Into The Pirate´s Den


REVIEW by Willard Manus

Those wondering why Fidel Castro came down so hard recently on the burgeoning democratic movement in Cuba will find answers galore in THE PIRATE'S DEN by Jorge Masetti (Encounter Books). The author, son of an Argentine-born hero of the Cuban revolution, followed in his father's footsteps for much of his adult life, first fighting as an urban guerilla in Buenos Aires, then serving as one of Castro's secret agents. Trained in the notorious Americas Department--the "pirate's den" of the title, Masetti spied for the revolution in such countries as Italy, Spain, Nicaragua, Columbia and Angola.

Masetti was involved in lots of dirty tricks, all of which he discusses in a lowkey, factual way in this unsettling political memoir. Kidnapping, robbery, drug-dealing and counterfeiting were just a few of the sins he and his companeros committed, not to speak of murder and torture. For a long time the ends justified the means. The revolution was being defended, he believed, socialism upheld. He learned to swallow his moral qualms and follow orders.

After a decade of living like this, Masetti began to realize his heart wasn't in it any longer. The Cuban support of Latin America's revolutionary movement had not ended in victory. "Armed struggle was giving way to politics and what little there was left of the movement was dedicating itself to electioneering," he writes.

Masetti also realized that without the support of the people, armed struggle had become a Mafia activity. "But however apparent this was, it was also true that armed struggle had an almost scriptural power over the revolutionary mind," he confesses. "For us, it was an enigma."

Masetti, who was in his 30s when he began to question everything he believed in, still continued to work undercover for Castro. He became a drinker and a womanizer, going through several wives and mistresses, but kept obeying the orders of his superiors, even if they were beginning to chew him up inside.

It was not until three of his personal heroes, Tony and Patricio de la Guardia and Arnoldo Ochoa, were arrested that he began to break with the regime. These army men had not only befriended Masetti but represented the best of the Cuban revolution--leaders who had not lost their humanity and decency, no matter how much power they wielded.

Ochoa in particular was a remarkable person, not only a great military strategist--he had led the victory of Cuban troops over the South African army at Cuito Cuanavale--but a witty, cultured man who painted in his spare time and had a popular appeal that rivalled Castro's.

That was enough to doom him. "In Cuba there is room for only one hero," Masetti came to see. "Fidel understood far better than Ochoa himself how popular the general was...and how his followers might react if an open political crisis were ever to break out."

Ochoa and the de la Guardia brothers were accused of treason--drug-trafficking, currency-smuggling and blackmarket-trading. That they had been forced into these illegal activities by the Cuban regime itself--"the revolution needs money if it is to succeed," was the party-line mantra--was overlooked in court. Castro, who watched the interrogation of the prisoners through a two-way mirror and conferred with the judges daily, had decided that these former allies of his were expendable.

"Fidel is a master of detail," says Masetti. "He knew that the close friendship between Ochoa, Tony and Patricio would sooner or later turn them into the nucleus of an opposition that would be dangerous because of their combined experience and their appeal to the troops. Perilous times were on the horizon for Cuba that might lead to outbreaks of rebellion against the Maximum Leader if there existed a figure or group symbolizing that discontent."

Fidel had two of the three defendants executed; the other was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The message was clear to Masetti: anyone who dares to think for himself in Cuba is risking his life. The author fled the country and now lives in Paris.