A Cold War Prisoner Swap Involving Cuba

Por Alcibiades Hidalgo* (Café Fuerte)

Sargent Papenfus (center), along with two Cuban soldiers before being exchanged for three Cuban prisoners in the hands of South Africa.

HAVANA TIMES — In March of 1989, South African Sargeant Johan Pepenfus was released from the same prison in Havana’s Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital where US citizen Alan Gross has been kept for five years this week, to be exchanged for three Cubans captured during the war in Angola.

Papenfus had been taken prisoner by Cuban troops on May 4, 1988 in Donguena, a remote place close to the Namibian border, when his Casspir troop-transportation vehicle, part of a 12-armored-vehicle column, was neutralized by an anti-tank missile. According to different testimonies, five Cuban and seven South African soldiers died in the clash, which cost the South Africans four vehicles. A day before, in London, representatives from South Africa, Angola and Cuba had begun negotiations, mediated by the United States, which would put an end to Cuba’s military presence in Africa and Pretoria’s domination of Namibia. I was Cuba’s spokesperson during this diplomatic process and, after an agreement had been arrived at, I supervised South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia next to UN forces.

Fidel Castro’s Orders

Wounded in his backside by machinegun-fire, Papenfus was urgently taken to Cuba to receive medical attention. Nothing of the sort had taken place in the course of the war in Angola before. The timely capture of a white South African soldier and the circumstances surrounding his wounding gave Cuba a card to play on the negotiations table.

“Bring him over immediately. We can’t trust the Angolans…,” Fidel Castro ordered a few days later, after going over the details of the upcoming talks in Cairo.

Bernardo Heredia (alias “Shogun”), the soldier who had fired his RPG7 and hit the legendary Casspir, the anti-mines vehicle designed by South Africa to control the plains, was declared a war hero. Johan Papenfus arrived in Cuba from Luanda, a strange mixture of VIP and POW, and transferred to the Wajay military base, a facility located some three kilometers from the main terminal of Havana’s International Airport, away from prying eyes.

Less than a year later, following heated negotiations in three different continents, when the war was about to end, the young South African sergeant climbed on board a well-guarded Soviet IL62 plane at a runway of that same airport. He was on his way back to Africa, accompanied by Cuban negotiators, to be traded for other prisoners of war.

A Derelict Spot

The exchange was to be made at the Angola-Namibia border, close to the town of Ruacana. On their side, the South Africans built a large grandstand to accommodate dozens of colonial officials, high-ranking officers and their wives, all dressed in their Sunday best, as though planning to attend a mass in the dusty highly remote location.

Following brief declarations by both sides, made under a scorching sun, the flimsy barrier was lifted and the prisoners crossed the border. Three Cuban soldiers handed over to South Africa by UNITA and fourteen Angolan officers, including a pilot, walked into Angolan territory, as Johan Papenfus headed towards his family. As the 17 men, nearly all black, crossed in front of a single white South African soldier, the people on the grandstand began to applaud.

Rodolfo Estevez Lantigua, Raul Estela Martell and Luis Milla Gonzalez, the only Cubans recognized as prisoners of war by the enemy, had been captured by UNITA forces under different circumstances. Lantigua, a tall mulatto man with an empty stare, who had forgotten how to Speak Spanish, had spent six years in captivity as a prisoner of Jonas Savimbi, who had had the fingers of both his hands broken as punishment for protesting about his mistreatment in prison.

Raul Castro, someone whose proven experience in the taking of hostages dates back to 1958, when he kidnapped a number of American citizens travelling down a road in Guantanamo, must have considered the similarities between Papenfus and Gross. His current Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, General Leopoldo Cintras Frias, was the Southern Troops Chief during the war in Angola, where the impeccable exchange of prisoners took place. What’s more, generals Abelardo Colome and Carlos Fernandez Gondin, today at the helm of the Ministry of the Interior that turned Gross into a scapegoat, where the ones who transported Papenfus to Cuba for medical attention, and took him back to Africa to be traded, as heads of Military Counterintelligence at the time.

Between Papenfus and Alan Gross

It is difficult to find other parallels between the cases of Johan Papenfus and Alan Gross. The South African, a professional military officer wounded and captured in the battlefield, was unequivocally a prisoner of war and treated as such. Gross, arrested in 2009 while returning to the United States after his fifth trip to the island (without ever having been interrogated by zealous Cuban Customs), is more a hostage taken as part of the political arm-wrestle between Washington and Havana.

The “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the State” for which he was convicted to fifteen years in prison on March 2011 consisted in delivering equipment for the setting up of Internet networks outside government control to Jewish communities in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey. The prosecution didn’t even try to demonstrate how the small Jewish institutions on the island, which had lived under a virtual siege since Fidel Castro broke relations with Israel in 1973, could have posed any threat to national security by connecting to the Internet.

According to documents presented by the prosecution, Cuba’s political police knew of the work carried out by Alan Gross since his first trip to the island in mid-2004, when he delivered a video camera and medications to a Masonic leader (who turned out to be a State Security agent and testified against him).

