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The Return of an Old Cold Warrior : Since he was exiled from Cuba in 1960, Tony Cuesta has waged his own war to overthrow Castro. From his base in Miami, he claims to have launched 33 raids on his homeland. Now, after years of silence, he says he set up the ill-fated January mission that served notice that this aging provocateur is ready to fight again.

March 22, 1992|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The old man is blind, his left arm is a gnarled stump, and shrapnel wounds scar his belly. After 32 years of la causa , he lives in a dark, little apartment by the Miami River, while Fidel Castro--a man he once tried to kill--still rules Cuba with an iron fist.

But Tony Cuesta has just begun to fight.

"Some people think I'm forgotten," he snaps, jabbing at the air with his stump. "They should read the newspapers."

Jan. 6, 1992: The Cuban government announces the capture of three anti-Castro guerrillas who were trying to infiltrate Havana on a small rubber raft. After convicting them of terrorism and sabotage, military officials execute one commando and sentence the others to 30-year prison terms.

In Miami's huge Cuban-American community, there is much talk about the doomed raid, but even more about Cuesta, an aging provocateur who has seemingly come out of retirement to strut on center stage. At a dramatic news conference, the former Havana businessman reveals that he organized the mission and vows to launch more clandestine raids until Cuba is liberated.

It was a gritty performance by Cuesta, who is perhaps the best known of the Cuban commandos still waging a private war against Castro. More than 30 years after the Bay of Pigs, he and other die-hards continue plans for a day of reckoning with Castro. Some stage war games in the Everglades, plotting mock attacks. Others, like Cuesta, launch speedboat raids from the shadowy docks and marinas of South Florida, hoping to trigger a revolt in Cuba.

Brash, secretive and supremely confident, they angrily deny that time has passed them by. And no one reflects their cockiness better than Cuesta, a tall, bearded guerrilla leader who is under FBI scrutiny for his most recent exploit. He claims to have organized 33 raids against Cuba since 1960.

"I think Castro is closer to the end now," says Cuesta. "But we need to match up people in exile and people in Cuba for the final uprising to bring justice. I believe we commandos can be the detonator of that charge."

Here in Miami, where talk radio crackles with the intrigue and melodrama of Cuban politics, fiery words like Cuesta's are routine. They're heard constantly in a town where callers spout florid denunciations of Castro and fill the airwaves with wild rumors of his impending death.

But it's not every day that a fading folk hero of the Cuban resistance shakes off the cobwebs and sparks an international incident. The Dec. 29 raid put Cuesta back on the map, triggering criticism from State Department officials, Cuban human rights activists and some prominent Cuban-Americans. All said the mission was counterproductive, because it strengthened Castro's hand at a time when his country is plagued with unrest and economic turmoil.

A few critics complained that Cuesta was too coy about the raid, revealing only that it was designed to cause a "commotion" inside Cuba. Although he planned the mission with a secret group called Commandos L, the one-armed man said it was carried out by an organization called April 19.

"Good luck to the FBI agents trying to sort out the details," wrote one local columnist.

Yet the mission struck a different chord in the bars and cafes of Miami's Little Havana, where many of Florida's 850,000 Cubans live. There, old-timers lifted a glass to Cuesta and toasted the warrior who had lost his eyes and arm in a 1966 mission against Castro. Years later, he was coming back for more.

"A lot of people may not agree with everything he did," says Emilio Milian, a prominent Cuban-American radio commentator. "But when I do my show, I never hear people say really bad things about Tony Cuesta. Other people get criticized, not Tony. Down here, they genuinely like this man."

It's hard not to. Inviting a visitor into his small study, Cuesta speaks rapidly and intensely, happy to tell his story. He's quick-witted, amiable and speaks with a thick accent. He promises full cooperation, but some questions clearly rankle. Asked why a blind man pushing 70 doesn't walk away from a losing battle, Cuesta shakes his stump as if to banish the thought.

"It is impossible for me to retire," he says. "It may sound strange to average people, but if you want to fight for your country, after you pass the first five years, you become some kind of cool fanatic."

A cool fanatic. There's no better way to describe Cuesta, who claims without a trace of irony that victory over Castro is just around the corner.

Some may laugh at a man who sends three commandos to Cuba on a raft, but Cuesta has heard it all before. In the days after the raid, for example, he was criticized by Maria Gonzales, mother of the guerrilla whom Castro executed. Cuesta's response was calm and controlled, a perfect TV sound bite.

"I would never argue with the pain of a mother," he told reporters. "But her children acted in a patriotic, legitimate, voluntary manner."

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