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COLUMN ONE : A Voice of Change in Castro’s Ear : Miami exile who survived Cuba’s worst jails tries to talk his old foe into starting reforms. Hard-liners scoff but others see hope, citing Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo’s past battles and the country’s uneasy future.

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Measured against the yardsticks of Cuban history and personal travail, the meeting in Havana was extraordinary. Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, who spent 22 brutal years in prison, shook hands with his former jailer, then asked the gray-bearded dictator for permission to return to Cuba and set up an opposition political party.

Impassively, Fidel Castro looked his onetime revolutionary comrade in the eye and acknowledged the request with the slightest nod. We’ll see, el maximo lider seemed to say, we’ll see.

Yet perhaps more extraordinary than that June meeting between two old enemies was the scene at Miami International Airport a few hours later, when Gutierrez Menoyo returned home. In a city of exiles, where even thinking out loud about dialogue with Castro can still ignite terrorist bombings, he was greeted not by threats and derision but with cheers.

“Viva, Menoyo!” shouted the throng of supporters and relatives who turned out to meet him after his 10 days on the island.

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“Who’s he?” puzzled tourists asked of the tall, wiry figure.

Gutierrez Menoyo is not widely known outside the emigre circles where Cuba’s destiny, and Castro’s demise, are constantly debated.

Nonetheless, the 60-year-old former revolutionary comandante has staked out new ground in the struggle to bring peaceful, democratic change to Cuba. Given the bloodstained credentials of his own history as both a Castro revolutionary and political prisoner, Gutierrez Menoyo is backed by a growing number of moderate exiles fed up with the paramilitary posturings of right-wing hard-liners.

Equally important, he is seen as a dramatic symbol of what may be possible at a time of subtle yet real movement toward smashing the philosophical logjam that has stymied U.S.-Cuban relations for most of the past 36 years.

On Friday, for example, President Clinton announced plans to relax America’s 33-year-old economic embargo of Cuba by permitting academic exchanges, easing restrictions on U.S. non-governmental organizations and removing the ban on U.S. news bureaus on the island.

Castro has announced plans to travel to New York this month to attend a United Nations meeting, and former President Jimmy Carter has met with several Cuban American leaders in Atlanta, offering to mediate a dialogue between exiles and top Castro officials.

Pope John Paul II reportedly has expressed interest in assisting in a reconciliation between the Castro government and exiles.

Despite overwhelming House approval last month of a Republican-sponsored bill that adds clout to the economic embargo, there is growing pressure from U.S. companies to get the Clinton Administration to end it altogether. Hundreds of firms have sent representatives to Cuba to explore opportunities should the restrictions end.

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Indeed, Gutierrez Menoyo is not the only exile to have met with Castro in recent months. At least five Cuban Americans who travel frequently to Cuba, including businessman Francisco Aruca, have been summoned to Castro’s office for informal chats on the mood in Miami. But Gutierrez Menoyo, says Aruca, is the only avowed “Castro oppositionist” invited to sit down with the Cuban chief.

“His relationship to Castro has always been in opposition, first violently, now peacefully,” Aruca said. “And I know there were many hard-liners in Fidel’s government who were against meeting with Menoyo. But that Fidel met with him marks a real opening.”

Friends and Foes

Gutierrez Menoyo predicts that Castro soon will permit him to take up residence in Cuba and open an office of his organization, Cambio Cubano (Cuban Change).

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“He is very determined, he has courage, and he has done something nobody has ever done before: met with Castro as an opposition leader from off the island,” said Miami lawyer Alfredo G. Duran, former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party and a moderate who favors dialogue with Castro.

Yet there remain many in Miami who view Gutierrez Menoyo as a fool; a traitor to the cause; a sly, ego-driven pretender to power in post-Castro Cuba; or a little bit of each. His calls for the United States to end its economic blockade and other restrictions run counter to the official line of both the Cuban American National Foundation, long the most influential exile lobbying group, and Clinton Administration policy.

“He suffers from protagonismo, a desire to be a leading player,” said radio talk-show host Tomas Garcia Fuste, who often reflects the feelings of many in the older generation of exiles. “He wants to call attention to himself, to be the guy who talks to Castro. But he is on the wrong side in this one.”

