Magazine | August 5, 2013, Issue

The Anti-Che

The last picture taken of Che Guevara alive, October 9, 1967. Felix Rodriguez is on the left. (AP/Courtesy of Felix Rodriguez)
Felix Rodriguez, freedom fighter and patriot

Miami, Fla. — Felix Rodriguez seems fated to be linked to Che Guevara. This is not entirely just. Rodriguez loves freedom, and has worked tirelessly for it; Guevara loved tyranny, and worked tirelessly for it. “Two sides of the same coin,” some people say. Maybe — but only in the way that light and dark are two sides of the same coin. Rodriguez had a role in stopping Guevara. He was there, in the Bolivian mountains, in 1967. He was the last person to talk with Guevara — a man who did so much to tyrannize the country where Rodriguez was born, Cuba.

The story of Guevara’s last day has been told many times, in many ways. Rodriguez told it in his 1989 memoir, Shadow Warrior. It is told in a book published earlier this year, Daybreak at La Higuera, by Rafael Cerrato, a Spaniard. La Higuera is the village where Guevara met his end. Cerrato’s main sources for the book are Rodriguez, who was working for the Central Intelligence Agency, and Dariel Alarcón Ramírez, whose nom de guerre was Benigno. A Cuban, Benigno was Guevara’s lieutenant in Bolivia. He was also a member of Fidel Castro’s inner circle. He defected in 1996 — and now he and Rodriguez are friends.

Just a week ago, Rodriguez made a donation to the CIA Museum: ashes from Guevara’s last pipe. But he has a few more of those ashes here, in his Miami home. His den is chock-a-block with mementos. On the wall, for example, is a bond signed by José Martí, Cuba’s national hero. In this den, we talk about events past, present, and future. Rodriguez is an excellent talker (as well as doer). He is large, sharp, and commanding.

He was born in 1941. His hometown is Sancti Spíritus, in central Cuba. His father was a storeowner; his mother helped out in the store and tended the house. Rodriguez’s earliest memory is of being with his mom while she talked about what Hitler was doing in Europe. The little boy was scared that the Nazis would come to Cuba. Among his forebears are notable figures from Cuba’s wars of independence. One of these figures is Alejandro Rodríguez Velasco, who would become the first popularly elected mayor of Havana. In 1895, Máximo Gómez sent a letter to this man’s wife — who had asked whether her husband might come home from the field. Gómez wrote her a tender letter about the value of fighting for freedom. This letter is one of Felix Rodriguez’s treasures.

And who was Máximo Gómez? Cubans know: He was an officer from the Dominican Republic, who went to Cuba to help that country win its independence from Spain. For Cubans, he is a Lafayette. In the 1980s, Felix Rodriguez went to El Salvador, as a private citizen, to help that country defeat a Castro-backed Communist insurgency. The alias he adopted: Max Gomez. Here in his den, he reads out the letter from the original Gómez — and chokes up.

When he was about twelve, an uncle offered him the chance to study in the United States. Felix was reluctant at first, because he loved his life in Cuba. But another uncle, who had studied in Paris, said, “Think hard about this. This is a rare opportunity, and if you pass it up, you’ll regret it.” Felix heeded this advice. And he chose a school in Pennsylvania, because he wanted to see snow. The school was called Perkiomen, in Pennsburg, not far from Philadelphia. When he was a junior in high school, his country experienced its cataclysmic event: the takeover by Castro and his fellow revolutionaries. Felix’s parents were on vacation in Mexico. (It turned out to be a long vacation.) Felix, just 17, determined to fight the Communists, as soon as possible.

It was possible through something called the Anti-Communist Legion of the Caribbean, being formed in the Dominican Republic — which itself was ruled by a dictator, Trujillo. Felix joined up against his parents’ will. He arrived in Santo Domingo — or Ciudad Trujillo, as it was then — on July 4, 1959. He hoped that this date, the Fourth of July, would be as auspicious for Cubans as it had been for Americans. The Anti-Communist Legion staged just one mission into Cuba, a disaster: Castro was waiting for them, and all the troops were killed or captured. Rodriguez had been excluded from the mission at the last second. A friend of his, Roberto Martín Pérez, was captured and spent the next 28 years in Castro’s prisons. Rodriguez vowed to keep doing what he could.

