The Cuban Assassination That Could Kill Obama’s Detente Deal
It was just past 7:30 on a muggy night in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, in late October of 1976, and the dinner crowd was turning out for the evening—when a flurry of pistol shots sent bystanders scrambling for cover.
Some witnesses said the shooters fired from a passing vehicle, while others claimed the pistoleros had taken up ambush positions in the houses and shops lining the crowded Avenida Central. Ballistics reports would later indicate there had been at least two weapons used—a 9mm and .38—perhaps making the second scenario the more plausible.
When the barrage was over a man lay in the crowded street, shot twice in the back and critically wounded.
The dying man’s late-model Ford Mustang would later be found parked just a few meters away from where he was shot, but even if he’d made it to the car, he wouldn’t have gotten away. Whoever killed him had already punctured the tires to prevent his escape.
The dying man’s name was Aldo Vera Serafin. A 43-year-old exile from Cuba, Vera was also a top anti-Castro dissident with alleged ties to the FBI and CIA. But the gringos in Washington couldn’t help him now.
The former war brother of Fidel Castro and onetime national police commissioner of Cuba had been hit in the liver and the aorta. He was declared dead at the nearby Centro Médico hospital, at which point several gruesomely detailed photographs were taken of his fatal wounds.
The photos soon leaked to the press, and within hours Vera’s death made headlines around the world.
The killing of top Cuban militant and underworld legend Aldo Vera has never been officially solved.
Gunned down on the street by unknown assailants as he stepped out of a bakery in the barrio called Puerto Nuevo—he was on his way to a meeting of an anti-Castro political group at the time of his death—the killing involved plenty of suspects but few clues. Vera’s has become known as the Cold War cold case nobody could crack.
His murder is the kind of thing JFK conspiracy theorists argue about in their spare time: a controversial moment in history that’s also a compelling whodunit. Vera played a part in some of the more outlandish and violent episodes of the Cold War era—including working as a spy for the FBI (PDF) and probably the CIA, involvement in the bombing of a Cuban airliner, and allegedly being tied to the Kennedy assassination.
Now a landmark ruling handed down last month by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court lends new urgency to solving the mystery of Vera’s death.
In fact, the future of U.S.-Cuba relations might just be at stake.
Almost 40 years after his death—Aldo Vera is once again back in the headlines.
Earlier this year, the State Department removed Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism watch list for the first time since 1982. The move followed the Obama administration’s overall strategy of thawing relations with the communist regime of Raul Castro, who has succeeded his aging and ailing brother Fidel as head of state.
As of 2015, for the first time in more than 50 years, the U.S. and Cuba are in the process of restoring diplomatic and economic ties.
But a series of lawsuits—including one related to the Vera murder—could put the kibosh on the president’s plan to normalize relations with the Pearl of the Caribbean while he’s still in office.
During the decades that Cuba was included on the State Terror list the protection traditionally afforded nations by the legal concept of sovereign immunity failed to apply. That meant American citizens could sue La Republica de Cuba in U.S. civil court.
In recent years a handful of Cuban families living in legal exile in the U.S.—like the Veras—have brought suits against Cuba for committing terrorist activities. The Vera estate received an initial settlement of $96 million in 2001—subsequently reduced to $49 million by the Circuit Court in 2012—in damages for the death of Aldo. His family alleges Castro’s henchmen were responsible for the ambush that claimed Vera’s life while he was living in exile in Puerto Rico.
And the ruling in the Vera case amounts to but a small percentage of the total damage Cuba now owes.
For instance, in one high-profile lawsuit from 2011, the Miami-Dade County Court awarded $2.8 billion in damages to Gustavo Villoldo—who claims his father was forced to commit suicide by Castro crony Che Guevara in 1959.
In response to such accusations Havana has said: Nada.
The Castro regime refuses to acknowledge the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, and has therefore chosen not to soil its dignity by mounting a legal defense in the Vera case—or any other.
“It doesn’t look like anybody’s going to get anything out of this,” Ann Louise Bardach, author of the book Cuba Confidential, tells The Daily Beast.
“Cuba’s bankrupt. There is no money. That’s why they made the [reconciliation] deal,” says Bardach. Much of Cuba’s economic stumble comes from a sudden lack of subsidies from close ally Venezuela—which has been hard hit by trouble of its own due to falling oil prices.
Bardach believes Cuba’s newfound isolation has forced the Castro brothers to look north against their will.
