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The Shadow Warrior.

Memoirs of the Man the White House Said Didn't Exist

It was to be one of the last flights of Oliver North's little air force of broken-down planes and burnt-out pilots. After skirting Nicaragua's west coast, the C-123 cargo plane sliced inland over Costa Rica's rugged jungles and up into Nicaragua. There, on October 5, 1986, a sleepy Sunday morning, a teenage Sandinista draftee aimed a surface-to-air missile at the plane, fired, and watched mesmerized as the missile found its target. As the doomed plane spun wildly out of control, an umemployed Wisconsin construction worker and onetime CIA cargo handler named Eugene Hasenfus, struggled to open cargo door, pushed himself clear, and parachuted safely to earth, the only survivor of the four-person crew.

One of the first names out of Hasenfus's mouth when he was brought before the international press in Managua three days later was "Max Gomez." Hasenfus identified "Gomez" as the CIA man running the secret air force from El Salvador and a personal associate of Vice President George Bush. Hasenfus's claims, of course, were heatedly denied by the White House, but the alleged roles of the CIA and Bush in North's contra operation remain to this day two of the most frustrating loose ends of the Iran-contra scandal.

A key to unlocking those mysteries would be "Max Gomez," whose real name, it turned out, is Felix Rodriguez, if only this Cuban exile and former CIA officer ever really told his story. In this autobiography (*1), Rodriguez offers much less than that. The book, modestly subtitled "The CIA Hero of a Hundred Unknown Battles," sticks to the now familiar refrain of implausible ignorance that Bush and his advisers have been reciting for three years. In pulp-novel style, the book gives Rodriguez's personal recollection of his CIA adventures, including the execution of Ernesto "Che" Guevara after the legendary Latin revolutionary was captured in Bolivia in 1967. Other chapters are devoted to his unsuccessful efforts to organize uprisings against Castro--which were to coincide with the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion--and his later work with the CIA in Vietnam.

The problem with the Iran-contra affair in general--and Bush's participation in particular--is that the truth seems to have gotten so wrapped up in plausible deniability that neither the press nor Congress has had the patience to sort out the facts. Simply by stone-walling and delaying, the administration guaranteed that the public would quickly grow bored and the story would disappear from the front pages. Indeed, if it hadn't been for the Sandinista soldier's lucky aim, the American people might have been kept happily ignorant for years about how the nation's foreign policy was really being run during the Reagan era.

Even after the Hasenfus shootdown, the Reagan administration, grown cocky from its long and easy manipulation of the press, continued to issue glaringly false stories. In a classic display of the administration's arrogance, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams even disputed the existence of "Max Gomez." On a CNN cable news show, Abrams told columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that "I can say first of all there's no Max Gomez." It was one of those narrowly constructed statements that must have thrilled Abrams, who has embraced deceit like a kind of secular religion. As a measure of how easily the press could be gulled, however, the two battle-tested columnists swallowed Abrams's story whole. "I've seen a lot of cover-ups in this town, Rowland," Novak sagely noted. "But this doesn't look like a cover-up, and it doesn't because there's no equivocation. . . . The so-called Max Gomez, the CIA operative, supposedly hired by the CIA or Vice President Bush, doesn't even exist."

But "Max Gomez"--or Felix Rodriguez--did exist. He was an anti-Castro Cuban exile, a dedicated veteran of the CIA's globe-straddling wars against communism, and a man who indeed had met personally with George Bush. Rodriguez was also close friends with Donald Gregg, who had been one of his CIA superiors in Vietnam and then was Vice President Bush's national security adviser. Gregg had helped place Rodriguez in El Salvador and talked to him frequently by phone while the Cuban exile was managing the air resupply operation. But in the fall of 1986, when confronted by reporters asking if he had discussed the contras with Rodriguez, Gregg denied falsely that he had. (Gregg later acknowledged discussing the contras with Rodriguez on August 8, 1986, but insisted that he had been kept in the dark before then, and, even after learning the truth, withheld the information from his boss, the vice president.)

