A story citing portions of my recent interview with Guillermo Novo appears on several Cuban websites. That version, posted here, contains some conclusions and characterizations that I did not make.
The full story is below in case there is any confusion or misunderstanding about what I wrote. My goal is to tell this story in a straightforward, factual way, using as sources the taped interview with Novo, court documents and declassified memos, most of which I found at this excellent website about Novo and others who have fought against Cuba's socialist government.
By Tracey Eaton
Most Cubans have turned into “zombies” and are no longer willing to sacrifice their lives in the fight to topple the socialist government, said the former leader of a Cuban nationalist group.
“You don’t win your homeland by talking,” Guillermo Novo said. “The United States didn’t gain independence by talking to England. People fought. It’s the only way for people to become independent.”
Novo, 65, of Miami, led the Cuban Nationalist Movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. He has been linked to a string of high-profile incidents, including a 1964 bazooka attack at the United Nations in New York, the 1976 car-bomb murder of a former Chilean ambassador and a November 2000 assassination plot against Fidel Castro in Panama.
While Novo was in custody in Panama, Cuban authorities requested his extradition and accused him of plotting to kill Castro in 1997, 1998 and 2000.
In an interview with CubaNews, Novo did not admit involvement in any attempts to murder Castro. But he said he had no regrets about choosing confrontation over negotiation.
“I continue to think that that is the way…Maybe I wouldn’t do some things in the same way that I did. But I don’t take anything back.”
Novo said he’s disappointed that no one has managed to kill Castro and other leaders of the revolution by now.
“They should have been violently executed by the Cuban people because that’s the only way to pay for treason. I feel bad because we’re going to go into history as a people who put up with more than a half century” of socialism.
He sees the dissident movement in Cuba as weak.
“There’s no spirit of sacrifice – I die or I conquer my homeland.”
Dissidents “are somewhat confused,” he said. They live with “constant brain-washing and aren’t exposed to other ideas.”
As a result, he said. most dissidents aren’t radical enough. They continue trying to change the system from within, which suggests they agree with some aspects of socialism, he said. “But for me, nothing about the system has been good, not education, nothing.”
Novo does admire some opposition figures, including Jorge Luis García Pérez, nicknamed “Antúnez,” who spent more than 17 years in jail before his 2007 release.
But he believes most dissidents are too timid.
Novo also criticizes Barack Obama’s approach toward Cuba.
“I don’t think he’s looking out for the best interests of the United States. He doesn’t know how to deal with Cuba and the rest of the world.”
And Obama shouldn’t expect economic sanctions alone to force the Castro brothers from power, he said.
“I don’t think the blockade exists. It’s an embargo and it’s very mild.”
Novo is a controversial figure. Some researchers have linked him to Operation 40, described as a secret CIA assassination squad.
Novo was born in Cuba in 1944. His father, Ignacio, sold cosmetics for Max Factor & Co. in Havana.
Ignacio Novo’s parents moved to Cuba from Majorca, off the coast of Spain. The family settled into Marianao, southwest of Havana.
Tragedy struck in 1952, Guillermo Novo said.
“A neighboring family…had a small workshop. They made glue for shoe soles. Their son had increased the power of the boilers to show buyers the production capacity and the boilers exploded.”
Novo said his father, nicknamed Pipo, had been in the living room watching television.
“A mosquito bit one of my sisters and Pipo told her, ‘I’m going to get alcohol for the bite’ and he went toward the back of the house. The explosion happened when he was in the kitchen.”
The explosion killed Novo’s father. No one else was hurt.
“I was at my grandmother’s house. My brother told me, ‘Let’s go. Come with me.’ When we got there I saw the fire,” Novo said.
His mother took him and her four other children to the United States two years later.
“We had an uncle who had come to New York in the 1940s and my mother decided we’d have a better future if she brought us to the United States,” Novo said.
Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Early on, Novo supported the revolution. “I thought it would be good for Cuba.”
He said he began questioning the revolution in 1960 when its supporters seized the Diario de la Marina newspaper in Havana.
“I remember that impacted me. That fact and seeing that they were expropriating people’s businesses…people struggle and you get there and take their business. Forget the ‘revolution is for the people’ slogan.”
By 1961, Novo said he and his older brother Ignacio had joined the Cuban Nationalist Movement.
In 1964, someone fired a bazooka at the United Nations building in New York while Ernesto “Che” Guevara was inside. The shell missed its target, landing in the East River.
New York police arrested the Novo brothers, saying Guillermo Novo had bought the weapon at an Eighth Avenue shop for $35 and used it in the attack.
But the charges against the brothers were dropped because they were not properly advised of their rights, a 1979 FBI report said.
Ignacio Novo vowed to step up the fight against Fidel Castro. In 1968, he defended the bombings of government tourism offices that do business with Cuba. He also talked about executing “representatives of the Cuban government outside of Cuba.”
The FBI suspects that the Novo brothers were involved in killings and bombings into the 1970s.