“The only reason there’s normalization [between Cuba and the U.S.]—is because Venezuela pulled the plug on them,” Bardach says.
But the return of full economic as well as diplomatic relations—which is thought by many to be the first step in easing Cuba’s economic crisis, and improving conditions for the 70 to 80 percent of Cubans who live in poverty—can’t actually take place while Cuba remains in defiance of the U.S. justice system. The economic turmoil is severe. In addition to the loss of Venezuelan aid, Cubans also are facing a grueling drought and cash shortages due to low commodity prices. Renewed contact and economic cooperation with the States should, in theory, ease much of the suffering.
Until the court debts are paid off, or forgiven, however, Cuban planes would be unable to touch down at U.S. airports, and export products made on the island couldn’t be sold in American markets. Cuban ships and cargo could be liable to seizure by plaintiffs as part of damages owed. And all this is in addition to the trade embargo still imposed by the U.S. Congress.
The worst-case scenario, New-York-based lawyer Antonio Martinez—who specializes in Cuban assets— writes in an email to The Daily Beast is that:
“The United States and Cuba get bogged down in a stalemate on claims and this becomes a context to stop the normalization process.”
The U.S. is holding about $200 million in frozen Cuban assets—which are already being sought by multiple plaintiffs like the Vera family—and Martinez feels any federal attempt to seize national treasure would likely also “complicate” reconciliation.
“Any claimant has to ask realistically, where is Cuba going to get the money to pay a claim from and when might they have those resources to pay, assuming it honors the claim?” Martinez writes.
De-listing Cuba from state terrorist status, which officially happened last May, was supposed to solve this very problem. Many experts believed that after the State Department’s official granting of clemency this justice system would follow suit—waiving the damages and retroactively restoring the sovereign immunity that would have ordinarily have shielded Cuba from liability. Only that didn’t happen.
On Sept. 8, in the first judicial ruling related to an exiled Cubano family suing the Castros, the Second Circuit ruled in favor of the Vera estate—striking down an attempt by a Spanish bank, Banco Bilbao, to appeal a subpoena for Cuban assets the bank allegedly holds.
The court upheld the original ruling in favor of Vera, suggesting “compliance with the challenged subpoena,” as one justice wrote, ending any hope that the State Department’s restoration of Havana’s immunity might quash the ongoing legal conflict.
Because the judges’ decision is the first to be made since the State Department struck Cuba from the terror list—and because the court refused to even allow Banco Bilbao’s appeal, let alone dismiss the damage charges—it’s likely to set a precedent that could stand indefinitely.
That could send President Obama’s reconciliation process grinding to a halt.
But some observers say the justice system might be making a critical mistake in the precedent-setting Vera suit—potentially dooming the reconciliation gambit before it’s even off the ground.
September’s key ruling—which could pave the way for future, diplomacy-blocking decisions—and the original damages granted to the Vera estate are both predicated on the conclusion that Castro had Aldo Vera killed for his defection and “betrayal.”
But not everyone agrees with that conclusion about the murder.
Others with interest in the mystery, including alleged Cuban asset holder Banco Bilbao, contend that Havana had nothing to do with Vera getting whacked on that humid October night in San Juan.
As the mystery deepens, a growing chorus of critics contends that the original verdict in the Vera murder trial, reached back in 2001, and re-affirmed last month—was wrong.
If that’s the case—it would mean no remittances should be owed to Vera’s relatives and that, by definition, the Vera case shouldn’t be used as a model ruling going forward in D.C.-Havana relations.
“There’s little reason to believe that the Cubans did it,” says John Dinges, professor emeritus at Columbia’s journalism school, and the author of two books on the Cold War underworld in which Vera moved.
The Castro regime dealt brutally with dissidents at home, but “there’s no record of assassinations by Cubans abroad,” Dinges tells The Daily Beast. Although there were some 20,000 Cuban exiles living in Puerto Rico in the mid-’70s, and some of them even more vehemently opposed to Castro than was Vera—no counter-revolutionary dissidents had ever been killed on the island.
“The anti-Castros were basically terrorists for hire for a variety of [actors] and even on their own,” explains Dinges. “They had decided to take the battle internationally, wherever Cuba had a presence.”
The escalating terms of the conflict for Cuban freedom made for some very strange political bedfellows.
“The FBI was on the same side as these [dissidents], for all practical purposes,” Dinges says. “We were upset when they would commit terrorism in the United States, but [not] when they would commit terrorism in other countries.”