Rodriguez's book does add some tantalizing new clues about his role in the Iran-contra affair. For instance, Rodriguez says he worked with the Argentine military in 1980-81, showing them "how to set up intelligence networks in Central America that kept a close watch on events without attracting unwanted attention." Although Rodriguez provides no details about his activities (and refused to be interviewed for this article), the Argentine military's principal operation was establishing the contra army. The Argentine intelligence services were fresh from their "dirty war" of disappearances against homegrown leftists and had just overtly overthrown the elected government of Bolivia. Their international war against communism next took them to Central America, where they were widely suspected of training death squads, including one within the contra army, which eventually provoked protests from the CIA. Also during this time, the Argentines sent a group of contras to stage a machine-gun and grenade attack on a leftist radio station in Costa Rica, according to the group's leader, Hugo Villagra. After the raid, the contras were jailed but later released when contra colleagues hijacked a Costa Rican-bound airliner.

Rodriguez is tight-lipped about what he did after his stint with the Argentines, beyond acknowledging that "I spent a fair amount of time traveling through Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica." A more comprehensive explanation of that time frame is vital to evaluating Rodriguez's later claim that he wasn't recruited by North to help the contras militarily until September 1985. A variety of sources have linked Rodriguez to early arms shipments to the contras, and some participants claim Bush's office played an early organizing role in the secret network that followed a congressional ban on CIA assistance in 1984. General Paul Gorman, from his view as head of the Southern Command in Panama, clearly doubted Rodridguez's claim to be only an adviser to helicopter-borne Salvadoran counterinsurgency forces. In a February 8, 1985 cable, Gorman said, "Ollie [North] assures me it was his intention to focus Rodriguez on forces operating elsewhere in [Central America]." Naturally, Rodriguez insists that Gorman didn't know what he was talking about.

Asked about the sketchy accounts of his Central American work in the early 1980s, Rodriguez's co-author Weisman acknowledged that Rodriguez had chosen to leave out many of the details. "It's like all autobiographies," Weisman said. "It is selective in some areas."

Another intriguing tidbit is Rodriguez's disclosure that in early 1986 he told Rudolph Enders, a former CIA superior from Vietnam days, "in vague terms about the North operation" and its corrupt arms dealers. Enders had just wrapped up a tour as head of the CIA's paramilitary forces, where he directly oversaw the helicopter attacks and mining of Nicaragua's harbors. But like Rodriguez, he claims to have kept his mouth shut. In an interview, Enders said he did not take Rodriguez's allegations of criminal wrongdoing to his agency superiors because "he didn't approach me as a CIA employee, but as a friend." Enders said he advised Rodriguez to take his complaints to Gregg, not because Enders thought Gregg was involved with the contra program but simply because "Don was the only one I knew" at the White House.

Rodriguez insists that he rejected Ender's advice at the time and continued keeping Gregg in the dark. Why Enders did not pass the explosive information on to his good friend Gregg or to his CIA superiors is another one of the hard-to-believe elements of this take-it-on-faith cover story.

Shortly after Rodriguez's discussion with Enders, memos were prepared for a May 1, 1986, meeting between Bush and Rodriguez that list one expected topic as "resupply of the contras." Gregg himself has struggled to explain that contra reference, which directly undercuts the Bush office's claim of total ignorance about Rodriguez's contra activities. Initially, Gregg admitted that the planning memos "baffled" him, but in confirmation hearings on his nomination to be ambassador to South Korea this spring, he suggested that a secretary might have just mistakenly typed "resupply of the contras" when she had actually been told "resupply of the copters" because Rodriguez had been flying counter-insurgency helicopter missions in El Salvador. The New York Times reacted to this preposterous explanation with a derisive editorial headlined "The Iran-Copter Affair."

Despite the implausibility of Gregg's explanations, the Senate, eager to move past the Iran-contra unpleasantness, approved his nomination last September. However, before the vote, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell argued against Gregg's nomination, contending that the ex-CIA man either lied or showed remarkable incompetence. "Mr. Gregg's failure to recognize the significance of Rodriguez's and North's activities in the resupply of the contras during a period when such activities were prohibited by law is alarming," said Mithcell. In many ways, Rodriguez is an Ollie North with a Cuban accent. Short, stocky, and peacock-proud, Rodriguez is a complex man who, like North, has a certainty in his life's mission that is both attractive and troubling in the moral netherworld of the 20th century. While most of us cope with a world clouded in the grays of moral ambiguity, Rodriguez sees only the black-and-white struggle against communist evil. "For us, the fight against Castro was an all-consuming passion," he writes. "It was a holy war, a crusade." He would continue that crusade even after retiring from the CIA in 1976 because of a bad back. Paid full-salary disability, Rodriguez would spend many of the next 13 years working closely with the CIA and international arms dealers on activities that paralleled U.S. intelligence interests.