One of the themes of his life is that too few people know what it is to have your country seized by totalitarians. In a 60 Minutes piece, aired in 1989, Mike Wallace asked Rodriguez why he was helping the Salvadorans. “What is it, are you a war-lover? Is that it? Are you constantly in search of adventure?” Rodriguez replied, in short, that people in general are clueless. You can read about Communism, but until you have experienced it for yourself, you have no idea. Also, there is the experience of exile: to be ripped from your country and family and friends, and not be able to return.

Many people think of Castro and his brother as Northern European–style socialists who occasionally get a little rough — or as traditional caudillos who flavor their speech with Marxism-Leninism. In reality, they are in the mold of Hoxha or Ceausescu, monsters. And the Castros’ grip on Cuba is monstrous. Like many Cubans and Cuban Americans, Rodriguez often refers to Fidel Castro simply as “he” or “him.” Equally often, he refers to him as “the son-of-a-bitch.”

#page#At the beginning of 1961, he had an idea: He would assassinate the son-of-a-bitch. It would avoid or shorten the coming war, he reasoned. He and a friend volunteered their services — and the CIA accepted. The Agency equipped Rodriguez with a German rifle, which had a telescopic sight. The Agency also added a radio operator to the team. Three times, this team headed to Cuba on a luxurious yacht, whose captain was American and whose crew was made up of tough, hardened Ukrainians and Romanians, bearing East Bloc weapons. Rodriguez later heard that the yacht belonged to Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law. All three times, something went awry, and the Agency changed its mind about the assassination mission. In late February of ’61, Rodriguez was sent into Cuba as part of an infiltration team, whose mission was to help the Cuban resistance in advance of the invasion: an invasion that would be known as the Bay of Pigs.

Rodriguez’s mission was, of course, harrowing, with many close calls. But it was not without its amusing elements. One day, Rodriguez and a companion approached a beach. Not thinking, Rodriguez said to a militiaman, “Is it okay to use this beach or is it private?” The militiaman said, “Compañero, where you been? There aren’t any private beaches anymore. They all belong to the people!” “Oh, right,” said Rodriguez. “Thanks, compañero. Power to the Revolution!” But Rodriguez was soon warned away from a particular stretch of beach: which was marked off for Fidel Castro himself.

In his Miami den, Rodriguez gives a detailed account of the Bay of Pigs, an operation that earned the name “fiasco.” The blunders of the American planners are almost unbelievable. The Cubans had confidence until the end, says Rodriguez: America was John Wayne. And John Wayne never loses. Until he did. After the Bay of Pigs, Cuban hopes sank, and Castro cemented his power. Fear gripped the island. People shrank from resistance, understandably. Rodriguez managed to get to the Venezuelan embassy in Havana, where he was sheltered for five months: He left Cuba in September 1961. He would not be sheltered in the Venezuelan embassy today: The government in Caracas regards the Castro dictatorship as a model. Venezuelan oil helps sustain the Castro dictatorship. As Rodriguez sees it, Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, is loyal to the Castros, like a son to a father (two of them). Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, was the same way.

Rodriguez married a Cuban girl he met when he was 14 — “It was love at first sight.” He and Rosa had two children, Rosemarie and Felix Jr. The family settled into American life — but not entirely. They were between countries, in a sense, as so many others in South Florida were. Then, in 1967, came Felix’s rendezvous with Guevara.

