership of Fidel Castro and ridiculed the statement made over Radio Marti that he had been drugged. The latter claim was based in part on pictures of him with his head down and eyes glued to the ground the first day of his trial. Explaining that posture, Ochoa said, "If you could say shame is a drug, I was  drugged". He labeled anti-Castro Cuban exiles such as Huber Matos and Rafael del Pino, who made these charges, as "traitors" and "dogs who bark at their masters' command."

Although most Cubans were horrified when they learned what their former heroes had done, attitudes among the general population flip-flopped several times during the trial and afterward as to whether or not they should be given the severest sanction: the death penalty. A sizable majority advocated the death penalty when they first heard the charges against the accused. But many had second thoughts after viewing the televised proceedings of the trials. When he testified Ochoa appeared as a charismatic figure who came across as a sincerely repentant and courageous person who had lived modestly and carried out all his dealings in the mistaken belief he could use the money to help the army he commanded and the revolution in general. This created great ambivalence among the Cuban people, who admired his courage even while saying his crimes were unforgivable. No one felt Ochoa or the others should go free, but many had misgivings about the death penalty.

It was only after all members of the Council of State, including President Fidel Castro, explained their reasons for refusing to commute the death penalties, that most people in the country were convinced of the necessity (if not necessarily the desirability) of this action. Those reasons included the fact that Ochoa and most of the others had -- contrary to the impression they initially tried to give -- benefited materially from their actions. In addition to a variety of consumer goods, all but one had money stashed away in their homes or in foreign bank accounts.

But more telling than demonstrations of their personal greed was the actual and potential harm these officers did to the institutions responsible for defending the revolution and its leaders. Involving members of the armed forces and internal security in drug dealing, even if only indirectly, not only eroded Cuba's prestige internationally but seriously damaged the confidence the Cuban people had in these institutions.

This was part of the basis for the charges of treason that led to the death penalty. The other, more concrete reason was that their actions were believed to have compromised the very security of the country. Given the CIA's direct involved in international drug trafficking and the probability it had evidence of their participation, Ochoa, La Guardia et al., made themselves easy targets for US blackmail.

Yet for Cuba internally, the trial went even beyond this. men and women who had been illegally benefiting from illicit business negotiations and living a lifestyle far beyond the means of the average Cuban should have stood out like sore thumbs in a Revolutionary society like Cuba's. The fact that they didn't was an indication of how far the abuse of revolutionary principles and values had gone. For too long now, officials of a certain level, whether military or civilian, have been able to indulge in certain privileges, materially or otherwise, with little or no criticism voiced. In this sense, there was a direct relation between the dismissal and investigation of the minister of transportation and the trial of officers accused of high crimes.

The military court martial was less a trial than a public demonstration that such crimes will not be tolerated; that, as the official newspaper Granma stated in an editorial, there is no impunity for anyone, no matter at what level, the Prosecuting Attorney -- Cuba's justice minister Juan Escalona, serving in his capacity as brigadier general in the army reserve -- raised these and other political questions in his frequent diatribes against the defendants during the four day court martial.

Escalona insisted that the actions of these men, more than just crimes of greed and corruption, were treason to Cuba because they undermined the prestige not only of the government but of the very forces responsible for defending the country. In addition, the trial forced the government to reveal many of the activities and mechanisms of these agencies, including very sensitive ones aimed at breaking the us economic blockade against Cuba by bringing in medical supplies, computers and other products covered by the embargo.

It was the fact that they were already carrying out such Authorized smuggling, combined with the high level of trust the Castro brothers placed in them, that made it possible for the de La Guardia group to successfully carry out 19 drug-transshipment Actions without anyone in Cuba raising questions about what was in The boxes -- marked "computers" and "tobacco" -- that were flown In on small planes and re-loaded onto miami-bound launches.

