INTERVIEW

ETA's secret life in Cuba

The high-ranking official from the Cuban Communist Party who kept tabs on the Basque terrorist group's members in the Caribbean speaks out for the first time

Fidel Castro (above) apparently accepted eight ETA members from Nicaragua on request of the sandinistas.
Fidel Castro (above) apparently accepted eight ETA members from Nicaragua on request of the sandinistas.REUTERS

A former high-ranking official from the Cuban Communist Party is sitting inside a Basque restaurant in Madrid. This man spent 15 years keeping tabs on the ETA members hiding out in the Caribbean. But Julio Antonio Alfonso Fonseca has no intention of returning to Cuba any time soon. He has fallen out of favor with the Castro regime for overstepping the boundaries of tolerated criticism. This specialist in international politics and legal relations is well aware that prison awaits him back home - if he should ever go back.

"I concluded long ago that our political system was unviable, but I'm not one of those people who uses their dissidence as a weapon against Cuba. The solution does not lie in a return to the situation we had before the revolution, but rather in social democracy. It's about maintaining social achievements and equality, in a regime of freedom," he says.

This middle-aged man with blue eyes and a jovial attitude is the enigmatic individual who was always referred to in internal ETA messages always referred to as El de siempre (The usual guy), Guillermo or El pequeño (The little one). He was the government contact whom members of the group were obliged to consult before making any kind of move. Fonseca is also the diplomat who appeared before the media in November 2000 to demand that Spain guarantee the personal safety of two activists from ETA's Madrid cell, who sought refuge in the Cuban Embassy when they realized the Spanish police were on their tail. Both were eventually turned out of the diplomatic mission.

Fonseca is the first truly knowledgeable person to break the decades-long silence surrounding the most secretive, best-protected community of ETA members in all of the Americas.

"Everything relating to ETA depends directly on Fidel. Not a single move is made without his consent," stresses Fonseca. "The Basques [meaning ETA members] have been assigned a designated protection-and-control mechanism. They constitute classified information. Although they're considered to be just another national liberation movement, they are watched almost as closely as the [Cuban] dissidents, because they are considered a matter of national security. You need to keep in mind that the United States used the presence of ETA members in Cuba to include the country on the list of states that sponsor terrorism, and therefore justify its embargo. Hosting ETA members has turned against us, like a boomerang."

Prison awaits this specialist in international politics back home

Question. How many ETA members are there in Cuba?

Answer. Of the 22 who were taken in, there are around 15 left. In all, including ETA's envoys and so on, there must have been about 30 of them on the island at various moments.

Q. Is Miguel Ángel Apalategi, also known as Apala, there right now?

A. He arrived in 1990, when the sandinistas lost power in Nicaragua.

Q. So why does Havana systematically deny it? In the documentary by Oliver Stone, South of the Border, Fidel Castro asserts that there are only six activists in Cuba who got there via Panama, and who were taken in on the request of Felipe González's government. [González, a Socialist, was Spain's prime minister between 1982 and 1996.]

Everything relating to ETA depends on Fidel. He has to give everything the OK"

A. There were seven of them who came in from Panama, not six. Later eight came from Nicaragua, led by Apala, and four from Cape Verde, besides Luciano Eizaguirre, who was in a delicate state [he died recently]. ETA, through [its political wing] Batasuna, asked us to take him in for humanitarian reasons, since he was an alcoholic with serious psychological problems and his behavior was causing them trouble. What Fidel told Oliver Stone in 2002 was a lie, and a big mistake besides that, because by then the Spanish intelligence services already knew via a high-ranking sandinista official that Apala had left Nicaragua to go to Cuba.

