The end of 1988. A day like any other was coming to a close in Havana. In a few minutes, my life would be overturned.
Fidel had spent his afternoon reading and working in his office when he stuck his head through the door to the anteroom, where I was, to warn me that Abrantes was about to arrive.
Gen. José Abrantes, in his 50s, had been minister of the interior since 1985 after having been, notably, the commander in chief’s head of security for 20 years. Utterly loyal, he was one of the people who saw El Jefe daily.
While they met, I went to sit in my office, where the closed-circuit TV screens monitoring the garage, the elevator and the corridors were found, as well as the cupboard housing the three locks that turned on the recording mikes hidden in a false ceiling in Fidel’s office.
A moment later, the Comandante came back, opened the door again, and gave me this instruction: “Sánchez, ¡no grabes!” (“Sánchez, don’t record!”)
The interview seemed to go on forever . . . one hour went by, then two. And so, as much out of curiosity as to kill the time, I put on the listening headphones and turned Key No. 1 to hear what was being said on the other side of the wall.
Their conversation centered on a Cuban lanchero (someone who smuggles drugs by boat) living in the United States, apparently conducting business with the government.
And what business! Very simply, a huge drug-trafficking transaction was being carried out at the highest echelons of the state.
Abrantes asked for Fidel’s authorization to bring this trafficker temporarily to Cuba as he wanted to have a week’s vacation in his native land, accompanied by his parents, in Santa María del Mar — a beach situated about 12 miles east of Havana where the water is turquoise and the sand as fine as flour. For this trip, explained Abrantes, the lanchero would pay $75,000 — which, at a time of economic recession, wouldn’t go amiss . . . Fidel was all for it.
But he expressed a concern: How could they ensure that the parents of the lanchero would keep the secret and not go and blab everywhere that they had spent a week near Havana with their son, who was supposed to live in the United States?
The minister had the solution: All they had to do was make them believe their son was a Cuban intelligence officer who had infiltrated the United States and whose life would be gravely endangered if they did not keep his visit to Cuba absolutely secret. “Very well . . .” concluded Fidel, who gave his agreement.
It was as if the sky had fallen in on me.
I realized that the man for whom I had long sacrificed my life, the Líder whom I worshipped like a god and who counted more in my eyes than my own family was caught up in cocaine trafficking to such an extent that he was directing illegal operations like a real godfather.
The Comandante, with his talent for dissimulation, went back to work as if nothing was amiss. One has to understand his logic. For him, drug trafficking was, above all, a weapon of revolutionary struggle more than a means of making money.
His reasoning was as follows: If the Yanks were stupid enough to use drugs that came from Colombia, not only was that not his problem — as long as it was not discovered, that is — but, in addition, it served his revolutionary objectives in the sense that it corrupted and destabilized American society. Icing on the cake: It was a means of bringing in cash to finance subversion.
And so, as cocaine trafficking increased in Latin America, the line between guerrilla war and trafficking drugs gradually blurred. What was true in Colombia was just as true in Cuba. For my part, I never managed to accept this twisted reasoning, in absolute contradiction to my revolutionary ethics.
In 1986, when economic aid from Moscow was starting to dry up, Castro founded the MC Department (for moneda covertible, or “covertible currency”) which traded in goods — illegal and legal — for hard currency from third parties, principally Panama.
The MC Department MC soon acquired another nickname, the “Marijuana and Cocaine Department.”
But the Americans became suspicious of Cuba’s drug dealing, and scandal loomed. Fidel decided to take action to nip any possible suspicion about him in the bud. He used the official daily paper, Granma, to inform its readers that an inquiry had been opened.
Among the arrested were the respected revolutionary general Arnaldo Ochoa and the minister I had overheard talking to Castro, José Abrantes.
The Machiavellian Fidel, while declaring himself “appalled” by what he pretended to have discovered, claimed that “the most honest imaginable political and judicial process” was under way.
Obviously, the reality was completely different. Comfortably installed in his brother Raúl’s office, Fidel Castro and Raúl followed the live proceedings of Causa No. 1 and Causa No. 2 on the closed-circuit TV screens. Both trials were filmed — which is why one can today see large sections of it on YouTube — and broadcast to every Cuban home, though not live: The government wanted to be able to censor anything that might prove embarrassing.
Fidel even had the means to alert the president of the court discreetly, via a warning light, whenever he thought a session should be interrupted.
And during breaks, the president of the court, the public prosecutor and the jury members would swarm out onto the fourth floor of the ministry to take their instructions from Fidel, who, as usual, organized and ordered everything, absolutely everything.
At the end of these parodies of justice, Gen. Ochoa was condemned to death. José Abrantes received a sentence of 20 years of imprisonment.
After just two years of detention in 1991, he would suffer a fatal heart attack, despite his perfect state of health, in circumstances that were, to say the least, suspicious.
There followed the most painful episode of my career. Fidel had asked that the execution of Ochoa and the three other condemned men be filmed.
And so, two days later, on a Saturday, a chauffeur arrived at the residence, where I was, to deliver a brown envelope containing a Betamax cassette video. Castro’s wife, Dalia, told Fidel’s men they should watch it.
The video had no sound, which made the scenes we began to watch even more unreal. First, we saw vehicles arriving in a quarry at night, lit by projectors.
I have often been asked how Ochoa faced death. The answer is clear and unambiguous: with exceptional dignity.
As he got out of the car, he walked straight. When one of his torturers proposed to put a band over his eyes, he shook his head in sign of refusal. And when he was facing the firing squad, he looked death square in the face.
Despite the absence of sound, the whole excerpt shows his courage.
To his executioners, who could not be seen in the footage, he said something that one could not hear but which one could guess. His chest pushed out and his chin raised, he probably shouted something like, “Go on, you don’t frighten me!” An instant later, he crumpled from beneath the bullets of seven gunmen.
Castro made us watch it. That’s what the Comandante was capable of to keep his power: not just of killing but also of humiliating and reducing to nothing men who had served him devotedly.
His Brother’s Keeper
After Ochoa’s death, Raúl Castro plunged into the worst bout of alcoholism of his life. He had taken part in the assassination of his friend.
He turned to vodka, which had long been his favorite drink.
There was doubtless another factor involved: having seen watched the elimination of his counterpart, Abrantes, Raúl could logically fear that he, too, would be hounded from his position of defense minister.
The government No. 2 was dead drunk so often that the ministers and the generals could not have failed to miss it. The Comandante decided to go and lecture his younger brother.
I heard Fidel admonishing him his brother, launching into a long, moralistic tirade.
“How can you descend so low? You’re giving the worst possible example to your family and your escort,” began the Comandante. “If what’s worrying you is that what happened to Abrantes will happen to you, let me tell you that Abrantes no es mi hermano [is not my brother]! You and I have been united since we were children, for better and for worse. So, no, you are not going to experience Abrantes’ fate, unless . . . you persist with this deplorable behavior.
“Listen, I’m talking to you as a brother. Swear to me that you will come out of this lamentable state and I promise you nothing will happen to you.”
Sure enough, shortly afterward, Fidel spoke out in praise of Raúl, applauding his integrity and his devotion to the Revolution. Raúl, for his part, carried on drinking vodka, but in far more reasonable quantities.
From “The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo” by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez