Former banker and community leader Bernardo Benes passed away in Miami in the early hours of Monday January 14th. He was 84 years old.
By Alejandro Armengol (Cubaencuentro)
HAVANA TIMES – Bernardo Benes was “guilty” of contributing to the release of 3,600 political prisoners in Cuba (1979), fostering a dialogue between Washington and Havana, making a decisive contribution to a change in the profile of the Cuban exile community in Miami and developing the creation of different institutions (some were more successful than others) to provide aid and understanding between Cubans, US citizens, Latin Americans, Jews and Christians.
He was humiliated, ostracized and suffered different attacks because of these “crimes”. Nobody exemplifies this important time in Miami better than him. He was history, politics and humanism. You can’t talk about the best and worst of this historic exile community without mentioning his name.
The man who came to Miami in 1960 and became a successful businessman and important community and political leader (to the point of being considered “among the most important names in Miami’s business world” and being called “the Cuban Henry Kissinger”) was later insulted and made into an outcast.
For his detractors, having contributed to the release of so many political prisoners wasn’t as important as the fact he met with Fidel Castro. The word “dialogue” inspired fear for many years, and being called a “facilitator of dialogue” became an insult in the south of Florida.
Benes told his story in a book, Secret Missions to Cuba (by Robert M. Levine and Benes himself) which was first published in English and later in Spanish. The book summarizes his version of what happened and is a mix of family and history saga and doesn’t intend to be an analysis but a testimony.
Part of Benes’ tenacity, (his conflict through calm and other times rough moments) in facing his enemies always came back to his family situation.
Born in Cuba, in the shadow of a melancholic man who lost his family during the Holocaust, he stood up to the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and then the Castro regime, to later learn the pain of exile in its purest form. Having graduated from law school at 21 years old, he chose to contribute towards greater social justice before dedicating himself to just making money.
It was this ideal, that he first chased in Cuba, which led Benes to exile. In October 1966, Fortune magazine published: “Bernardo Benes is a tireless and energetic young 31-year-old man, in his short career, he has already contributed to overthrowing Batista, serving as a legal advisor at Castro’s Ministry of Finance and, in nine months, went from being an employee at a punch-in/punch-out job to the vice-president of Miami’s Bank of Savings and Loans.”
It would have been a lot easier for him to go down this successful route, but he never had his heart set on just getting rich. Secret Missions to Cuba tells us of how Benes helped “get funding for the Pan American hospital with the help of a group of 22 Cuban doctors and their wives, headed by Modesto Mora”, back in 1962.
Pan American was the first hospital in the south of Florida that was made to serve the Cuban community. Officially, doctors, nurses and all personnel were supposed to be bilingual, but from the very beginning Spanish was imposed and the hospital formed an important part of a series of institutions that quickly grew and became the network responsible for meeting immigrants’ needs.
“Bernardo did everything in the Hispanic community,” Monsignor Bryan D. Walsh said, who was the Head of Catholic Social Services in Miami for over 40 years, in a report by Meg Laughlin published in The Miami Herald in 1994. “He was one of the first people in welcoming the Hispanic community, and to also give them a voice.”
In the 1970s, Benes was the director of a mortgages program in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean, which managed to help millions of people get a home. He was the president of the Health Council that the Public Health escrow created, a board of 15 civic leaders that transformed the Jackson Hospital from being one of the most poorly-run in the country to one of the top 25.
He started the Hispanic branch of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, specializing in mentor programs for newly-arrived refugee children and he started a program that offered families in Liberty City homes with affordable mortgage payments in exchange for their help building them, according to Laughlin’s article.
Benes’ “bad luck” in Miami began when he was named the Latin coordinator of Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in Florida. His public role as a promoter and fundraiser for a candidate that Cubans believed to be too liberal, created resentment in many exiles.
At the same time, some national democrat leaders were wary of Florida’s democrats. They suspected that they didn’t share the national party’s objectives: many of them were, as Claude Pepper puts it, racists and “southern Republicans in disguise”, according to Secret Missions.
The story of meetings between Benes and Castro, as well as the negotiations that led to the release of political prisoners and the different stages of “Dialogue”, all appear in the book. It isn’t the only version of events, though. There are many documents and different interpretations of what happened. However, while it can be said that Secret Missions isn’t a unique piece of work, it is also a key piece to understanding the process.
He didn’t go back on any of his principles when he took part in negotiations in Havana, and if he did make a poor judgement, it was due to his naivety for the most part. The only thing Benes could be accused of is not having been a good conspirator. But, that’s only a flaw when you ignore its virtue. Benes was an honest man who might have made more than one mistake, but he always acted out of selflessness and was dedicated to everything he took on.