Fidel Castro, Bags of Nickels and More

By Tracey Eaton (

Fidel Castro's birthplace in Biran, Holguín, Cuba.
Fidel Castro’s birthplace in Biran, Holguín, Cuba.

HAVANA TIMES — I’ve been working on a project about the legacy of Fidel Castro. I’ve interviewed a range of Cubans, including some who joined Castro on the Granma yacht when it journeyed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 carrying 82 fighters, most of whom were killed in battle after reaching the island.

While in Cuba working on the Castro project, I did some reporting for an unrelated story published this week by the South Florida Sun Sentinel (See “Plundering America: The Cuban Criminal Pipeline”).

On Tuesday night, Pedro Sevcec asked me to talk about the Sun Sentinel project on his show, “A Fondo,” which is broadcast on Channel 41 in Miami.

The show was behind schedule and time was short, so Sevcec asked me to keep my answers short. Then I think I kept my answers so short that I barely answered any of his questions. But anyway, Sevcec wanted to know more about my encounter in Cuba with a man named Angel Eduardo Mendoza, accused of stealing $180,000 in nickels from the Federal Reserve in 2004.

Pedro Sevec who has a show on Channel 41 in Miami.
Pedro Sevec who has a show on Channel 41 in Miami.

Mendoza, 52, is wanted in the U.S. I caught up with him in Santa Fe, near Havana. He impressed me as being someone who was generally honest and hard-working, but one day came upon bags and bags of nickels and could not resist the temptation to steal them.

He was a truck driver and his employer had been hired to haul the nickels. Mendoza said he had just had a dispute with his employer over money. He was upset and decided to swipe the nickels, but had to return to Cuba to escape prosecution and left the money behind.

Once back on the island, Cuban authorities sent him to jail for nearly two years. He now works as a lifeguard in Santa Fe.

On Tuesday’s program, Sevcec said that Cuba must be a great spot for fugitives. I told him that I didn’t think Cuba was a paradise for wanted criminals, at least not in the case of Mendoza.

Mendoza makes very little money and deals with the same shortages and problems that ordinary Cubans face every day. He said he sometimes looks out across the water, toward the horizon, and wishes he were back in the U.S. He said:

Educardo Mendoza.  Foto: Interpol
Eduardo Mendoza. Foto: Interpol

“I’m tired of this. I feel alone. I’d like to go back and work like I did before. I’d like to go back, my friend.”

Mendoza impressed me as sincere. He didn’t seem like a hard-core criminal, but rather someone who made a big mistake and regrets it.

Maybe I’m just a trusting soul.

I also believed Cuban officials who told me that they take crime seriously and don’t want Cuba to be a haven for fugitives.

One official told me that if they detect a suspected fugitive from the U.S., they ask American authorities for evidence of the person’s crime. They say U.S. authorities usually acknowledge their requests, but don’t give any details about the supposed crimes.

Since the fugitives, in many cases, haven’t been convicted of any crimes, Cuban authorities say it would not be right to jail them in Cuba or return them to the U.S. without any proof of their crimes. And so unless they commit new crimes on the island, officials respect their right to live there.

If the U.S. and Cuba can manage to develop a more trusting relationship, perhaps they will eventually cooperate and communicate on issues of fugitives, and extradite individuals when warranted.

But the two countries aren’t going to untangle more than 50 years of hostility overnight. My guess is that it’s going to take years, not months. Many obstacles to normal relations remain.

Sen. Marco Rubio is indignant over the Obama administration’s handling of negotiations with Cuba. And he said there are many unanswered questions about Cuba’s release of 53 political dissidents.

Sen. Bob Menendez said Tuesday that while the list of 53 prisoners was created in June or July…

… some of the 53 were released well before June, fourteen – to be exact – were released 6 to 8 months before the December 17th announcement, and one was released over a year ago.

Menendez and others say it’s also troubling that Cuba continues to arrest dissidents and human rights activists (See Jan. 12 letter from Menendez to Obama).

It seems clear that Cuba is not going tolerate political dissent, particularly while U.S. government-financed organizations continue to finance dissidents on the island. But Sen. John Kerry expects the human rights situation to eventually improve. He said in a Jan. 12 letter to Patrick Leahy:

As the President said, we do not expect that the changes to U.S. policy will effect a transformation of Cuban society overnight. We are convinced, however, the old policy of isolation did not achieve its objectives, and that a new policy will more effectively promote our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.