None of the defendants were accused of actual drug-dealing, but of Taking commissions --totaling several million dollars over three years -- for allowing the Colombian dealers to use Cuban airports and territorial waters for refueling and reloading. They had pointedly refused to allow the Colombians to set up a cocaine factory inside Cuba, as members of the cartel had requested. This was probably due less to a notion of "drawing the line" than to their recognition that they could not have gotten away with it. Although the Colombians obviously made the request believing that the top leadership of the country, including Fidel Castro, knew all about these deals, La Guardia and others knew this wasn't the case. They'd never asked for approval of their transactions with the drug cartel because they knew they wouldn't get it; they assumed --correctly for awhile -- that no one would be the wiser if They secretly introduced this element into their authorized Smuggling operations. But actually bringing coca into the country and producing cocaine would have been a whole new ballgame in which their chances for maintaining secrecy were slim. For awhile, they stalled the Colombians, eventually offered some excuse as to why it couldn't be done.)

Escalona's first point of attack was the unauthorized trading in Cuban products for diamonds, gold, ivory and dollars engaged in by General Ochoa and his subordinates when he was chief of the Cuban military mission in Angola, and defrauding the Nicaraguan government by taking large sums of money in exchange for weapons he never produced and was never authorized to sell.

Charging commissions for business deals with countries that are Cuba's allies, and engaging in black market negotiations with them for food or weapons, he contended, could seriously damage Cuba's relations with friendly countries such as Angola and Nicaragua, where these actions took place.

Regarding Ochoa's unauthorized "business ventures", Escalona Railed: "it's hard to imagine a greater shame for our internationalist combatants than to learn from the mouths of the protagonists themselves that the head of the Cuban military mission in Angola was selling sugar, wheat, fish and salt on the black market for a few crumbs of money, on the pretext that it was to improve the living conditions of the troops, and which was really going into his bank account in's no less than making money off the hunger of the Angolan people, who have suffered enough from foreign's criminal to speculate at the cost of such misery."

For Fidel Castro, who summed up his reasons for not commuting the death sentences at the end of the trial, the problem of Ochoa's misbehavior in Angola was even greater. Cubans and Angolans were fighting and dying in the historic battles of Cuito Cuanavale while Ochoa and his aides were engaged in their "business deals, " he said. If another general had not been put in command in southern Angola, he charged, Ochoa's irresponsible behavior -- among other Things, he is said to have missed a crucial operations meeting and to have consistently underestimated the strength of the South African forces -- could have meant the loss of that decisive battle, which forced South Africa to abandon its attempts to overthrow the Angolan government and to finally agree to the Independence of Namibia.

But clearly the real sore point was the drug trafficking -- something the Cuban government took pride in eliminating when it overthrew the Batista dictatorship, and has held up as a banner of its revolutionary purity ever since. Almost any of their other crimes might have merited no more than dismissal from their posts, But narcotics has long been anathema to the Cubans, who associate it with the degradation they felt they suffered when Cuba was Considered the us mafia's playground for gambling, dope and prostitution.

 Escalona, who as justice minister had participated in a series of UN meetings regarding the drug trade, told Ochoa during questioning that he had thus seen "the consequences of drug consumption" in countries such as the United States, where drug addiction is of epidemic proportions. "Didn't you ever imagine, " he asked the former general, "what opening a way for drugs meant in terms of the death or degradation of hundreds or thousands of citizens, of young people, even children of the United States -- on the people of the United States?"

Regarding Ochoa's contention that he had planned to let the Colombian cartel launder some of its drug money by investing in Cuba's tourist industry, Escalona practically shouted: "Do you think that this revolution deserves the indignity of developing its tourism based on money stained by drugs, stained by the blood and degradation of god knows how many hundreds of citizens from around the world? Didn't you ever think of that?"

Even more infuriating to the revolutionaries was the fact that these high officials gave the impression both to their subordinates and to the drug traffickers that they were carrying on their activities in the name of the Cuban government.

Although in the trial itself Ochoa and others admitted they had never informed their superiors nor themselves believed they were carrying out an authorized activity when they expanded their actions into the drug field, the government's position is: "What if the enemy, instead of us, had caught you? Who then would have believed that this was not an activity initiated or condoned by the highest level of the Cuban government?"

