Monday, June 30, 2008

Flew guns to Castro, but soon fought him

Flew guns to Castro, but soon fought him
Posted on Mon, Jun. 30, 2008
El Nuevo Herald

Pedro Díaz Lanz, a Cuban pilot who helped supply weapons to Fidel Castro
in the Sierra Maestra mountains and then became the first chief of the
Revolutionary Air Force before breaking with the Cuban leader, died in
Miami Thursday night of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the chest,
relatives and friends said. He was 81.

Díaz Lanz died impoverished and disappointed, suffering from emotional
problems that had drained his health, according to relatives and friends.

''He was a patriot, a man who had the dignity to give all for the
liberty of Cuba,'' his brother Eduardo Díaz Lanz told a local radio
station. According to Eduardo, Pedro had warned him months ago that he
preferred to take his own life rather than ``fall into the abyss.''

Prominent members of the Cuban exile community who also first helped and
then broke with Castro praised Díaz Lanz's contribution to the
anti-Castro cause.


'He was a man of firm ideas who contributed decisively to a revolution
that we once considered redeeming of Cubans' rights, and that is why he
became one of the early victims of Fidel Castro's betrayal,'' said Huber
Matos, a Revolutionary commander who broke with Castro and spent 20
years in Cuban prisons accused of treason.

Born in Havana on Nov. 8, 1926, Pedro Díaz Lanz came from a family
deeply involved in Cuban history. His grandfather belonged to the Cuban
rebel forces known as ''mambises'' that fought Spanish colonial
soldiers, and his father was a high-ranking officer in the Cuban army
until 1930.

Díaz Lanz told friends he was a great-grandchild of a sister of José
Martí, hero of Cuba's independence from Spain.

He graduated from college in 1944 and then studied aviation mechanics.
In 1946, when he was 20, Díaz Lanz began flying planes and soon became a
commercial co-pilot for the Cuban airline Aerovías Q, which flew
passengers and cargo between Havana and Miami.

Upset with Cuba's political impasse after Fulgencio Batista's coup in
1952, Díaz Lanz met Frank País, leader of an urban resistance movement
in Santiago de Cuba. Later Díaz Lanz came into contact with Castro, who
assigned him to obtain and then supply weapons to the anti-Batista
movement from abroad, using his commercial pilot job as a cover.

The first clandestine arms shipment for Castro's rebel forces was flown
from Punta Arenas, Costa Rica, to a hamlet deep in the Sierra Maestra
mountains on March 20, 1958.

Piloting a cargo plane also carrying Matos, the Díaz Lanz mission was
carried out successfully -- delivering five tons of weapons and
ammunition to the rebels.

''I met him before the trip, and from the outset I realized he was a
person of great determination, firmness and courage beyond any doubt,''
Matos recalled.

Díaz Lanz also carried military supplies from Venezuela. It is estimated
that 70 percent of weapons delivered to Castro's rebels and their allies
were airlifted by Díaz Lanz.

When Castro's revolution triumphed in early January 1959, Díaz Lanz was
arranging another arms shipment from Costa Rica, and he immediately flew
to Santiago de Cuba to rendezvous with rebel forces.

Appointed immediately as chief of the new Revolutionary Air Force, Díaz
Lanz traveled to Camagüey to try to persuade Batista military pilots
that their lives would be respected by the new regime.

At that time, Castro promised they could remain in the new armed forces
and that any prior action would be considered as legitimate obedience to

''The pilots believed this and many of them flew with me to [Camp]
Columbia [the main military base in Havana],'' Díaz Lanz recalled in a
statement in 1988. ``Who would have thought that only a few months later
they would be be arrested and tried on orders from the joint chiefs of
staff head, Raúl Castro, and sentenced -- disregarding the prior amnesty
process -- promised by Fidel himself.''

The pilots' case marked the beginning of Díaz Lanz's loss of confidence
in the Castro revolution.

Fidel Castro annulled an initial legal proceeding against the pilots,
which found them innocent, and ordered a new proceeding. In the end many
received sentences of up to 30 years in prison, though some witnesses
claimed that thanks to Díaz Lanz's intervention their lives were saved.

Opposed to communist influence in the principal government posts, Díaz
Lanz was removed from his job and left Cuba on June 29, 1959 -- aboard a
sailboat. After drifting for days, he landed in Miami on the Fourth of
July 1959 and testified before the U.S. Congress about Castro's
intention to turn Cuba into a communist country under the Soviet Union.

But Díaz Lanz was not yet finished with Cuba.

On Oct. 21, 1959, he flew back to the island and dropped thousands of
fliers over Havana denouncing the revolution's turn to the Marxist path.

He flew low over the Cuban capital, drawing indiscriminate gunfire from
Castro's soldiers posted at bases, buildings and streets.

The next day, Castro accused Díaz Lanz of ''bombing'' Havana and linked
the episode to Matos, who by then had been detained in Camagüey province
under sedition charges.

At a rally summoned a few days later by the Cuban leader, an angry
throng demanded that Matos and Díaz Lanz be executed by firing squad.

Matos denied any link to a conspiracy, though Díaz Lanz had previously
told Matos about a private conversation on a plane in which Castro
reportedly said, ``We are going to have problems with Huber.''

In exile, Díaz Lanz along with Frank Sturgis, who later became one of
the Watergate burglars, founded the Cuban Constitutional Crusade in
1959. Díaz Lanz also joined sabotage missions to Cuba that were
organized by the CIA.

He was one of the members of so-called Operación 40, a group of
prominent anti-Castro activists in 1961.

Díaz Lanz actively participated in numerous seaborne operations to sneak
weapons into Cuba during the 1960s.

The Cuban government considered him a dangerous enemy and even claimed
he was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

''He will go down in history as a visionary,'' said anti-Castro activist
José Hilario Pujol, a friend of Díaz Lanz. ``He was the first who from
within realized what Fidel Castro would bring to Cuba, and he was the
one who most sacrificed for his ideals.''

He worked many odd jobs to make a living in exile.

His economic situation was precarious, and in the last few years he
resorted to sleeping in his car because he did not have money to rent a

Many friends said he was always reluctant to accept cash donations to
make ends meet. He also became deeply religious.


''We believe in a Cuba without victors or vanquished, without hatred or
rancor, where all work for all,'' Díaz Lanz wrote some years ago in El
Nuevo Herald.

``We believe in the respect for someone else's right, in liberty and
justice. Beautiful dream that which all embraced and for which many gave
their lives. But the dark night of greed and ambition covered our
beautiful island.''

Díaz Lanz is survived by siblings Eduardo, Marcos and Yolanda; children
Pedro René, Pedro Miguel, Tania Denisse, Minú and Ivonne; and several
grandchildren. Three other siblings died in violent circumstances: Jorge
killed himself in Miami in 1976; Esther María was murdered in Miami
Beach in 1986; and Guillermo hanged himself in Havana in 1998.

Díaz Lanz's first son, Pedro Luis, died several years ago. Burial will
be at 2 p.m. Monday at Woodlawn South Cemetery, 11200 SW Eighth St.

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