Friends of Huntington Park kitchen supply dealer Rene Cruz Sr. say they never would have imagined that the 68-year-old grandfather was hoarding assault rifles and other military equipment behind the espresso makers and steel pots at his Florence Avenue shop.
To local Cubans, he was best known for collecting money, clothes and food for newcomers temporarily residing at Casa Cuba, a South Gate shelter for recently arrived refugees.
"He never had a penny for himself. Whenever he had anything, he gave it away," said Angel Prada, publisher of La Voz Libre, one of two Cuban newspapers in Los Angeles.
On Monday, however, the FBI announced the arrest of Cruz--along with his son Rene Jr., 47, and an employee, Rafael Garcia--on charges that they were planning to invade Cuba. Authorities said they found stockpiled guns and sophisticated communications equipment Saturday in Cruz's office and warehouse. Agents also learned that Cruz had purchased a 50-foot shrimp boat in Mississippi, which they believe would be used for a plot to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Cruz's arrest on charges of conspiracy and violating the federal Neutrality Act has triggered an outpouring of sympathy from Cuban Americans who detest Castro and now see Cruz as a political prisoner.
His case is being followed by Cubans throughout the United States, according to Marielena Montesino, press secretary for the western states chapter of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer who has defended Cuban Americans in 12 similar cases, is organizing a defense team for Cruz, without charge. Fernandez believes that prosecuting Cruz under the Neutrality Act, which forbids incursions against countries with which the United States is not at war, contradicts past actions of the U.S. government. He cites the failed 1961 invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, which was orchestrated by the United States, and the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama as examples of official disregard of the law.
It is a view shared by Cruz's backers. "He was just trying to do what the U.S. failed to do at the Bay of Pigs," said Fernando Marquete, a longtime friend who is also a Bay of Pigs veteran.
Law enforcement officials dismiss such views. "I wasn't U.S. attorney during the Bay of Pigs," said Nora Manella, U.S. attorney for the Central District of California.
"We're indifferent to the political views of those who violate federal law," she said of the contention that Cruz is being held because of his beliefs.
Fernandez said that Cruz has told him that "It's not the American people doing this to me, it's the government."
Those on opposing sides may disagree about the reasons for Cruz's arrest in Los Angeles, but in Cuba, he spent 17 years in prison for his opposition to Castro.
Jorge Borrego, a friend of Cruz, said Cruz was a well-known civilian activist in the movement against dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown by Castro. Cruz later turned against Castro and was implicated in an anti-Castro conspiracy that landed him in jail.
When he got out of jail and Cuba in 1980, Cruz headed for Los Angeles, where Borrego hired him to work in his wholesale music shop, Guiro Records, in the Pico-Union neighborhood.
Cruz stayed for 11 years before starting his own business a year ago. Cruz was known as a gentle man who spoke ardently but softly of his anti-Castro beliefs.
Unlike the hundreds of Cuban Americans who train in the Florida Everglades for a future attack on Cuba, Cruz never talked of taking military action, his friends said.
Cruz instead poured his time and money into Casa Cuba, which temporarily housed over 1,000 Cuban refugees from 1985 to 1994, when it closed for lack of money.
But like many Cuban Americans, Cruz was frustrated by Castro's ability to stay in power for more than 30 years. Marielena Montesino said that while she doesn't endorse Cruz's alleged activities, she "understands his frustration. The U.S. government must understand the desperation of people who want only to bring freedom to Cuba."
Borrego believes that Cruz may have been moved to take armed action after giving up hope that the United States would take military action against Castro.
"He was 68 and probably tired of all this talk, talk, talk. I have a lot of friends who say they want to die in Cuba."