The old Argentinean guerrilla was in Bolivia to lead a revolution, to impose on that country what he had already helped impose on Cuba. The “old” guerrilla was 39; Rodriguez was 26. He was assigned by the CIA to assist Bolivian forces in tracking Guevara down. What was his role in ultimate success? We can say the following: Rodriguez’s skillfully gentle interrogation of a young guerrilla prisoner helped the Bolivians home in on the guerrilla leader. On October 9, Rodriguez met this leader face to face, in the mud-brick schoolhouse in La Higuera. You can imagine some of the emotion. Guevara had killed many people, personally, back in Cuba — mainly at La Cabaña, his fortress headquarters. Before they died, the Cubans shouted, “Viva Cuba libre!” (“Long live free Cuba!”) and “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). And now Rodriguez had him at his feet.

Guevara was a cocky killer, but he was not so cocky at this moment. Still, he had an air of command. Said Rodriguez, “Che Guevara, I want to talk to you.” Said Guevara, “No one interrogates me.” But talk they did — about philosophy, life, and death. Rodriguez asked him about the people he killed at La Cabaña. Guevara said they were all “foreigners.” He himself had been a foreigner in Cuba, of course. And as Rodriguez pointed out to him, he was a foreigner in Bolivia. Guevara answered, “These are matters of the proletariat that are beyond your comprehension.” Rodriguez asked how he, an Argentinean physician, could have become president of the Cuban national bank. Guevara told him a funny story: One day, Castro said to his top cadres, “Who here is a dedicated economist,” or economista? Guevara thought he had said comunista — and raised his hand. That’s how he became president of the national bank. Rodriguez thought he might be kidding — but later, Benigno, the Cuban defector, confirmed the story. He had been present, sitting right next to Guevara.

Rodriguez’s orders from Washington were to do everything he could to keep Guevara alive. Then, the prisoner would be transported to Panama, to be interrogated by the Americans. But the Bolivians had the authority in this matter. It was their war, their country — and they wanted him dead. Rodriguez gave the prisoner the news. “It’s better this way, Felix,” said Guevara. “I should never have been captured alive.” Rodriguez said to him, “Comandante, do you want me to say anything to your family if I ever have the opportunity?” After an interval, Guevara said, “Yes. Tell Fidel that he will soon see a triumphant revolution in America” (i.e., South America). “And tell my wife to get remarried and try to be happy.” The two men embraced. Then Rodriguez walked out of the schoolhouse. (He was never to meet Guevara’s family.)

#page#The Bolivian officer in charge, Joaquín Zenteno Anaya, had offered Rodriguez the chance to finish Guevara off. Guevara had done Rodriguez’s country so much harm, Zenteno said. It was only right that he have the opportunity. But he declined. It was left to a Bolivian sergeant. Rodriguez has always maintained that Guevara died with courage and dignity. He admired him for it, and still does. But that’s as far as his admiration goes.

He remembers meeting a woman some 30 years ago, whose son had been executed at La Cabaña. He was 15 years old. She went to the fortress to beg for his life. Guevara received her. This was on a Monday. He called an assistant and said, “When is this prisoner scheduled to be executed?” On Friday, he was told. The prisoner’s mother thought Guevara was going to grant a reprieve. Instead, he said, “Get him and execute him now, so his mother doesn’t have to wait until Friday.” She fainted. Says Rodriguez, “He was a very, very cruel man.”

What does he think when he sees Guevara’s face on all those T-shirts? What does he think of the people who wear those T-shirts? Mainly that they are ignorant, having no idea who Guevara was or what he did or what he stood for. One day, Benigno and his wife saw a young Frenchman in a Che shirt. His wife asked him, “Who is that fellow on your shirt?” The young man answered, “A rock singer.”

Rodriguez became an American citizen in 1969. And he volunteered for Vietnam. From 1970 to 1972, he was in special operations. He told the Vietnamese with whom he worked, “I’ve already lost my country,” meaning his original country, “but it’s not too late for you: You can fight for your country.” One Christmas, after he was back home in Miami, he received a card from a Vietnamese comrade named Hoa. “Do you think the United States will ever abandon us?” asked Hoa. Rodriguez wrote back and said no. In his view, the U.S. did in fact abandon the Vietnamese, in 1975. He is of the school that says the U.S. won the war militarily but lost it politically, and shamefully. After their triumph, the Vietnamese Communists killed about a million.