Q. And what was the point of that double game?

A. Relations between the ETA community and Cuban authorities went beyond the agreements with Spain, as shown by the fact that they admitted individuals like Apala, who compromised us doubly. We kept him in isolation for a long time so we could keep tabs on him, and he always obeyed government instructions because he is disciplined; he's the only one who follows military discipline. Unlike other members, such as Txutxo Abrisketa, José Miguel Arrugaeta and José Ángel Urtiaga, who allowed their picture to be taken every time members of the Basque government or Basque entrepreneurs came to the island, he never showed up at public events. Abrisketa is intelligent and charismatic. He acts to some extent like a political leader, but Apala is the most - I'm not sure whether to say respected or feared - member of the group. He seems fearless and he can be friendly. He blends in well with the Cuban countryfolk. He is hefty, a little overweight, and his dark hair hasn't fallen out yet. Ten years ago he got into a relationship with a Cuban woman and tried to make a living as a peasant, growing tobacco and raising livestock, but he suffered a severe lumbar hernia that nearly left him in a wheelchair.

Q. Cuban authorities could not possibly be unaware that he was accused of the disappearance of his colleague Eduardo Moreno Bergareche, aka Pertur, who went missing in 1976 in the border town of Behobia, France after being taken there by Apalategi and Francisco Mújica Garmendia, aka Pakito; these two were leading members of the so-called comandos bereziak [special cells] that would eventually break away from the political-military branch of ETA and join the strictly military branch.

A. Rumor had it that Pertur had been punished for being a traitor, since they claimed that he meant to put an end to the armed struggle and that he collaborated with what they called txakurrada [the police, literally "the dogs"]. Some of us [Cuban] party leaders knew that Spanish society would not be able to understand the existence of a link between our government and a group like ETA, but the decision was not ours to make.

Hosting ETA members has turned against us, like a boomerang"

Fonseca would not expound on the subject of Pertur, although he did say that Apala runs no risk of being extradited to Spain since there is no bilateral agreement with Cuba on criminal and civil matters. "However, Cuban legislation would allow a Spanish judge to interrogate him via letters rogatory [an official legal request]. That would be a positive step in the context of the new reality of the Basque conflict and the bilateral relations between both countries," he suggests.

The former diplomat would also rather avoid the delicate issue of relations between Cuban intelligence services and Latin American guerrillas. He does say that Fidel Castro accepted the eight ETA members from Nicaragua because the sandinistas asked him to. "Apalategi was the head of the Nicaraguan services who trained Latin American guerrillas, and he showed up in a video filmed by CIA agents working under cover inside groups from El Salvador. He saw himself on TV while he was in Nicaragua. He felt at home training guerrillas, but when the sandinistas were ousted from power he had to flee," says Fonseca.

Apalategi and the seven other ETA members presumably arrived in Cuba thanks to the man in charge of such things: General Renán Montero, a high-ranking official at the Interior Ministry, who supported and directed the intelligence and counterespionage services of guerrilla groups in several countries, particularly Nicaragua. The name of Renán Montero, identified by ETA men as Buruzuri (White Hair), shows up in a letter seized from Gorka Martínez Bilbao, a now-deceased leader of Batasuna, and was included in the investigation that now-suspended Judge Baltasar Garzón opened into Batasuna leaders for their collaboration in funding for ETA. "Make sure our friend Renán gets this short letter I am sending you. [...] There are certain details which, for security reasons, it is better not to discuss," read the message. Everything seems to indicate that the death of Renán Montero in August, 2009 left the ETA community in Cuba without one of its greatest defenders. The rise of Raúl Castro to power has not been beneficial to them, either.

