MANY NAMES: ONE PERSON
by Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas
It was the usual anxiety of previous flights. You are glued to the radio until the pilot has landed and sent the encoded signal EQIWF - everything is quiet in the Western front - meaning mission accomplished safely. He sat alone in his office in Miami, close to the telephones. His mind traveled in time and space to the area of Homestead - to the houses used as a base to send the boats to Cuba in 1960 and 1961. The same feeling of anxiety, dryness in the mouth, jaws clenched and red eyes from lack of sleep. Many days without enough sleep, waiting for the calls of the men directing the infiltration teams in Cuba. Some of them were able to contact with headquarters by radio, others were imprisoned and shot.
Later his mind jumped to Bolivia, October 9, 1967. He was transmitting the encoded message: Che Guevara is dead . . . Repeat . . . Che Guevara is dead . . . Executed by the army . . . This time he was the one sending the message that would be read around the world. The Bolivian Army had executed a failed, sick and abandoned revolutionary and made a martyr out of him, a hero and a legend. Generally, the public knows the romantic version of Che Guevara manufactured in Havana. Less well known is the real Che Guevara, the man who executed in cold blood hundreds of his opponents. However, nobody wears a shirt saying Che Guevara killed my father. In this kind of struggle, the family of the victims, most of them peasants, remained silent.
The Bolivian President Rene Barrientos had given the order "500-600" - coded numbers for the order to execute Che Guevara. Without knowing it, Barrientos helped Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union. Che was persona non grata in the Kremlin because he was a Maoist and spread a rabid anti- Moscow political doctrine. He had become a liability and an embarrassment to Castro. That's why Havana abandoned him in Bolivia. Che had been shown to be an inept leader and a big mouth of confused ideology. Castro wanted him out of Cuba and out of the way politically. A dead Che, and an attractive poster-boy for the revolution were convenient circumstances for Castro. Did Guevara know that the man who wanted to be a world leader despised him for being a foreigner? (1)
Ironically, Washington wanted Guevara alive to show the world a failed and defeated Communist guerrilla. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not want to make a hero out of a second-rate guerrilla operative. The Bolivians thought differently. Che had ambushed and killed many Bolivian soldiers and "had to pay with his life for his deeds." Felix, was the last person who talked extensively to him. Also, he was the last person photographed with him (alive). He (Felix) had asked the executioner not to shoot Che in the face. Guevara had embraced and given Felix his pipe and last messages. He died on October 9, 1967 in La Higuera, Bolivia.
Many times Felix reflected upon the life of Che Guevara. Che went to Bolivia with old, obsolete weapons. The maps he carried were inaccurate: homemade, like those drawn by school children. Why didn't Castro's agents in the US just get maps from the National Geographic Society? Che's field tactics were those of an amateur. The man who fancied himself as a guerrilla expert - to the point of writing a manual about guerilla warfare - did not survive a simple encounter with the Bolivian army. Felix asked himself, was Che a man in touch with reality or a victim of his personal fantasies? (2)
HASENFUSS, THE KICKER
Felix came back from his backyard of memories. He was at his office in Miami that October 5, in 1986. The telephone rang. On the line was a man in the communications center at Ilopango Airport in El Salvador. He reported that a C-123 aircraft was overdue, later the plane was listed as missing in action. (3) This was a transport that had been on a supply mission for the Nicaragua Democratic Front (FDN) an anti-Sandinista guerrilla group in the countryside of Nicaragua. The plane had been shot down by a SAM-7 missile. A four-man crew was on board: Bill Cooper, Buzz Sawyer, Eugene Hasenfuss and a Nicaraguan Contra soldier. His contact did not know what had happened to the crew, but Felix felt that his sixth sense was working right. Something was wrong with that flight. Eugene Hasenfuss, the "kicker" (cargo handler) of the crew, was the only person with a parachute, and he survived that historic trip. And Felix was in Miami, far from the battlefield.
The Sandinista Army searched the jungle for possible survivors from the plane. Two days after the crash, a 17-year-old soldier found Hasenfuss asleep in his hammock and took him prisoner. On Cooper's body, the troops found a notebook with the name and telephone number of Max Gomez. Hasenfuss told his Cuban interrogators everything they wanted to know. Yes, he had been a kicker working for the CIA during the Vietnam war. Yes, he was working for some Americans in El Salvador. Yes, he met the man who was the boss of the operation. Yes, he could identify him in a picture. Yes, that was the picture of his boss: Max Gomez. (4) No, he didn't know his real name. No, the name Felix Ismael Rodriguez didn't ring any bell.
