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.”