But even further, the drug-related actions exposed the country to real risk. Assuming the CIA was monitoring (if it did not in fact lure the Cubans into becoming involved in Colombian drug dealing to entrap them) the government argued that if men at such high level as Ochoa and the La Guardia brothers had at some point in the future been blackmailed by the CIA with evidence of their drug dealings, the entire military defense and security apparatus of the country would have been vulnerable.

There are other disturbing aspects, most of all the fact that people who had dedicated decades to fighting for revolutionary Ideals, often risking their lives, could have become so thoroughly corrupted by the lure of money and consumer goods -- a problem not limited to those involved in this case.

The more far-reaching aspects of this scandal still plague most Cubans. Has the effort to bring hard-currency into the economy Through "mixed enterprises" and tourism so thoroughly corrupted a sector of the population that even the most valiant, heroic defenders of the revolution could fall prey to temptations such as This? What else have people involved in these "businesses" been doing? Isn't the fact that high officials --business or government leaders, especially those whose history dates back to fighting with Fidel in the hills -- often live ostentatiously a temptation For others to follow their lead?

The more optimistic, from government officials to people interviewed in the street, say that the country will come out Stronger after this "house cleaning" is completed. But that of course depends on the government not stopping with these 14.

To indicate its intentions to carry out just such a "clean sweep, " The central committee dismissed Interior Minister Jose Abrantes, who was not implicated in the scandal but had failed to detect that it was going on. Appointed in his place is far general Abelardo Colome, a member of the Central Committee's Politburo, And Raul Castro's first deputy in the armed forces. (It was the FAR's counter-intelligence units, not MININT's, that ultimately uncovered and prosecuted the Ochoa and De La Guardia groups.)

Colome's job now is to thoroughly investigate the causes of the scandal and take all necessary measures to insure that it never happens again. Although dissidents here view this as putting more power into the hands of the Castro brothers, it is being warmly received by others as a sign that the government means business. Interestingly, this view has also been repeated by some members of the Bush administration. XXXXX

Resignations and dismissals of many other officials, civilian and military, followed that of Abrantes. The message is clear: corrupt practices and unjustified, ostentatious "high living" is not to be accepted by anyone.

For all its negative repercussions internally and the blot on Cuba's reputation, the incident could actually have long-term positive results that go far beyond just prosecuting and punishing a handful of corrupt officers. One of these is to demonstrate that Cuba is sincere when it says it will take all necessary measures against international drug trafficking. (In addition to the trials, the Cuban government has warned that it will shoot down any small planes that refuse to identify themselves while using Cuba's air corridors -- a known route for drug smugglers heading from Colombia to Miami. That, however, may be easier to proclaim than to carry out, given Cuba's lack of sophisticated radar equipment for detecting such small craft. The US has urged the Cuban government to exercise extreme caution in carrying out this threat, to avoid risk of shooting down harmless passenger planes with faulty radio equipment. That resulted in a misunderstanding when both Cuban MIGs and a US Coast Guard plane tried to force down a small, unidentified plane flying without lights one night, reportedly enroute from Colombia to Miami. The Cuban planes withheld their fire, and lost the plane in the darkness. Some US wire services later reported that the Coast Guard complained the Cuban planes interfered with their attempt to intercept the plane.)

Another, is that it could actually lead to cooperation between the United States and Cuba in what both espouse as a primary goal: stopping the drug trade. While many officials in the Bush Administration are taking a "wait and see" attitude, others say they are considering asking the Cuban government to cooperate by turning over the testimony in the Ochoa-de La Guardia case to a Federal court in Miami that is currently prosecuting two of the Colombian drug-runners. The two men were implicated by the defendants in the Ochoa trial, and those involved with the Miami case say it appears some of the testimony in Havana could be very helpful to the prosecution if such cooperation actually took place, that could be a major first step in repairing the still-frigid relations between Havana and Washington.