Por Alcibiades Hidalgo* (Café Fuerte)
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.