In 1976, Rodriguez left the CIA, for several reasons. One had to do with security. In May of that year, Zenteno, the Bolivian, was gunned down in Paris. He had been serving as his country’s ambassador to France. Claiming responsibility was a group that called itself the International Che Guevara Brigade. Not long after, Rodriguez received a call at home. In Spanish, a man asked for “Felix Ramos.” Then he said, “You’re next.” That name, Felix Ramos, had been Rodriguez’s alias in Bolivia. (Unlike “Max Gomez,” it had no political or historical significance.) The Agency offered to give Rodriguez and his family new identities and move them to a different state. But Rodriguez decided against: too disruptive. So, the Agency added security enhancements to his house, bullet-proofed his car, and took some other measures. They also gave him a very high award: the Intelligence Star, for valor.

For some years, the Cuban dictatorship had a price on Rodriguez’s head. From Benigno, Rodriguez learned that Raúl Castro had a special interest in him. There were at least three plots against Rodriguez. Is there still a price on his head? He thinks not: “The Cuban government has enough problems without worrying about me. But it’s always possible that some crazy guy will try to do something to congratulate himself.”

Rodriguez has a lot to say about the Carter years — none of it good — but we will skip ahead to the Reagan years. In 1985, Rodriguez went to El Salvador, as a private citizen, and as Max Gomez. He flew hundreds of combat missions with Salvadoran forces, applying what he had learned about counterinsurgency. He told the Salvadorans exactly what he had told the Vietnamese: “It may be too late for Cuba, but it’s not too late for you.” El Salvador remained out of Communist hands and took a democratic path (however stony). Like all astute observers, Rodriguez sees a general threat to Latin America today: The threat is from little Castros who are elected democratically — once. Then they go about Castroization. Rodriguez cites Evo Morales, among others: He will rule Bolivia for a very long time, presumably.

While in El Salvador, Rodriguez received a request from a White House staffer, a man soon to become famous: Oliver North. Would Rodriguez help with the resupply of the Contras in Nicaragua? They were fighting the Castro-backed, and Soviet-backed, junta in Managua. Rodriguez agreed — but fairly rapidly became disillusioned with the whole “Enterprise” (as North called it). Equipment for the Contras was shoddy and unsafe. Operational security was shaky. What really stuck in Rodriguez’s craw was war-profiteering. In 1987, he testified at the Iran-Contra hearings, without a lawyer, and without holding back. That was the end of his involvement in scandal, he thought.  

But a month later, there was an eye-popping story in the Miami Herald: A convicted money launderer for the Medellín cartel had accused Rodriguez of soliciting drug money for the Contras. This was a leak supplied by “unnamed congressional sources.” And who might they be? It was no mystery. In the Senate, John Kerry was chairing a subcommittee known to one and all as the “Kerry Committee.” He was keen to establish a link between the Contras and drug-running. He was especially keen to link the vice president, George Bush, to any such drug-running. Rodriguez had a tie to Bush, because the vice president’s national-security adviser was Donald Gregg, who had been Rodriguez’s superior in Vietnam. Rodriguez wanted to testify before Kerry’s committee in an open hearing, so he could clear his name. But Kerry insisted on a closed hearing.

#page#Toward the end of that hearing, Rodriguez said to Kerry, “Senator, this has been the hardest testimony I ever gave in my life.” Kerry asked why. “Because,” said Rodriguez, “it is extremely difficult to have to answer questions from someone you do not respect, and I do not respect you and what you are doing here.” The senator was not pleased. “Boy, did he blow his top,” Rodriguez says. But after almost a year — and considerable Republican pressure — Kerry apologized to Rodriguez and acknowledged that the money launderer’s accusation was false. Fine, says Rodriguez. But if you Google his name, you will find plenty of references to the Medellín drug cartel. The endurance, the permanence, of the 1987 lie rankles Rodriguez.