In Havana, Minister of the Interior, General Jose Abrantes Fernandez, was very happy. His men in Nicaragua had scored a significant victory against the CIA. Hasenfuss had positively identified his boss. The jewel in the anti-guerrilla crown, the man of Langley had been identified: Felix Ismael Rodriguez. Pepe Abrantes called Fidel Castro and was told to see him as soon as possible. Fidel wanted to talk to Abrantes about the American mercenary and Rodriguez. The Cubans and the Sandinistas released Eugene Hasenfuss after a show trial. The Sandinista Military Tribunal found President Ronald Reagan, Director of Intelligence William J. Casey. (5)(6) and his man Felix I. Rodriguez guilty of waging an undeclared war against Nicaragua and in violation of the Boland Amendment. (7)
When Felix learned of Hasenfuss' capture, he prepared for the worst: the enemy inside. He did not fear Managua or Moscow, but he feared Washington. Every day in Nicaragua more men wanted to join the Contra Army, every day the Sandinista regime was weaker. But Washington was the most dangerous place to wage a war. Everywhere a journalist, roadblocks manned by congressmen and senators, each one of them powerful and vindictive. Every member of Congress an expert, and veteran of battles on the most bloody mountain in the world: Capitol Hill. Winning the battle of Washington was a prelude to winning abroad. The Capitol Hill battle came in the form of a select committee of the Senate and the House in the Iran-Contra Hearings.
His identification as Max Gomez, at the same time, was the end of Felix's anonymity. From now on, he would have to fight from a desk, by proxy in a hotel lobby or work without the protection of a false identity. His days were over as a field commander in his war against Havana. Felix Ramos Medina, Max Gomez, Atisor, Lucas, Gladiator, Francisco Suarez, Felix Alvarez, all were names in his file at the Cuban Direccion de Inteligencia (DI), those were files belonging to a glorious but distant past. In intelligence, yesterday is a distant past, a remote past. Whatever you did once, does not matter. The outcome cannot be repeated again. Felix remained in El Salvador, against the advice of many, after his identity was known.
Cuba identified Felix in 1961 when he was part of the Cuban Infiltration teams that entered into the island prior Bay of Pigs. He was born on May 31, 1941 in the city of Havana. He came to study high school in the U.S. when Castro was fighting president Fulgencio Batista.
After the Bay of Pigs invasion, Felix left Cuba via the Embassy of Venezuela where he had requested asylum. He joined the CIA and the U.S. Army. In 1967, he was part of the American group that was advising the Bolivians. After the capture of Che Guevara, he did many missions for the CIA. He served in Vietnam in a combat role, and in 1976 was retired from the CIA due to injuries to his back. He is married and has two children. This is a simplified biography. However, his records of the (DI) must be very thick.
When an agent is identified with a picture and name in the operations zone, his life is not worth a dime. Havana had been on his tail since Che Guevara's death. Felix's life as a secret agent had taken him to Vietnam, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Lebanon . Every time Havana knew his location, an assassination team was sent to kill him. His luck let him escape attempts against his life in Vietnam and El Salvador. He escaped by a miracle a plane hijack in Georgia on January 7, 1971. Havana was obsessed with killing him for the death of Che Guevara. Paradoxically, Castro had sent Che to his death, but wanted to settle an account with the man who had tried to keep Che alive after his capture.
Felix, upon hearing of the Hasenfuss capture, couldn't avoid a short period of introspection. He knew that his head would make a good trophy and conversation piece in Fidel's den. He could take precautions, but there was no way to avoid risks. He was not sure who would take care of his back. Washington was a big question mark. The enemies of the Reagan administration were trying by all means to get the President. The "old man" and his foxy CIA chief, Casey, were formidable opponents, and politicians knew that a fight with them could be fatal. But the people around the President were weaker and easy to shoot one by one. Felix was convinced that the Nicaraguan war could be won in the field but lost in Washington. He knew that he had a friend in Vice President George Bush and that the Bush staff would be supportive. Bush knew Washington inside out and not many people would dare to antagonize him. Here was a man of deceptive appearance: a man of steel wrapped in preppy clothes. But Bush was fighting for his political life also.
