Bernardo Benes had one prime motive when he convinced Robert M. Levine, UM’s dean of Latin American Studies to pen his story.
“I wanted my grandchildren to know who their grandfather was, what he did and why he did it,” said Benes.
Several hundred hours of rigorous interviewing, along with research that exhausted sources and resources in both South Florida and Washington D.C. gave birth to Secret Missions to Cuba.
Levine’s latest novel depicts the tale of a prominent Cuban-born attorney-based on Benes-turned pariah by fellow exiles who condemned his efforts to iron out differences between Havana and the United States.
There have been some suspicious events surrounding the Miami release of Secret Missions to Cuba.
A few days before the novel hit the stands, Benes left a meeting in downtown Miami to find an empty spot where he had parked his automobile a few hours earlier.
Police told him the car was probably on a container, via Haiti, a seemingly popular modality in car theft.
Much to his surprise, Benes received a phone call from the same officer that had speculated on his car’s fate, reporting that the vehicle had been found untouched.
The papers he carried in the truck -some of the vital documents published in the book- were still there.
One week later, Dr. Levine’s briefcase, which also contained material relevant to the research for the novel, was stolen from a building a building on campus while he attended a meeting.
Boarders bookstore in Coconut Grove decided against sponsoring a meet-the-author event, claiming the subject was “too controversial for this community,” according to Benes, quoting the manager he spoke to.
Staffers at Barnes and Nobles in Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, told Levine someone had sliced the same page containing a photograph of a Cuban official from several copies on display from the books in stock.
Levine’s feeling on the reaction the book has received ?
“Silent, might be the best way to put it,” he said.
In Secret Missions to Cuba, Levine unveils startling revelations such as a series of meetings Cuban officials held with unofficial, yet US-sponsored diplomats that sought to ease the embargo during the Reagan and Carter administration.
The price Havana was asked to pay was a commitment to halt exporting the revolution to fellow Latin American nations during the years when the word communism seemed to pose a threat to national security in itself.
Starting in 1977, Benes made some 75 trips to the island and spent approximately 150 hours with Castro, according to Levin’s accounts.
Although the embargo stayed put, and the revolution did indeed spill over to other countries, Benes struck an agreement in 1978 that freed 3,600 political prisoners and swayed policy to allow exiled relatives to visit family members in Cuba.
Although these achievements were arguably the only two pieces of good news for Cuban Americans in the realm of U.S.-Cuban foreign relations, Benes received little credit for his deeds.
He was not only the target of slurs and threats by individuals that accused him of being a traitor and a communist who got too friendly with Castro, but his bank got picketed and bombed.
More than an appraisal of Benes’ life, Secret Missions to Cuba tells the story of the mishaps Cuban Americans incurred while sprouting roots in South Florida.
In the words of Levine: “His (Benes) story provides a cautionary tale: people who take risks in a charged atmosphere run the risk of falling victim to the emotional climate, especially when that climate encompasses rage and hate.”
This story is by no means over.
The day Al Gore announced his pick running mate, vice presidential candidate Joe Leiberman, the director of Radio MambI, Armando PErez-Roura urged his listeners not to vote for Liberman since “he is a Jew, just like Bernardo Benes, who seeks to dialogue with Castro,” according to Levine.
“Many people still speak or act out of fear,” he said. “That said, the response I have received from those who actually read the book has been overwhelmingly positive,” he added.