While Kerry had Rodriguez before him, he took the opportunity to question him about Che Guevara and Bolivia. For one thing, had he really done all he could to save the guerrilla’s life? Kerry was sarcastic in this questioning. It seems to Rodriguez that Kerry, at that time, had sympathy for Guevara, and the Sandinistas, and Castro. In 2004, when the senator was the presidential nominee of the Democratic party, Rodriguez spoke against him at a rally on Capitol Hill organized by Vietnam Veterans for Truth. Today, of course, Kerry is secretary of state — which pains and disgusts Rodriguez. “I despise that guy. He is a phony. He was a phony during the Vietnam War. He’s a self-promoter.” His voice trails off: “I don’t like the guy at all . . .”

Cubans such as Felix Rodriguez expected the Castro dictatorship to last a year, two years, maybe three. He was 17 when Castro took over; Castro, with his brother, still rules the island, and Rodriguez is 72. Communism in Cuba has lasted longer than Communism in Eastern Europe, by ten years and counting. Obviously, this is more painful and disgusting to Rodriguez than John Kerry’s current status as U.S. secretary of state. Cuba was no Jeffersonian democracy when Castro took over. But it was nothing like the totalitarian hell he and his partners made it. And it has had no chance to evolve in a democratic direction, as the Dominican Republic and lots of other places did. When will it end? When will the Communists fall? Cubans are weary of answering this question, after almost 55 years. Rodriguez, though, points to the Castros’ friends in Venezuela: If the oil ever stopped coming, the brothers would be in trouble. Needless to say, Rodriguez is unsure whether he will see Cuba again.

Twenty-five years ago, he wrote in his memoir, “Sometimes I feel a little bit like Ulysses. . . . Like him, I am from an island nation. Like him, I went to war. And like him, I am having a hard time getting home.” How about today? Does he still feel that way? Is he still trying to get home? Where’s home? “It’s complicated,” Rodriguez says. Yes, it is. It is complicated for virtually all Cuban Americans of his generation. Rodriguez is a patriotic Cuban. He is also a patriotic American. Under normal circumstances, this would be a bald contradiction, but the circumstances of the Cuban exile are peculiar, not normal. Rodriguez says that the Cuba he knew has been destroyed, over these 50-plus years. He doesn’t know anyone over there anymore. The Communists long ago expropriated his family home in Sancti Spíritus. If the regime fell, he wouldn’t claim it. But he might like to negotiate to buy it, “for sentimental reasons.”

The 60 Minutes piece done on him in 1989 is an exercise in soft-Left condescension. It portrays anti-Communism as some kind of mental disorder, or at least a sign of immaturity. Of Rodriguez, Mike Wallace says, “He has never lost his love of war nor his anti-Communist ideals.” Rodriguez doesn’t love war: But he is willing to fight in order to keep or gain freedom and peace. At the end of the segment, Wallace wonders, “What does the future hold for this 48-year-old foot soldier in a fading Cold War?” Arthur Liman, who was chief counsel to the Iran-Contra Committee, says, “I think that Felix Rodriguez will probably end up — and I hate to say this — in an unmarked grave in some faraway place, fighting the remnants of Communism.” Wallace responds, “A little bit like Che Guevara.”

William F. Buckley Jr. once came up with a formulation: Say that Smith pushes an old lady out of the way of an onrushing bus. Then Jones pushes an old lady into the way of an onrushing bus. It would be absurd to say that these are two men who push old ladies around. Felix Rodriguez will always be linked to Che Guevara, and they both fought. But they are not alike. Rodriguez’s face will probably not grace a T-shirt. He is what they call a “right-wing Cuban exile.” Guevara is a “romantic revolutionary” and “idealist.” His face sits on a billion T-shirts. Pilgrims flock to La Higuera, to worship at his shrine there. But of the two men, Rodriguez and Guevara, only one deserves honor.

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