Young Elian: Victim of Fidel Castro’s Damage Control
Cuba’s handling of the Elian Gonzalez case has the earmarks of an intelligence operation designed to bring back a political defector who could harm the ruler’s image. After I broke with communism, I was the target of such an operation. Also, during the years I served as personal advisor to Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, I learned that Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom I met many times, was eager to “neutralize” such “traitors.”
To Castro, the bright-eyed, telegenic Elian, though only 6, is a defector who could become a symbol of freedom for both the exiles in Miami and the people of Havana, and who could therefore damage Castro’s image abroad and at home.
Over the years I spent in the Warsaw Pact intelligence community, I learned that though there were only a few rules for carrying out propaganda operations against such defectors, they were strictly enforced.
The first was that as soon as a political defection became public, the defector be described as a victim of “imperialism.” Soon after my defection became public, for example, Ceausescu gave a nationally televised speech in which he accused the United States of being a “Judas” who was trying to buy Romanian experts with “pieces of silver.”
Similarly, days after Elian was found floating on an inner tube Nov. 25 and taken to a Florida hospital, Castro gathered 300,000 Cubans on Havana’s streets to protest the “kidnapping” of Elian by the United States. Many other similar demonstrations have been organized in Havana since that time.
The next rule of dealing with a defector is to bring about his or her change of heart, usually by putting on pressure through close relatives and friends left behind. Elian’s two grandmothers’ trip to the United States followed the dictates of this rule to the letter. They were given photo albums with pictures of his relatives, schoolmates, home, dog, parrot and empty school desk “waiting for you to return.” The grandmothers were provided with new wardrobes and travel expenses. They were accompanied by Cuban handlers, who managed their every move in the United States.
The communist intelligence method for handling defectors also stipulates that, if the target cannot be brought home, he or she should be publicly discredited. Because Elian is too young for this tactic to be used well, Cuban intelligence has denigrated his mother, Elisabet Broton Gonzalez, and her boyfriend, Lazaro Munero, both of whom drowned in the attempt to enter the U.S. illegally aboard a small boat that sank.
A few weeks after Elian was rescued, Elian’s father told an INS officer in Havana that Munero was a “nice man who would often join Elisabet in visiting Gonzalez’s home for dinner and special feasts” and that he “liked him also because he never mistreated my son, whom he loved very much.”
Three weeks later, however, Elian’s father told U.S. officials that his former wife and Munero had a “stormy relationship,” that Munero “mistreated her” and that he “had threatened to kill Elian unless the boy got onto the boat to flee Cuba.”
That kind of propaganda campaign is more or less what happened to me. In July 1978, I defected from West Germany, where I had been sent by Ceausescu to deliver a secret message from him to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Soon after that, the Romanian government alleged that I had left the country illegally to avoid being arrested for trafficking in whiskey, cigarettes and hard currency, and it portrayed me as a thief, womanizer and homosexual.
There is also another way communism deals with defectors: “Neutralize” them. In communist intelligence jargon, that means secretly assassinate or kidnap. I know of many such assassination attempts--one of which I prevented.
Fidel Castro is a Cuban Ceausescu. During my years in Romania, I became relatively close to Raul Castro, who by then was the overall chief of Cuba’s armed and security forces, and to Sergio del Valle, the chief of Cuba’s domestic security and foreign intelligence services. From them I learned that Fidel Castro, like Ceausescu, was involved in gargantuan efforts to monitor people’s private lives in every town, from offices, schools and churches down to streets and apartment houses.
“Our people live in a fishbowl,” Raul Castro concluded after Del Valle gave me a tour of his main electronic monitoring, mail censorship and surveillance centers in Havana. He was right. Not only the enemies of the Cuban revolution but also its leaders had hidden microphones in their houses and offices.
If Elian is returned to Cuba, he will certainly live in Raul Castro’s fishbowl, where all his movements and thoughts will be carefully monitored. It would be this invisible army, not Elian’s highly trumpeted father, that would control his life and decide his future. In its hands, Elian could grow up either as a communist enthusiast, who might have to start his life over after Cuba becomes a free country again, or as a dissident in constant danger of being “neutralized” by the political police.
I decided to break with communism in 1972, but I postponed that irreversible step for six more years, hoping that I might be able to take my daughter with me. I couldn’t. Elian’s mother succeeded where I had failed, but she had to pay for Elian’s freedom with her life. We are a country of laws, but we are also a country of compassion for those fleeing from dictators.