How did you get involved with Lt. Colonel Oliver North?
Felix looked at me with a blank expression. He spoke calmly, as if he were reciting a familiar poem. "By chance, I was visiting a friend, Bill Bode, in his office at the State Department. Bode was at that time Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. I remember the date was December 21, 1984. I told Bill that I was on my way to visit Don Gregg, a friend I had meet during my days at the CIA. Don was a man I admired and respected. He was then working for Vice President Bush on national security issues. I wanted Don's advice on my future work as an advisor to the Salvadorian armed forces. I wanted to introduce tactical helicopter plans to make more effective their anti-guerrilla warfare. The Farabundo Marti's communist guerrillas were waging a bloody war against the Salvadorian armed forces."
Bode told me it would be a good idea to talk to Ollie North if I was going to work in El Salvador. North was in the National Security Council (NSC) in charge of Central America. Bode called North's secretary, Fawn Hall, and arranged my meeting.
North was a man of medium height, trim and very pleasant. We talked for a while and discussed my plans for El Salvador. I had no idea about the role North would play in my life. I returned to Miami to spend Christmas with my family."I came back to Washington on January 22, 1985 to meet with Vice President Bush. It was a very good 40-minute meeting. We discussed El Salvador and Nicaragua in general. Bush told me that the job he had enjoyed most was being director of the CIA. When I left his office, I felt honored to have met Bush."
A FEMALE COMANDANTE
"In El Salvador I introduced a tactical plan for helicopters, let's call it the Rodriguez plan for lack of a better name. The basic concept was to use the Huges 500, a small high-speed helicopter, following intelligence reports in guerrilla territory and fly at treetop level to attract ground fire. UH1M gun-ships later would destroy the guerrillas. At the beginning, I met resistance from the Salvadorian pilots who were not sure of the safety of the choppers flying at a low altitude. While low-altitude flights are within range of anti aircraft fire, the high speed of the helicopters minimized civilian casualties and the risks of being hit.
"To prove my concept, I began to fly the Huges 500 into guerrilla areas, with a UH-1H as a back-up gunship. We went to the area of Cerros de San Pedro, where we had intelligence of guerrilla movements. We made contact with the guerrillas and killed seven of them, including one that attracted my attention by carrying a bright blue backpack. There was one person in the group with a camouflage hat and M-16 rifle that wanted to hide. I shot with my M-16 until the soldier fell. I ordered my pilot to set down. I wanted to pick up the backpacks of the guerrillas lying on the ground. I was about to reach a body when I saw a guerilla with a rifle aimed at me. I had to shoot him down with my own M-16. A while later, when reinforcements came, we could see that the guerrilla I had wounded was a woman. She had been hit in the foot."
"We went back to Ilopango to search for the backpacks and found a wealth of information. The woman prisoner turned out to be Comandante Nidia Diaz. Her real name was Marta Valladares, the leader of the PRTC (Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers), soon the newspapers were carrying the story of the capture of Nidia Diaz by the air force. The capture of this Comandante opened the door for me with the Salvadorian pilots. The capture of Nidia Diaz was good for publicity and morale. More important, the capture of documents from the backpacks provided the Salvadorian Armed Forces with a mine of information."
"I was in El Salvador flying helicopter missions. And on more than 15 times over about one hundred missions I was hit by enemy fire. On September 29, I received a letter from Oliver North. The letter had a heading in capital letters that said: AFTER READING THIS LETTER PLEASE DESTROY IT. North asked me to become his liaison for maintenance and re-supply between the Salvador government and his Enterprise."
"While Ollie North had many virtues, he had a lamentable tendency to conceive grandiose plans and ideas. Even though I never got to know him well, he was naive, sometimes, in his selection of associates. He brought into the operation retired Air Force General Richard Secord and a "businessman," Albert Hakim, who had a penchant for shady deals."
"These two men did considerable damage to everybody involved in the contra effort. It didn't take me long to find out the kind of associates I had in the "Enterprise." Airplanes lacking instruments and maintenance, defective or unreliable war materials were sent by Secord. Pilots began to complain immediately. I brought the matter to the attention of Ollie, but apparently he didn't remedy the situation."