Alejandro Armengol
Alejandro Armengol

Cuban-American journalist and author Alejandro Armengol urged that the Obama administration continue pushing for a more sensible Cuba policy. He wrote today:

“From the distant CIA plans to kill Fidel Castro, over and over again in this country has been repeated a similar scheme, difficult to understand outside the United States: the use of extensive resources and millions in funds with the objective of achieving nothing. What often been interpreted as clumsiness or pure inefficiency has been nothing but the appearance of a project destined to fail. Only a nation that has a budget of millions and millions of dollars, including some destined to waste, can such a task be performed. In the case of Cuba, Washington has done it successfully for decades. The consequence is that an “anti-Castroism” has emerged that is more of an economic commitment than a political ideal, largely fueled by taxpayer funds.

“President Obama is trying to break a model repeated ad nauseam by both Republicans and Democrats, regarding the Cuban issue. This refreshing air is necessary. Regarding the Cuban case, they should must end the deception that they are “doing something” to overthrow the government in Havana when in fact they are not. It could be, it is very possible, that this improvement in ties between the two countries will not produce short-term advances in human rights and fundamental freedoms. There’s no reason to expect that this be the case.”

Armengol suggested that we ought to give the U.S. and Cuba some time to work out their problems. He wrote:

For now, we must never forget that the U.S. always responds to its interests as a nation, as any State. One can be for or against. If at one time Bush left it all in the hands “of the Good God,” why try now to continue with stagnation…Trying to talk with demons is dangerous, but apparently the line to Heaven is still busy, despite advances in telephone use.

7 thoughts on “Fidel Castro, Bags of Nickels and More

  • I think that is a most beautiful house .
    Very Caribbean, very colorful, very inviting.
    If this is the well-to-do estate of the Castro family before it became the first such large holding to be divided for revolutionary principles, I can tell you that were I Fidel , I would have a really hard time saying goodbye to that place.
    I even love the garish fence.
    Screw the politics ………………………………this time.

  • I see… thank you. The link shows 3 statutes: 2 from 1904 (during the time Estrada Palma was President of Cuba) and 1 from 1926, during Gerardo Machado’s first term as president.

    The Castro government has generally ignored pre-Revolutionary laws, while the US government would have avoided getting into negotiations over a new extradition treaty. Perhaps this will change now? That will be another to-do item on the long list for the Cuban and American negotiators.

  • Mr. Armengol above said: “Regarding the Cuban case. they (the GOUSA ) should /must end the deception that they are ‘ doing something’ to overthrow the government in Havana when in fact , they are not”
    This totally ignores the fact that the embargo was set into place exactly as then Under Secretary of State Lester Mallory laid it out: to impoverish the island nation to the extent that the people would rise up and overthrow their “revolution” ( quotes mine) .
    The embargo did indeed impoverish the nation and that grinding poverty coupled with a very expensive ( to Cubans) and lengthy emigration policy at the USIS then made the “wet foot-dry foot” policy which followed a very successful propaganda tool for the imperialists .
    What the embargo did NOT do was cause the Cuban people to rise up and demand a return to capitalism as is and was the purpose of more than 75 U.S. interventions worldwide since the 1918 invasion of the just-born Soviet Union.
    What about this do you not understand. ?
    And again- the only two sources you need as clear and unarguable evidence are to be found at the “Killing Hope” and “Rogue State ” websites run by William Blum or in the eponymous books.
    Just reading the INTRODUCTION to “Killing Hope” should be enough for anyone not willfully ignorant.
    As always, I seek to be proven wrong .
    Please do me that service.
    Thanks .

  • LOL! That’s a great jest, and prophetic.

    As, “Nothing beside remains: round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away”

  • “Fidel Castro’s legacy” indeed…
    When I was last staying in Havana, I visited the Casa de las Americas in a vain attempt to buy a history of post-revolutionary Cuba (“No existe”, claimed the clerk). While leafing through a collection of poetry I came across a piece dedicated to Fidel in honour of his X0th birthday. It was pretty trite, sycophantic stuff. But the poet had a little laugh of his own at the comandante’s expense via the epigraph, which read (in English, without attribution) “Look on my works ye mighty and despair”. Guess he was counting on the censors not to know their Shelley.
    They should carve that line on the old crocodile’s tombstone.

  • Thank you for a very interesting look at a complicated issue. It’s easy to declare the intention to normalize relation between Cuba and the USA, but after 56 years of a very abnormal relationship, it will take a long series of negotiations to achieve that goal.

    I have a question: without an extradition treaty between the two countries, is it even possible for Cuba to send wanted criminals back to the US, and for the US to send wanted criminals back to Cuba?

    Alejandro Armengol commends Obama for trying to break the model of US-Cuban relations, to move beyond the rigid policies of the past which have achieved so little. The reporter, Tracey Eaton, has also broken the model of typical US journalism reporting on Cuba, which is either totally critical of Castro or naively praises him. As Eaton points out, the real issues are about something else.

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