By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
A U.S. resident who had spent 22 years in a Cuban prison for opposing communism and returned to the island to work for democracy now faces a U.S. jail threat for violating travel restrictions.
Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, a Cuban exile who returned in 2003, has been warned by the U.S. Treasury Department that he could be fined $250,000 or sent to prison for 10 years for staying in Cuba in violation of sanctions intended to isolate the government of Fidel Castro.
“They don’t understand: I am not a tourist in Cuba, I am an activist working to establish a legal space for an independent opposition,” Gutierrez Menoyo said on Tuesday in an interview.
“It is illogical. I’m here seeking freedom and the United States comes and tells me I face a 10-year prison sentence,” he complained.
Gutierrez Menoyo fought alongside Castro in the guerrilla movement that toppled U.S-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. But he fell out with Castro over Cuba’s turn to the left and spent 22 years in jail after a failed insurrection.
After his release in 1986, the former guerrilla commander lived in exile in Miami, where he has a wife and three U.S-born children, and retains permanent U.S. residency.
But in August 2003, Gutierrez Menoyo announced on a visit to Cuba that he was staying in Havana to try to open an office for his political group, called Cambio Cubano, and build a moderate opposition to what he calls Castro’s “socialist dictatorship.”
The Cuban government has not legalized his status, but it tolerates his presence and invited him to a conference on Cuban migration. It renewed his Cuban passport and allowed him to travel twice to the United States.
U.S. authorities did not take lightly to Gutierrez Menoyo’s return to Cuba, and froze the bank account of his Miami-based political group.
In November 2004, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions on Cuba, warned him in a letter that he could face prosecution for violating restrictions on travel to Cuba.
Gutierrez Menoyo, who made the letter public this week in protest, believes the Bush administration’s policy of tightened sanctions is not helping the cause of democracy in Cuba.
Anti-Castro exiles in Miami reject Gutierrez Menoyo’s willingness to talk with the Cuban government—he was received by Castro in 1995—rather than confront its one-party system, and suspect he may be a pawn.
Cuban dissidents in Havana shun the maverick former exile for being too moderate and distrust his motives.
Western diplomats see the Spanish-born Gutierrez Menoyo as a genuine and brave opponent of Castro, but one who overestimates his importance.
With little to show for his efforts, Gutierrez Menoyo’s only success so far may be not getting thrown out of Cuba, one European diplomat said.
“They do not realize that I am sandwiched between the extreme right in Miami and the extreme left in Cuba,” Gutierrez Menoyo said. “That is the price one pays for being independent.”