Vera worked as an informant for the FBI, according to Dinges, and his name appears in CIA case logs (PDF), although the context is unclear. But he didn’t just play spook for the Feds and the Company. He also allegedly rubbed shoulders with goose-stepping Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet, flew down to Buenos Aires to try his hand at assassinating a Cuban diplomat, according to the Cuban press, and had an inside seat at the famous militant summit at Bonao in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 1976.
The Bonao conference was alleged by Cuban intelligence to be the meeting where plans were made for the bombing of Cuban Airlines Flight 455, which claimed the lives of 73 passengers on Oct. 6, 1976—only three weeks before Vera himself was killed.
Bonao was also where the Cuban militants allegedly brainstormed the assassination of Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, in Washington, D.C., which went down in late September that year; Dinges calls it “an act of terrorism committed by Chile, within the United States.”
Other more apocryphal sources allege that Vera also had ties to the American mafia—and supposed eyewitnesses even claimed they saw him on the grassy knoll in Dallas on the day President Kennedy was killed.
So Fidel Castro wasn’t the only one who had a grudge. By 1976 there was who’s-who list of spies, tyrants and crooks who might’ve benefitted one way or another from seeing Vera dead.
The multiplicity of suspects is part of what has stymied investigations. There wasn’t much evidence left behind on the streets of San Juan, on the night Vera’s violent past caught up with him—but there were any number of shady and powerful players who would have had a motive to order the hit.
So who in the world killed Aldo Vera?
Dinges cites a tantalizing clue in the case: Vera had been linked to a “hit” gone wrong in Puerto Rico, a few days before his death—in which two police officers had been badly mangled while attempting to defuse a car bomb that ultimately went off.
“The most likely scenario,” Dinges says, is that Vera was targeted for “retaliation by gangsters” after underworld scuttlebutt named him in the car-bomb attack.
It’s possible that Vera—whose used-car business had recently gone belly up, and who had stepped up his militant-for-hire activity as a result—had become involved in a dispute between other Cuban emigrants and a local businessman over a hotel property.
“In my opinion, he was blamed for [the car bomb]—whether he did it or not,” says Dr. Antonio de la Cova, professor of history at the University of South Carolina. Based on his own independent research, de la Cova shares Dinges’s convictions on the car-bomb theory.
“Aldo Vera was blamed for a bomb that went off when two Puerto Rican police went to deactivate it,” says de la Cova, who maintains a website that includes photos of the bombing that injured the officers—and that may have been Vera’s undoing.
One officer lost both arms, and the the other was left partially blind by the blast.
Vera was ambushed just two days after the botched explosion.
“Somebody pointed a finger at Aldo Vera,” de la Cova says, based on his “reputation as a bomber in Havana,” and “being an anti-Castro guy.”
Dinges maintains it was rival Puerto Rican gangsters who organized the assassination to protect their turf after the bombing attempt—while de la Cova’s research leads him to conclude it was actually an “extrajudicial police death squad” that set up the fatal hit in retaliation for the bomb-related maiming of their officers.
What both experts can agree on is that Havana most likely was not responsible for Vera’s death. When asked his opinion as to whether or not Castro ordered the killing, de la Cova snorts.
“Nonsense,” he says. “Castro had nothing to do with it.”
If Castro and his secret police indeed had nothing to do with Vera’s death—the ruling in the Vera case becomes incorrect, and can no longer serve as a legal precedent going forward.
Most experts are in agreement that neither the Vera case, nor any of the other Cuban exile suits against Havana, should be allowed to torpedo the advancement of international relations.
One of the strongest arguments cited in favor of dismissing the damages is the fact that Cuba wasn’t placed on the list of terrorist states until the 1980s, experts say—so its sovereign immunity during the late ’50s and early ’60s ought not to be subject to legal abrogation.
Given the poverty and social ills currently plaguing Cuba, lawyer Martinez says, he hopes the issue of damages owed to victims of the Castro regime isn’t used as a pretext to slow or halt normalization. To resolve the problem, he urges “further actions to remove the impediments that wind up only hurting Americans and U.S. dollar-based transactions in Cuba.”
Cuba Confidential author Bardach offers an even more dire assessment of the need heal Cold War wounds like the Vera case:
“This is a matter of survival,” Bardach says. “This deal has to happen for Cuba to survive.”