BY WILFREDO CANCIO ISLA | El Nuevo Herald
A former board member of the Cuban American National Foundation says he and other CANF leaders created a paramilitary group to carry out destabilizing acts in Cuba and do away with Cuban ruler Fidel Castro.
Jose Antonio Llama, known as Toñin, told El Nuevo Herald that the arsenal to carry out these plans included a cargo helicopter, 10 ultralight radio-controlled planes, seven vessels and abundant explosive materials.
‘‘We were impatient with the survival of Castro’s regime after the fall of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp,’’ said Llama, a key financial backer of the plot in the early 1990s. ``We wanted to accelerate the democratization of Cuba using any possible means to achieve it.’‘
The plans failed after Llama and four other exiles were arrested in Puerto Rico in 1997 on charges of conspiracy to assassinate Castro during the Ibero-American Summit on Margarita Island, Venezuela. A jury acquitted them after a federal judge threw out one of the defendants’ self-incriminating statements.
Llama, a close associate of the late CANF leader Jorge Mas Canosa, left the group’s board in 1999. He said he quit CANF because it refused to pay his codefendants’ legal defense costs after the trial. Llama also went bankrupt.
CANF spokesman Alfredo Mesa—speaking for members and leaders—told El Nuevo Herald: ``In this case, we consider that it is extremely irresponsible for a press organization to echo what clearly represents an extortion and defamation attempt.’‘
The Cuban government has long claimed CANF planned armed attacks on the island, but up until now, none of its claims have been documented. Llama has been handing out pamphlets in Miami detailing the purported plot. On Wednesday, Granma—Cuba’s government newspaper—published a story on the pamphlets.
Llama—who says he made his fortune building air conditioners for Soviet vehicles—said he’s going public because he contributed $1.4 million of his own money to the cause and several CANF members bilked him.
He is currently writing his memoirs, titled De la Fundacion a la fundicion: historia de una gran estafa (From the Foundation to Meltdown: Story of a Big Swindle).
‘‘This is the truth—The only thing I have left at this point in life is the truth,’’ said Llama, 75. ``I am asking for what’s due to me, nothing more and nothing less, to take it to bankruptcy court. Where are the vessels and planes I financed with my money? Where did they end up? Who has the original titles?’‘
Llama said he is also going public because his statements don’t affect old friends who are implicated in the plot, such as exiles Arnaldo Monzon Plasencia, Raul Lopez and Manuel ‘‘Nolo’’ Garcia, who have died.
According to Llama, between 1994 and 1997 he personally spent more than $1.4 million to finance the purchase of radio-controlled planes and other supplies, under the cover of Florida-registered Nautical Sports Inc. and Dominican Republic-based Refri Auto.
Llama showed El Nuevo Herald financial records used to buy the equipment.
Llamas paid Nautical Sports $869,811. The purchase of the seven vessels equipped with satellite radio and phones, including the Midnight Express fast boat, was guaranteed through this front corporation, created in 1993, he said. That 40-foot motorboat was meant to take Mas Canosa to Cuba if Castro died or there was a sudden change of power, he added.
Another vessel, La Esperanza, was confiscated by the Treasury Department in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, after the 1997 federal indictments against its crew.
Llama remembers that the project started to take shape during CANF’s annual meeting in Naples in June 1992. He said businessman Miguel Angel Martinez of Puerto Rico proposed the idea of ‘‘doing more than lobbying in Washington’’ to overthrow Castro. About 20 of the foundation’s most trusted leaders agreed and designated Jose ‘‘Pepe’’ Hernandez, the current CANF president, and Mas Canosa to choose the armed group.
‘‘It was agreed that since this was a delicate matter, details about the paramilitary group would be discussed in petit comite [a small committee],’’ Llama said. ``At the meeting that board members and trustees held the following year  in Puerto Rico, the chosen ones started to meet and consider everything that needed to be bought.’‘
The foundation’s general board of directors didn’t know the details of the paramilitary group, which acted autonomously, Llama said. He added that current CANF board chairman Jorge Mas Santos was never told of the plan.
‘‘It was debated whether the group should be led by Miguel A. Martinez or Pepe Hernandez,’’ the activist said. ``We chose Pepe for his known record as a fighter in the 2506 Brigade and the Marines.’‘
Among the group members, Llama said: Elpidio Nuñez, Horacio Garcia and Luis Zuñiga, who left the Foundation in 2001 to establish the Consejo por la Libertad de Cuba (Council for the Liberation of Cuba, or CLC); Erelio Peña and Raul Martinez, all of Miami; Fernando Ojeda, Fernando Canto and Domingo Sadurni of Puerto Rico; and Arnaldo Monzon Plasencia and Angel Alfonso Aleman of New Jersey.
Former CANF members Garcia, Zuñiga and Nuñez declined to comment. Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a CLC spokeswoman, said the three men have referred the matter to attorneys.
Llama also gave this account of the operation:
The 10 small remote-control planes were financed by Llama for $210,000 through the International Finance Bank of Miami, which paid Flight Rescue Systems, a company owned by Luis Prieto and Rafael Montalvo. The equipment was stored in a Miami-Dade warehouse to be used against Cuban economic targets or against Castro. Llama said Pepe Hernandez sold them after 1997.
Sadurni donated the cargo helicopter, but Llama said he financed $85,360 for it through Republic National Bank, per instructions from Hernandez. The helicopter would be used as an operation base for the small planes and was parked at the International Flight Center in southwestern Miami-Dade.
To buy explosives, the group used businessman Raul Lopez, an anti-Castro exile involved in infiltration operations in Cuba in the 1960s, Llama said. Lopez owned a company authorized to purchase explosives to open up sewage canals for South Florida’s sugar industry.
Eulogio Amado Reyes, alias ‘‘Papo,’’ a retired car mechanic, said he assembled the ultralights in a Miami-Dade warehouse with the help of a Texas instructor whose last name was Graham.
‘‘All that was said was that it was a foundation project,’’ said Reyes, 73.
Jose Pujol, a veteran sailor, said that in 1993 the foundation started using him as an advisor to purchase vessels.
‘‘El Pelican [a vessel] was put in my name,’’ said Pujol, 76. ``The procedure was that I would look for vessels, Toñin made the down payment and Elpidio Nuñez was the backer.’‘
According to Llama, most of the explosives were kept in Miami, but late in 1996 they were dropped to the ocean bottom from a vessel at a reef near the Bahamas. The shipment was being transported by ‘‘Nolo’’ Garcia in Nuñez’s yacht when a Bahamian patrol boat approached them so they feared a search.
‘‘For logical reasons, they threw the shipment into the ocean,’’ Llama said. ``Soon after we went there to recover it but didn’t find it.’’