Posted on Sun, Nov. 26, 2006
Top exiles in fight over anti-Castro plot funds
BY ALFONSO CHARDY AND JAY WEAVER
José Antonio Llama spends much of his retirement stewing in his
art-filled Miami home about one incomplete mission: the death of Fidel
But the 75-year-old Cuban exile is haunted by another obsession:
Recovering nearly $1.5 million that he says his former allies owe him
for his purchase of planes, boats, a helicopter and explosives.
Llama, who once owned an air-conditioning business, claims he put up all
that money for a secret ''war council'' that consisted of members of a
powerful exile lobbying group, the Cuban American National Foundation.
He further alleges they reneged on their spoken promise to share the
cost of paramilitary activities against the Cuban government and its
Llama filed a complaint with Miami police in the hope of sparking a
criminal investigation. Recently, police said they're not going to open
a probe, noting that Llama should pursue a lawsuit if he wants to
resolve his financial dispute. That could pose a serious challenge
because he doesn't have a written contract agreement with his former
Llama, who went through a bankruptcy, expresses contempt for some of the
men he once embraced as brothers in the never-ending fight against
Castro and his communist government.
''They're all thieves,'' he told The Miami Herald.
For their part, they think Llama has lost his mind, denying his allegations.
'As far as I know, all of Mr. Llamas' allegations are false,'' said
Francisco ''Pepe'' Hernández, president of the Cuban American National
Foundation. ``Let him present his case in a court of law. That is his
In 1961 Llama arrived in Miami, stayed a few hours, then traveled to
Central America to join the Cuban exile army that the CIA was training
for the Bay of Pigs assault after the Castro revolution. But on the day
of the invasion, April 17, Llama said his boat ran out of gas and was
delayed in arriving at the invasion site.
By the time the boat arrived, the invasion forces had been defeated and
his group was not allowed to land by the CIA. Had he landed, his mission
was to distribute copies of the 1940 Cuban Constitution, he said. After
his return to the United States, he and other family members left
quickly for Puerto Rico, where they set up a successful business
installing air conditioning in cars. The business expanded to the
Dominican Republic, Panama, Ecuador and Spain.
Killing Castro remained a lifetime obsession.
It was in the early 1990s, when Llama was a board member of the Cuban
American National Foundation, that the idea to adopt a more violent
strategy to overthrow Castro gained momentum, he said.
The setting was the exile group's annual convention in Naples in 1992.
Its leaders recognized that traditional anti-Castro lobbying tactics in
Washington were producing limited results, despite the eventual
strengthening of the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
''It was decided that instead of using the money for lobbying, it should
be used for making war against the Cuban regime to destroy it and kill
Castro,'' Llama said.
Certain leading members of the foundation formed a war council, led by
''Pepe'' Hernández, Llama said. Their front was a state-registered
company called Nautical Sports Inc., set up to buy equipment to carry
out military-like strategies against Castro.
Hernández, in an interview this past week, denied Llama's allegations,
countering that the foundation focused on lobbying, fundraising and
politics -- not terror plots.
''We have never participated or created any kind of covert operation for
the overthrow of Castro,'' Hernández said. ``That is something that has
never been a mission or objective of the CANF.''
But Llama disagreed. He said the then-leader of the foundation, Jorge
Mas Canosa, was not directly involved in the foundation's clandestine
group or its activities -- ''but he was aware'' of everything. 'He told
me, `I want you to be in the first operation.' ''
That first operation was the plot to assassinate Castro during a visit
to the Venezuelan island of Margarita to attend a Latin American summit
in 1997, he said.
To prepare, the war council's half-dozen members orally agreed to foot
the bill for an arsenal together, Llama said. But he said things didn't
work out that way. Instead, he said, he ended up putting up $1.47
million to buy six vessels, 10 ultralight radio-controlled planes, a
cargo helicopter, explosives and other weaponry -- including two .50
''When I saw that the others were not pitching in with money, I put in
my money just to get things going,'' Llama said.
Llama said he also paid for a $100,000 loan on a seventh boat that was
set up by his colleague, Elpidio Núñez, at First Union National Bank, in
the mid-1990s. Núñez says on his company's website that he sat on an
advisory board at First Union, which acquired Wachovia in 2001.
Núñez, reached at his office by telephone, initially dismissed Llama as
''a little touched in the head,'' but then said he wanted his lawyer to
review the police report and provide a comment to The Miami Herald. He
said the lawyer would call later, but no call was received as of Friday.
''At the time, I implicitly trusted Elpidio, and so I signed [for the
loan] thinking it was necessary for the operation,'' Llama said.
Llama, who provided The Miami Herald with canceled checks and other
records that show Nautical Sports' purchases of the equipment, organized
the Margarita Island plot to kill Castro. He stayed behind while four
others left on the boat.
But the 1997 mission failed before a Miami-registered boat carrying four
men even reached its destination.
The Esperanza left Miami, stopped in the Dominican Republic to pick up
some tracer bullets, and then traveled through the Mona Passage toward
Margarita Island, he said.
The boat was intercepted by the Coast Guard in the passage off Puerto
Rico. The four arrested: Angel Alfonso, Francisco Córdova, Angel
Hernández and Jose Rodríguez-Sosa. Coast Guard searchers found two
.50-caliber rifles hidden on the boat. Alfonso confessed to a plot to
kill Castro. Llama, called by the FBI, surrendered to authorities in
'My son called me from there and said, `Dad, what are you involved in?'
and I told him, 'The cause, the same thing I've always been involved in.' ''
Two other defendants also were charged. But as the trial began, one was
separated from the case in Puerto Rico because he was already under
arrest in Miami on unrelated drug-smuggling and money-laundering
charges. Later the judge in Puerto Rico threw out charges against
another defendant, leaving five to face the jury.
The five defendants admitted they had planned to sneak into Margarita
but only to stage peaceful protests and spirit away possible defectors
from Castro's retinue.
The jury acquitted the five. In a stunning finale, two jurors later said
the verdict was a ''message'' to the Cuban people, embraced the
defendants and went off to celebrate with them at a popular Cuban
Llama sobbed openly and vowed that the verdict would invigorate ``our
efforts to continue to get freedom for our country.''
''Not even the United States can control the minds and spirits of the
people who want to fight for their country,'' Llama said at the time.
``This is not the end. This is just the beginning again.''
Llama claims that was his last paramilitary operation against Castro.
Since then, he said, he has gone through a bankruptcy in Miami federal
court. And he has written letters to Núñez and other former foundation
colleagues to get the titles to the boats and planes he purchased a
His final mission: ``Get rid of the lien on my house.''