The Administration appears to be more receptive. Richard A. Nuccio, the State Department’s point man on Cuba, has said that if Gutierrez Menoyo’s meeting with Castro led Cuba to move toward democracy, it could be the step the United States insists Castro must take before the embargo ends.

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In a meeting with 200 Cuban moderates in Miami last month, Nuccio praised Gutierrez Menoyo’s efforts and added that changes in Cuba were more likely to result from contacts between Cubans on and off the island than from negotiations between governments.

The Cuban response to Gutierrez Menoyo has been limited to a comment from Jose Ponce of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, who said the meeting with Castro represented “another sign of our flexibility” in dealing with exiles.

Unofficially, Gutierrez Menoyo says, Castro is signaling his openness to change by meeting with him and by allowing the distribution of Cambio Cubano literature on the island. But why would Castro suddenly allow a group whose stated aim is to strip him of power through popular elections?

“Because,” said Gutierrez Menoyo, “Castro is concerned with his legacy. He is willing to look at a peaceful solution to Cuba’s problems because he does not want to shoulder the historical blame for the bankruptcy of his country. Castro is very smart, intelligent and logical. He does not want to lose face with the Cuban people.”

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After 3 1/2 decades, the majority of exiles here have learned not to overreact to suggestions that Castro is about to unleash major democratic reforms or relinquish any power. He remains firmly in control, observers say.

But the Cuban economy, in decline since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, has never been weaker. Last month, the Cuban National Assembly approved a socialism-cum-free market law that opens the door to foreigners--including Cuban Americans--to wholly own businesses and property on the island.

A Tragic Past

In many ways, Gutierrez Menoyo embodies the tragic history of an island that suffered through the turn-of-the-century Spanish-American War, five decades of dictators, corruption and American exploitation, and 36 years under Castro--when Cuba tumbled into social and economic despair.

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In the 1950s, Gutierrez Menoyo fought as Castro’s ally against the regime of President Fulgencio Batista and shared in the revolution’s triumph. Disaffected by Castro’s turn toward communism, he left Cuba in 1961, only to return three years later in a doomed attempt to touch off an anti-Castro insurrection. Captured and imprisoned, Gutierrez Menoyo was beaten so severely that he lost the sight in one eye and the hearing in one ear.

He was freed in 1986 after the intervention of Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.

Now, as ever, his life is Cuba, he said during an interview in his office, a Spartan cubicle in a strip mall west of Miami. Ascetic in his intensity and resolve, he speaks though the smoke of one cigarette after another, in Spanish accented with traces of his native Madrid.

During the years he spent in six of Cuba’s most notorious jails, he survived, he says, by calling upon “a higher power, a positiveness.”

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“Had I carried that hatred I would have come out like a rag,” he said. “I had to let that hatred go. And I never felt alone. Somewhere in the vast world, I knew there was someone praying for me.

“Now, I have the advantage over others. I have a history no one can negate. I have credentials. People know that when I propose something, I will follow it to the end. This history will allow me to reclaim Cuba, with or without permission.”

Gutierrez Menoyo’s sense of mission and moral certainty enable him to profess a lack of concern about Cambio Cubano’s small membership, which he estimated at about 200, or continuing threats to his safety. He mails out requests for contributions; many come back defaced with obscenities.

Family Fears

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On Miami’s notoriously rabid right-wing radio stations, he is branded as a Castro agent, a shameless traitor, and worse.

He said he fears for the safety of his wife, Gladys, and their three sons, all younger than 6. Threats to customers led to the bankruptcy of their small glass business, and the family subsists now on the largess of friends.

Still, the climate of fear has eased; bombs have not gone off as they have in the past. And Gutierrez Menoyo proceeds as if he had the portfolio of a diplomat. Since early 1994, he has met with Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina in Spain, traveled to Mexico at the invitation of President Ernesto Zedillo and met with several Central American heads of state.

This summer, he was in Washington for a speech at the Brookings Institution and talks with White House national security aide Morton H. Halperin. The next stop was Spain, where he asked his audience to join in his vision for Cuba. Recalling a childhood Gypsy rhyme, he said he learned long ago that “the imagination is more important than knowledge.”

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The phrase reveals a streak of romanticism--a trait that, when set against Castro’s cunning, critics use to discount Gutierrez Menoyo.