Rodriguez recalls life before Castro as a kind of bucolic paradise. Born in 1941, he grew up as the only child in a middle-class family, which had some social ties to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who is depicted as a not-that-bad caudillo. Like many Cuban exiles, Rodriguez views even mundane political events through the prism of his emotional ties to his lost homeland. Moved by Bush's inauguration, Rodriguez says he harkened back to those magical prerevolutionary days in Cuba. "My mind's eye revisited Uncle Felix Claudio Mendigutia's farm, where I spent summer vacations as a child and ran down to the barns in the morning to splash milk fresh from the cows into my thick, sweet coffee," he writes.

But whatever homespun values guide Rodriguez's life, they are distressingly tolerant of brutality and even terrorism when directed against the communist enemy. One of the anecdotes recounted in the book is the story of how Dominican peasants took literally dictator Trujillo's offer of $1,000 a head for an estimated 250 bearded Cuban guerrillas who had sought to carry their revolution to that neighboring island. "So farmers started showing up at Dominican army posts with burlap bags of bearded heads to collect their rewards," Rodriguez writes. "And Trujillo ended up paying a lot more than $250,000--because a lot more bearded heads were turning up than there were Cuban invaders. There were't, we joked, very many Cubans left for the [anti-Castro] Legion to fight against."

Although claiming to oppose terrorism, Rodriguez defends a fellow CIA-trained Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, who escaped in 1985 from a Venezuelan prison where he had been jailed for masterminding the 1976 mid-air bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner that killed 73 people. According to former FBI agent Carter Cornick, the evidence against Posada and three others charged with the crime was overwhelming. "They were all in it up to their damn eyeballs," Cornick said in a recent interview. The evidence included confessions by the two men who placed the bomb on the plane that directly implicated Posada and another Cuban exile, Orlando Bosch. In Posada's office police also found Cubana Airline flight schedules and diagrams of targets throughout Latin America that had recently been bombed.

In Shadow Warrior, however, Posada is portrayed as an innocent scapegoat who crossed a vengeful politician, Carlos Andres Perez, Venezuela's president both then and now. While working for the Venezuelan secret police, DISIP, Posada obtained "some juicy tapes" of Andres Perez "engaging in an animated, X-rated conversation with his girlfriend," Rodriguez asserts, and the president simply "was determined to get revenge." Without assessing any of the evidence against Posada, Rodriguez dismisses the allegations as unfounded and thereby justifies hiring the fugitive terrorist to work as his assistant on North's contra resupply operation in 1985. Posada was put in charge of distributing weapons and other supplies.

Rodriguez devotes long passages to justifying the execution of fabled Latin revolutionary "Che" Guevara. Rodriguez clearly sees this moment as the high point of his CIA career, even though he claims the agency wanted the captured guerrilla leader brought back alive from the jungles of Bolivia. The Che segments of the book are written with an almost surreal quality, with Rodriguez detailing the trophies--a Rolex watch and smoking tobacco--taken from his dead enemy. Indeed, the book opens with Rodriguez in a helicopter that has Che's body strapped to one of the skids. "On my wrist was his steel Rolex GMT Master with its red-and-blue bezel," Rodriguez recounts. "In my breast pocket, wrapped in paper from my loose-leaf notebook, was the partially smoked tobacco from his last pipe. There were stains on the army fatigue trousers I was wearing--Che's blood caked dark against the khaki-green material. It was October 9, 1967, 2:15 p.m. local time, and it was as if I were in the middle of a dream. Except it wasn't a dream. The chopper was real. The blood was real. Che Guevara was dead."

An Argentine national, Che saw himself as an internationalist revolutionary who left Cuba after Castro's victory to create "one, two, many Vietnams" in Africa and South America. Che had a special place in the hearts of romantic leftists around the world--and a different spot in the hearts of Cuban exiles. Next to Castro, Che was the greatest prize for the Cuban exiles and the CIA.

In the over-heated rhetoric of Shadow Warrior, Rodriguez tries to elevate himself to Che's historic level. Sent to Bolivia by the CIA to help train troops to counter Che's latest guerrilla adventure, Rodriguez excitedly flies to the scene of Che's capture. In a mudbricks schoolhouse at La Higuera, Che lies dirty, bound on the floor, his leg wound oozing blood. Rodriguez says the Bolivians are adamant that Che must be killed but leave the details up to him, even offering Rodriguez the honor of pulling the trigger. But according to Rodriguez's bizarre account of Che's last hours, the CIA-trained Cuban exile and his longtime nemesis become something like friends.