"During the Iran-Contra hearings on Capitol Hill, I heard many things about Secord and Hakim that confirmed the bad opinion I had of them. In a struggle where many people fought and died believing in ideals, there were others who saw in this war an opportunity to enrich themselves."
After the Hasenfuss incident, Felix encountered a different theater of operations and different players. Business suits had replaced battle uniforms and the marching orders came from attorneys whispering in your ear. The congressmen of the Select Committee were well-informed and sophisticated questioners and listeners. They were looking for the truth and didn't stop until they were satisfied with the answers of those summoned to testify. "However, I found that some congressmen in this inquiry were more interested in partisan issues than in the truth."
Felix learned a good lesson about honesty, integrity and loyalty on May 27, 1987. Men who were his associates in the "Enterprise" gave versions of past events according to their personal interests - not the truth. Some of their versions of events were damaging to him. Felix testified openly without the help of attorneys. He was grilled with question after question. Finally, his testimony ended and he returned to the house in Georgetown where he was staying.
Alone in his room, he thought about his life. He had anticipated hard questions from the enemy if he were captured, and always had answers ready. He knew that the enemy had to be misled or lied to, since those were the rules of engagement. But he never anticipated a hearing in the Capitol. Washington was the capital of the country he loved. Capitol Hill was the center of the democracy he had risked his life for many times. And this time, men he respected and admired for being the leaders of the country were asking questions in a hostile manner, as if he, Felix was their enemy. He couldn't anticipate the outcome of the hearings, but he could sleep in peace: he had told the truth, nothing but the truth.
Felix went back to El Salvador to fly with the air force. In the meantime, the hearings continued in Washington. By the end of June, his wife, Rosa, called from Miami to say that The Miami Herald carried a story accusing him of soliciting $10 million in drug money for the Contras. The accusation came from Ramon Milian Rodriguez, a convicted drug figure in the employ of a Colombia cartel. (8)
The subcommittee that heard Milian Rodriguez was the one on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations headed by Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Senator Kerry was a Vietnam veteran and antiwar activist. Kerry, a millionaire, became a liberal exponent of left-wing ideas. His subcommittee had subpoenaed me to testify about the Milian Rodriguez testimony.
What about your connection with drug money launderer Milian Rodriguez?
"At the time, 1987, U.S. left-wing groups had made accusations that those helping the Contras were trafficking in drugs. Milian Rodriguez had been accused of laundering of money for the Colombia cartel. Once, he contacted me through a friend to say that he had information that would compromise the Sandinista government in the drug trade. He claimed also that he had information about involvement of Panamanian General Manuel Noriega in the drug business. Rodriguez told me that he would like to work with the government to avoid going to jail. I passed the information to a friend in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and to another friend in the CIA and continued my business in El Salvador. Little did I know that this contact with Milian Rodriguez would lead to Capitol Hill." (9)
Felix testified before the subcommittee chaired by Senator Kerry in August 1987, and denied the accusation of Milian Rodriguez. Senator Kerry and Felix got into a heated argument during the hearing. The staff of the subcommittee may have leaked to the press the testimony of Milian Rodriguez because it became public. After almost a year of battle between Felix and Kerry, the subcommittee hired a polygraph expert to interview Milian Rodriguez. Milian Rodriguez failed the lie detector test and Senator Kerry admitted that the testimony of this witness was not truthful.
Many stories have been written about the drug trade in the Contra war. It is impossible to determine the validity of each one. We have to assume that some accounts of drug trafficking are true. It is impossible to police the whole area in conflict. Also, in a war of eight years many persons with different backgrounds and motivations were involved.
The accusations of involvement of the Contras in the drug trade up to now was never proved. It can be said that the leaders of the contending factions did not approve or condone this trade. The main accusations against the Contras and Sandinistas were made by Milian Rodriguez at the subcommittee of the Senate presided by Senator Kerry. This character had no credibility, did not pass lie detector tests on the subject, and at the end the Senate discarded his accusations.