“Even if Fidel allows him to open an office in Cuba, he will be very controlled, with no access to the media,” predicted Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba scholar and professor of international studies at the University of Miami. “Castro needs Menoyo for outside consumption, to attract foreign investments. He is a useful tool. I give him the benefit of the doubt for trying, but this is not a real opening.”

Miami businessman Ramon Cernuda, who represents several human rights groups on the island, is an admirer of Gutierrez Menoyo. But while lauding his colleague’s bold efforts, Cernuda says Castro has not responded with any real steps toward democratization.

“Certainly Eloy is a person of importance in the opposition camp,” he said. “But was his meeting with Castro a false signal?”

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In Gutierrez Menoyo’s mind, his plan is so simple as to be foolproof. In Cuba now, he says, there exists a strong underground current of pro-democracy feelings that would rise to the surface as an unstoppable tide if Cambio Cubano were opened. The goal, he says, is not to share power with Castro, but to take it from him through elections.

Through Cambio Cubano, Gutierrez Menoyo also hopes to refocus the debate in Miami. After all these years of failed opposition, he said, “the anti-Castro industry is bankrupt. They do not understand: They are fossils of history.”

As Miami lawyer Duran said: Gutierrez Menoyo offers “the only proactive strategy in the exile community.”

If Castro refuses to allow Cambio Cubano onto the island, Gutierrez Menoyo says the leaders of countries now investing in Cuba will continue to ask why.

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Born in Spain, the youngest of six children, Gutierrez Menoyo emigrated to Cuba with his parents in 1947, when he was 12. His father was a physician and a militant socialist, and his eldest brother died fighting against dictator Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

In Cuba, another brother, Carlos, was killed by Batista forces in a failed assault on the presidential palace in 1957. Eloy had been involved with the opposition, running messages and guns. Carlos’ death propelled him deeper into the rebellion. He worked first with a revolutionary student movement, and eventually went into the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba as head of a group called the Second Front.

Although never a member of Castro’s 26th of July movement--Gutierrez Menoyo shared with Castro a common enemy, and eventually both would claim victory. When Batista fell in January, 1959, Gutierrez Menoyo preceded Castro into Havana, and a famous picture taken that month shows Castro inspecting a weapon that Gutierrez Menoyo has handed him, symbolic of his having delivered the central mountains to Castro.

By early 1961, Gutierrez Menoyo had grown disillusioned. He sailed for America, 90 miles away.

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In Miami, he married, fathered a daughter and, along with other militant exiles, formed the paramilitary group Alpha 66 and made plans to return to the island.

With three comrades, he landed in Cuba in December, 1964, carrying ammunition to be cached for use by others who were to follow. His group was captured 28 days later. Blindfolded, he was taken before what he thought would be a firing squad. Gutierrez Menoyo instead found himself facing Castro.

“Eloy, I knew you would come, but I also knew that I would catch you,” he recalled Castro saying.

After a half-hour trial, Gutierrez Menoyo was sentenced to 30 years in prison. While locked up, he was a plantado , an inmate who resisted any measures of rehabilitation and refused to work.

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In the 1988 documentary film “Nobody Listened,” a fellow prisoner described seeing Gutierrez Menoyo after he was dragged to a quarry and beaten in an attempt to make him work.

“He was covered with grime, with sands, dirt, gravel, and when we wiped that off we found that he was bleeding from the mouth, eyes and ears,” said Marcelino Leal, now a Miami physician. “His body was so sore from the blows that he could not be touched.”

In prison, Gutierrez Menoyo wrote a book for Elena Patricia, the daughter growing up without him, and perfected endurance. And he learned to forget.

“Prison is so brutal, so violent, so cruel and savage, that to go on living I had to forget,” he said. “I must forget the murders I have seen, the executions I have heard, the beatings I’ve witnessed.”

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Learning to forget also makes it possible for Gutierrez Menoyo to deal with Castro today. During nearly four hours of meetings in June, Gutierrez Menoyo says they discussed the end of the Cold War, Cuba’s economic and political isolation, and the need for a legitimate opposition party that serves as a stimulus for change.

“I said to him: ‘Look at my arguments. This is not science fiction. You will see that this is only common sense.’ Castro is a politician who negotiates when he has to. He knows the world has changed. It will happen.”


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