Since his imprisonment, Havana has asked for nothing less than three Cuban spies, convicted to long prison sentences in the United States, in exchange for Gross’ freedom. One of them, head of the espionage network and linked to the deaths of four people, is serving two life sentences, ratified following appeals to all competent courts. The White House has insisted on the unevenness of the trade and refused to negotiate for five years, the same amount of time Gross has been in prison, thwarting progress in US-Cuba relations. Any similarities to the Cold War are purely coincidental.

*Former Cuban Ambassador before the United Nations and ex-Chief of Staff under Raul Castro. Took part in the negotiations that ended the war in Angola. Deserted to the United States in 2002. This article was published by the Chilean newspaper La Tercera and republished by CafeFuerte with the author’s consent.

16 thoughts on “A Cold War Prisoner Swap Involving Cuba

  • August 24, 2018 at 3:21 am

    Hi does anyone know how i can get hold of Johan Papenfus because he was my roef in 101 Battalion and i left on 18 Dec 1987. Regards Soutie Ops Tiffie (Mark Robertson 101 Battalion from May 1986 to Dec 1987) please email me on: [email protected]

  • January 10, 2015 at 5:48 am

    I have often wondered what happened to Rodolfo Estevez Lantigua. I was a officer serving in the South African Military when he was held in Grootfontein shortly before the prisoner exchange. One of my fellow officers and I had developed a bond of sorts with Rudolfo . As he could not speak English we communicated through one of the Chilean officers who served as a translator. Shortly before he was to be exchanged we decided to take Rodolfo out on the town. I commandeered some civilian clothes from from my troops and we took Rodolfo out to one of the local restaurants where we proceeded to drink far to much . The next day Rodolfo had such a hangover that the senior officers were in a state of panic as the thought he had had a relapse of malaria. We managed to quietly arrange with a medic to put him on a glucose drip which soon sorted this out and they were able to exchange a healthy but somewhat hangover Rodolfo. I often think of him when we vets in SA get together to exchange war stories. We are all just humans. If anyone knows if its possible to get hold of him please let me know .
    Former Lieutenant Chris Stylianou South African Defence Force

  • December 12, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Spot on, jmcauliff, on all points. Moses will continue to try to justify America’s form of tyranny aimed at Cuba as their God given right. But attempting to put a positive spin on America’s repression of the Cuban people equates to nothing more than blind arrogance and utter hypocrisy.

  • December 11, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Sovereignty is not a unique attribute of the US, nor does it justify unilaterally infringing on others’ sovereignty.

    The embargo is unadulterated economic warfare with no international legal standing. Travel restrictions are a compromise of the civil rights of Americans in a failed effort to fulfill the fantasies of exiles.

    If you advocated an embargo of China, Egypt, etc., you would have the virtue of consistency, although no more wisdom about how to craft an effective foreign policy on behalf of democracy.

    I doubt that anyone close to the power curve would want to associate with Hidalgo. I have been told that the man who maneuvered him into the position of First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs was imprisoned for corruption.

  • December 10, 2014 at 9:09 am

    This is not complicated at all. Did Mr. Gross violate the laws of Cuba? Was Mr. Gross aware that his actions, as he was entering Cuba, were against the laws of the country? The answer to both questions is a simple “YES”. Thus there is no argument here and we claim that those Cubans in jail here also violated our laws. Therefore there are ways to compare the situation of both parties as they both violated the laws of the given countries and all that matters is for us in the US to get off our “high and mighty” complex of rulers of the world and make the exchange. Further, although I subscribe to transperancy at all cost, to claim that the trial of Gross in Cuba was not done on a fair basis could be correct but, how about the trail of the Cubans being held, of all places, in Miami, Florida?

  • December 10, 2014 at 8:52 am

    I would argue that Fidel & Raul betrayed their country and the Cuban people when they reneged on their promise to hold free and fair elections as soon as Batista was overthrown. Fifty five years later, the people are still waiting.

  • December 9, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    The US embargo simply exercises our sovereign right to do business with whom we please and specifically NOT to do business with those who go against our values. Travel restrictions are based on the use of US currency which again is based on our sovereignty. Moreover, to what end are the restrictions we place on the US relationship with Cuba? It is to free Cuba from Castro tyranny. It is both legal and moral. Even after Hidalgo’s exile to Miami, I dare say he maintained contacts within the regime far more intimate and closer to the power curve than you, as a Yuma, will ever have. Do you disagree? Recognizing, and by that you mean supporting I presume, is the same as being pro-Castro. Castro and the government have been one and the same for the last 55 years.

  • December 9, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Why should an embargo, supporting domestic opposition and travel restrictions be legal? I am agnostic about Sr. Hidalgo’s description of events in which he participated but skeptical about his insight about events long after he became an exile. I am pro-normalization with the government that is recognized by everyone in the world but us, not pro-Castro.

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