The other person who wrote about drug traffic by the Contras, CIA and others was the journalist Gary Webb. He wrote that the crack cocaine that invaded the country was the product of a CIA conspiracy against the black segment of our population. In a series of articles published in the San Jose Mercury News, Webb charged that the Contras and the CIA were the biggest drug traffickers in the country. The CIA denied the charges and asked Webb to prove the accusations. He didn't. Webb lost credibility when, after an investigation by his own newspaper, his writings were repudiated.
On the other hand, Felix absolutely denies that illegal drug operations took place in the area he supervised. Moreover, he told me that while in El Salvador he never heard of consumption of drugs.
How much money did the Salvadorian government pay you?
"I did not receive payment for my services. (10) The Salvadorian Air Force provided me with room and a friend paid for my meals. I came to and from the U.S. in a military transport plane from El Salvador. I am an officer retired from the CIA. That is enough compensation."
The Contra war in Nicaragua had a general strategy to tire and wear down the enemy. The Sandinista armed forces had to fight on different fronts, and suffered many casualties: mainly wounded. The hospitals of the country, especially in the capital of Managua, were insufficient to treat the wounded soldiers. In spite their Cuban trainers, the Sandinistas were beaten at their own game: guerrilla warfare.
It cannot be said that the Contras had all the equipment and supplies they needed. However, they engaged the opponents in an effective manner. On the other hand, the Sandinistas were unsuccessful in recruiting and keeping a fighting army together. They received enough war material from Cuba but morale could not be imported. In the end, they were forced to go to the negotiation table and to call for free elections. The result of the elections was a big defeat for the aspiring totalitarian regime. Nicaragua is a free country now.
Felix lives in Miami in retirement. (11) Nidia Diaz is a member of the Salvadorian Congress. I ignore what became of Eugene Hasenfuss. General Jose Abrantes was imprisoned by Castro in 1989 and died in jail. (12)
May 27th, 2000
1. At the beginning of the revolution, in the firsts days of January 1959, Fidel had to mend some fences among his allies. He met in the city of Cienfuegos with Comandante Lazaro Asencio and asked him to restore the piece between Che Guevara and other Comandantes of the Escambray mountains. Fidel wanted to know the causes of the rift. Asencio told him that Guevara was very arrogant. Fidel answered: these foreigners create many problems. As soon I have an opportunity I will send Che to the Dominican Republic and see if he is killed there.
2. For a detailed description of the capture and death of Che Guevara see Shadow Warrior, by Felix Rodriguez and John Weisman, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
3. It was Havana Radio who broke the news about Hasenfuss's plane being shot down and taken prisoner.
4. The name stands for General Máximo Gómez the military head of the Cuban rebel army in the war of independence (1895-1898)against Spain.
5. William J. Casey ( March 13, 1913-May 6, 1987) was the man with more knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair, but he never revealed what he knew. He suffered from a brain tumor and was in a hospital since December 15, 1986 when he suffered a stroke.
6. Felix Rodriguez was not working for the CIA, he has retired from this agency in 1976. He told the author he had never met Bill Casey.
7. In December 1983 the Boland Amendment was enacted as part of the Defense Appropriations Bill which prohibited the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Defense from spending money to overthrow the Sandinista Government of Nicaragua.
8. On June 26, 1987, Ramon Milian Rodriguez accused Felix Rodriguez of soliciting $10 million for the Contras. These accusations were made before the Senate Committee Report on Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy chaired by Senator John F. Kerry. Chapter XI Ramon Milian Rodriguez and Felix Rodriguez.
9. Selections from the Senate Committee Report on Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy chaired by Senator John F. Kerry. Chapter XI Ramon Milian Rodriguez and Felix Rodriguez.
10. Felix Rodriguez was flying helicopters in El Salvador from 1985-1989. He estimates that he flew more than 600 combat missions. And, including Vietnam a total of more than 2,000 hours of combat missions.
11. Felix ended his intelligence and military career with many decorations: Intelligence Star for Valor (CIA), Medal for Civilian Service in Vietnam (USA), Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star (South Vietnam), Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star (South Vietnam), Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star (South Vietnam), Naval Medal of Honor (South Vietnam), Gold Medal of Honor 1st Army Corp. (Argentina).
12. General Jose Abrantes was sentenced to 20 years in jail in 1989 for "not revealing Castro the truth" in "General Arnaldo Ochoa Affair," he died, according to Cuban sources, of a heart attack in prison.