By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published March 15, 2005
HAVANA—After decades as a rebel commander, counterrevolutionary, political prisoner and prominent exile, Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo is squaring off against a new opponent: the U.S. Treasury Department.
Once a staunch ally and later intractable foe of Cuban President Fidel Castro, Gutierrez-Menoyo became the first opposition figure to move back to the island in 2003 to seek peaceful reform of Castro’s one-party state.
But the Treasury Department says Gutierrez-Menoyo, who holds legal U.S. residency, is violating new restrictions on visiting Cuba and is threatening him with a fine of as much as $250,000 and up to 10 years in prison.
“I don’t feel like I’m committing a crime,” said Gutierrez-Menoyo, a Cuban citizen. “I’m here working for the democratization of Cuba. I’m not on a bed of roses.”
Ulterior motive seen
The travel restrictions, tightened last year by President Bush, are part of a campaign to deny Cuba hard currency and hasten the downfall of the Castro government. But Gutierrez-Menoyo believes hard-line Cuban exiles pressured the U.S. into acting against him because he opposes Bush’s efforts to stiffen the 4-decade-old U.S. trade embargo.
He also has irritated American policymakers by accusing other dissidents of cozying up to the United States.
A Treasury Department spokeswoman declined to comment about Gutierrez-Menoyo’s case but said all U.S. residents have a “responsibility to comply with U.S. law.”
U.S. State Department officials say the decision to act against Gutierrez-Menoyo had nothing to do with his opposition to U.S. policy. Yet they and other critics describe the 69-year-old dissident as a Castro pawn whose presence in Cuba is used to falsely portray political tolerance.
“Menoyo is a mercenary for whomever will pay him,” said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), an embargo supporter. “Now he is a dissident who advocates for Castro’s positions. The law should be followed even for mercenaries.”
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an embargo critic, described the Treasury Department’s action as “absurd,” even though he doubts Gutierrez-Menoyo will be successful in promoting democratic change.
Last month, Flake and Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) sent a letter to the Treasury Department asking for clarification on Gutierrez-Menoyo’s case. Flake said he has not received a response.
“He doesn’t fit the model of the approved dissident in their view, so they actively try to thwart what he is doing,” Flake said. “If somebody went down and stayed there and handed out fliers advertising TV Marti, I suppose they wouldn’t prosecute that one.”
TV Marti is the U.S.-funded anti-Castro station in Miami that broadcasts to the island. Cuba has jammed the signal.
One European diplomat in Havana said fining or jailing Gutierrez-Menoyo would “play into the hands of the Cuban government.”
`The ultimate irony’
“The ultimate irony is that he would be punished by the U.S. government for trying to promote a peaceful political opposition in Cuba,” the diplomat said.
The controversy reflects the Byzantine nature of the struggle to foster political change in the Western Hemisphere’s only communist state.
It also comes at a crucial time for the dissident movement, riven by personal rivalries, defections and other problems as it tries to rebound from the devastating 2003 crackdown that sent 75 opposition figures to prison.
At the center of it all is the United States, which is sharply increasing its material and financial support for the Cuban opposition at a time when relations between the two countries are in tatters.
Many dissidents say the U.S. support is vital. Others complain that U.S. officials choose which dissidents to support depending on whether the activists share the Bush administration’s ideological views.
Perhaps no opposition figure has been more at odds with U.S. policymakers than Gutierrez-Menoyo, who announced during a family visit to Cuba in August 2003 that he would remain on the island to press for democratic reforms.
A larger-than-life figure whose personal story traces the last half-century of Cuban history, Gutierrez-Menoyo founded a rebel force in 1957 that helped Castro defeat then-dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Gutierrez-Menoyo broke with Castro, fled into exile and returned to Cuba in 1964 with a small band of counterrevolutionaries. He was captured and sentenced to death. During his 22-year incarceration, Gutierrez-Menoyo said, he was beaten repeatedly, leaving him partly blind. Released from prison in 1986, Gutierrez-Menoyo moved to the U.S. and stunned exiles by renouncing violence in favor of dialogue and reconciliation.
So far, Cuban officials have ignored Gutierrez-Menoyo, who is seeking legal residency in Cuba and official recognition for his political group, Cambio Cubano.
“I haven’t been told `Yes,’ and I haven’t been told `No,’” he said.
Rail-thin with wire-rim glasses, Gutierrez-Menoyo describes Cuba as a bankrupt “dictatorship.” But he argues the U.S. trade embargo and other measures designed to isolate Castro have accomplished “nothing” in the past 45 years.
He said the U.S. policy of supporting Cuban dissidents only “fills the prisons.”
Despite the criticisms, Gutierrez-Menoyo has done little political organizing since moving back to Cuba and has no visible support, diplomats say.
For his part, Gutierrez-Menoyo cautions patience and explains that he is slowly touring Cuba in a 1960 Russian-made Lada automobile trying to build a political base. He expressed little concern about the threatened U.S. action against him.
“I spent 22 years in prison for demanding freedom for this country,” he said. “At my age, I’ve lost all fear.”