In 1976, Ignacio Novo told an interviewer, “There have been ships blown up, Cuban property blown up, Cuban trade missions blow up…That kind of action.”
He also credited his group with assassinating Cuban ambassadors or agents.
“Yes, that is all we can do at the moment. That is our only road.”
In 1978, the FBI arrested and charged the brothers in connection with the murder of Orlando Letelier, a former diplomat and activist who supported Salvador Allende, Chile’s former Marxist president. Letelier’s assistant, Ronni Moffitt, was also killed.
In a March 23, 1979, statement, Guillermo Novo said:
“I have not committed any crime…any injustice. I had absolutely nothing to do with the death of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. We’ve been used as scapegoats in the Letelier case.”
U.S. officials wanted to discredit the Cuban Nationalist Movement, Novo said, because they planned to normalize relations with Cuba.
Guillermo Novo was convicted of murder and conspiracy charges in 1979. His lawyer appealed, saying some testimony against him had been improperly introduced. A jury agreed, reversing the conviction, but finding the Novo brothers guilty of lying to a grand jury.
Asked about these past troubles, Guillermo Novo said:
“I’ve broken the law and when you break the law of this country or any other and they catch you, then you’ve got to pay and that’s what I did.”
Novo said he certainly has no animosity toward the U.S.
“I love this country very much. I’m an American citizen. I’ve been in this country since I was 15. I’ve lived here practically my entire life.”
In 2000, Novo and three others – Luis Posada Carriles, Gaspar Jimenez and Pedro Remon – were accused of trying to assassinate Fidel Castro in Panama.
Police said they had planned to plant explosives at the University of Panama where Castro was speaking. Cuban security agents uncovered the plot and alerted Panamanian authorities. They captured the four men and seized a duffel bag containing 33 pounds of explosives.
Posada Carriles received an eight-year jail sentence. The others got seven years.
Two of Novo’s brothers – Ignacio and Reinaldo – died while Novo was in prison. “That was one of the most difficult moments of my life,” he said.
In August 2004, Mireyas Moscoso, then president of Panama, pardoned Novo and the other three men.
Novo returned to the U.S., where the FBI told him they believed Cuban agents were planning to kill him.
Novo displayed the business card that Special Agent Cesar Paz left at his Miami home in November 2004. It read: “Guillermo, please call this number. It’s a matter of great urgency.”
Novo’s friends feared for his life. They worried Cuban agents would try to hunt him down. They urged him to put iron bars on his windows and doors and stay inside his house.
Novo said he took some precautions, but figured there wasn’t much he could do, short of crawling inside an army tank – and he didn’t want to do that.
Later he heard that the FBI had picked up two Cuban suspects and deported them. Novo said he rested easier after that.
He continues hoping that the socialist government will fall. He said he doesn’t believe much has changed in the country even though Raul Castro has taken his older brother’s place.
“I don’t see any difference,” Novo said. “It’s the same. The power structure is the same.”
He remains friends with Posada Carriles, who is scheduled to go to trial on perjury and other charges in El Paso in January.
“He wears an ankle bracelet. He can’t leave Miami without permission,” Novo said. “I talked to him the other day. He has tremendous enthusiasm. He’s a cheerful fellow.”
Cuban officials accuse U.S. authorities of protecting Posada Carriles. Nova disputes that, saying American officials have hounded Posada Carriles.
“There’s nothing more they do to him. He hasn’t violated any laws here. He hasn’t done anything. The only thing they accuse him of now is lying to the FBI.”
Federal authorities accuse Posada Carriles of entering the U.S. illegally in 2005. He says he crossed at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Authorities say he entered Florida by boat with the help of friends.
Novo said he doesn’t believe Posada Carriles should be charged.
“How many Cubans come here illegally and get political asylum the next day?” he asked.
Some Cuban and U.S. officials believe that Posada Carriles helped plan a series of bombings of hotels in Havana in 1997.
An Italian tourist was killed in one of the bombings after fragments from an ashtray hit him.
“That poor man…had his jugular vein cut and bled to death and died,” Novo said. “But it seems that the intentions of the people who did it were to disrupt tourism in Cuba. I don’t think the intentions were to kill because if you’re going to kill, you put a bomb inside a restaurant at lunchtime. From what I’ve read, the bombs weren’t powerful enough to cause massive damage.”
He believes the attacks were only meant to make noise and create a mess.
Some investigators also link Posada Carriles to the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane that killed 73 people.
Novo said he doesn’t believe Posada Carriles had anything to do with it. Nor does Novo endorse killing civilians.
“I don’t agree with blowing up a plane full of civilians or putting a bomb in a movie theater or a school or on a bus or attacking innocent people. The things we’ve done, whether many or few, have all been direct targets - the enemy.”
Supporters of the Castro brothers are the enemy, Novo said, and he doesn’t believe they’ll give up power without a fight.
“Talking with them won’t resolve anything. Fidel Castro has never taken part in a dialogue with anyone in his life. It’s always ‘me, me, me.’ It’s their mentality. There’s nothing to negotiate.”