Rodriguez quotes himself as telling Che, "Commander, I didn't come to interrogate you. Our ideals are different. But I admire you. You usd to be a minister of state in Cuba. Now look at you--you are like this because you believe in your ideals. I have come to talk to you. . . . He looked at me for some seconds, wondering whether I was being sincere. He must have been a good judge of men because he realized I was speaking from the heart." As other Cuban captives are executed nearby, Rodriguez and Che chat. "We talked for a long time--not about strategic matters but about Cuba, and communism, and about our different philosophies of life," Rodriguez writes.

Rodriguez says he personally gave the order to kill Che--but not before a couple of warm embraces between countrymen. "It was a tremendously emotional moment for me," Rodriguez says. "I no longer hated him. His moment of truth had come, and he was conducting himself like a man. He was facing death with courage and grace." Rodriguez then turns the job over to a soldier, Mario Teran, "whose face shone as if he had been drinking." As Rodriguez walked up a hill taken notes, he heard the shots. He later gave Che's pipe to Teran "so you will remember your great deed." As his own memento, Rodriguez has often displayed Che's Rolex watch, which he has claimed in the past was a gift from the guerrilla leader before his death, as a gesture of respect. But in the book, Rodriguez offers a different account. Rodriguez said a Bolivian soldier had removed the watch from Che's wrist, but the quick-thinking CIA man took the watch from the soldier, turned around and quickly switched the straps with the one on his own Rolex and handed the Bolivian his timepiece, keeping Che's for himself.

Apparently to explain the signs of torture on Che's body later described by Bolivian military officials, Rodriguez says he caught a Bolivian soldier striking Che's body with a stick. "He had reason to be bitter," Rodriguez says of the soldier. "He'd suffered casualties at the hands of Che's guerrilla band. Still, I saw no reason to desecrate Che's corpse. After they left, I called a soldier to bring me a pail of water. I took it and with my own hands, cleaned Che's face, closed his eyes, and tried to close his jaw."

Another big moment in Rodriguez's lifelong struggle against Fidel Castro was the Bay of Pigs, but ironically, Rodriguez did next to nothing during the invasion. On CIA orders, Rodriguez infiltrated Cuba in early 1961 to prepare for what he and the CIA expected would be a popular insurrection coinciding with the invasion. He found Castro's Cuba not an ironclad police state but a loosely run society where people seemed free to criticize Castro for his faults. Rodriguez recounts how he and a friend picked up two women at a bar and spent the night hearing them denounce the new dictator. But when the CIA-backed invaders reached the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, the infiltrators discovered little support and were quickly rounded up.

On the morning of the invasion, this "CIA hero of a hundred unknown battles" went to church for communion and then returned to his apartment where he stayed for the next three days, occasionally watching television broadcasts of his colleagues' capture. He then fled to the Venezuelan embassy and was returned

to the United States, having survived the Bay of Pigs fiasco without firing a shot.

Rodriguez's "holy war" against Castro, however, was far from over. He joined CIA-sponsored sabotage teams that continued hit-and-run attacks on Castro's island. But as Castro tightened security, the infiltrators faced greater and greater danger. Most were captured or killed soon after their clandestine landing. Increasingly, the anti-Castro Cubans hit softer targets in acts that might be called terrorism.

In one botched operation, a planned landing was scratched in favor of an attack on what the infiltrators thought was a Cuban freighter, the Sierra Maestra. They contacted Rodriguez for permission to fire on the ship. Rodriguez says that, unable to locate his superior, he authorized the attack, only to find out later that the ship actually was the Sierra Aranzazu, a Spanish freighter. The attack with a recoilless rifle and machine guns killed the captain, wounded many of his crew, and set the ship on fire.

The killing of the captain of the Sierra Aranzazu would come to symbolize the clumsy violence that has been substituted too often for American foreign policy in Latin America. The attack was a precedent for later freelance Cuban terrorism and not that different from the Nicaragua harbor mining, which earned the United States the censure of the World Court. But to Rodriguez and his fellow zealots, who insist they love freedom and democracy, violence inflicted on outsiders and innocents is simply part of the price that sometimes must be paid for prosecuting the "holy war" against communism.

(*1) The Shadow Warrior. Felix Rodriguez, John Weisman. Simon and Schuster, $ 19.95.

Robert Parry is a reporter at Newsweek. Brian Barger is a Washington writer.
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Article Details
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Author:Barger, Brian
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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