"What I can tell you is that General Renán Montero had strict orders not to engage in relationships with the ETA colony. Although Fidel is still the boss, Raúl's rise to power has consolidated a less-favorable view of ETA, especially in the army, to the extent that after Luciano Eizaguirre, no more ETA members have been taken in, and only those with official Spanish IDs may leave the country. Back in the day, Fidel viewed ETA as a bunch of people who were fighting for Basque autonomy, and his egomania and twisted thinking turned them into a national liberation movement where he would play the role of the chief negotiator in a hypothetical deal between ETA and Spain. I believe that [Spain's] Socialists involuntarily fed that notion by asking him to take in the refugees from Panama, but the first ETA member to come to the island did so through the intermediation of Eva Forest and Alfonso Sastre [a husband-and-wife team of writers with ETA sympathies]. During the 1989 negotiations between Spain and ETA in Algiers, it looked like Cuba was going to be the final destination of all the [ETA] fugitives and detainees. Since France did not enjoy the same level of cooperation with Spain then [as it does now], the government of Felipe González thought of this way to keep them neutralized while a solution was sought. In fact, a representative of the Havana government negotiated with Julio Feo, then-head of the Spanish Technical Secretariat for the Prime Minister's Office, to fly over 122 Basque refugees who were allegedly going to be arrested. The operation failed miserably because it emerged that the French police had no control whatsoever over ETA's people."

The question remains as to why Fidel Castro allowed some ETA members to leave the island and return to their terrorist activities; why did he consent to the comings and goings of fugitives from Spanish justice, thus violating his own agreement with France and Spain? The arrest in France and other countries of ETA members living in Cuba, and the proven participation by members of this terrorist organization in acts perpetrated by guerrilla groups in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Colombia under the tutelage of Cuban intelligence services, led the conservative government of José María Aznar (who succeeded Felipe González) to denounce the Castro regime for using its asylum policy as leverage against Spain. Cases like those of Carlos Ibarguren, Nervios, and Ramón Sagarzazu, Txempe, key members of ETA's financial team who fled to Cuba and were eventually arrested in France - supposedly after recovering hidden money, the secret location of which only they knew - revealed the fact that, to use the prudent terms of this former diplomat, Havana "went beyond" the bilateral agreements.

Fidel's twisted thinking turned ETA into a liberation movement"

"Ibarguren and Sagarzazu were allowed to leave with fake Spanish IDs, and I will not deny that Aznar's policies toward Fidel and his links with the people in Miami played a role in that decision. But what Fidel never did is personally meet with ETA members or provide them with military training," says Fonseca. "Cuba was very upset by the killing of the councilor Miguel Ángel Blanco in 1997 [the 29-year-old's kidnapping and execution was a watershed in terms of popular opposition to ETA in Spain]. The group spokesmen José Ángel Urtiaga and Txutxo Abrisketa were called in and told to convey to their leaders that the Cuban government believed that no revolutionary can justify his struggle with this sort of action. They defended themselves by saying that it was all part of their fight, but some people [in Cuba] changed after that."

Q. Lately there has been some dissent within the group, hasn't there?

A. A couple of them tried to leave the island any way they could, while others oppose those outings because they don't want to cause any more trouble to the government that has taken them in. There was some trouble - individual behavioral issues stemming from love affairs and couples breaking up. Elena Bárcena separated from her husband Iñaki Rodríguez and got involved with Javier Pérez Lekue. They left the island but apparently Havana tipped off Madrid and they were arrested in Venezuela.

Q. And what kind of lifestyle do they have over there? What do they do for a living?

A. Except for one of them, the rest are not studious types. Several of them have formed families and settled down, although they are always pining for their beloved Basque Country. Some work in various businesses, others live off family remittances. They make up an odd ideological bunch. You can find liberals, social democrats, conservatives... and the odd communist. Besides providing them with housing, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with Peoples [Instituto Cubano de la Amistad con los Pueblos] gave them between 300 and 400 Cuban pesos for living expenses and the same authorization to make store purchases that they grant technicians from Eastern European countries. During the Special Period [the economic crisis triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union], they complained that they could not make a decent living on that money, which is exactly what the vast majority of Cubans were going through, and the government authorized them to undertake a few business ventures for the purpose of supporting themselves. Cuba could not give them any cash.

Fidel never met personally with ETA members or provide them with training"

Q. Is that at the origin of those import-export businesses that caused so much conflict?

A. Abrisketa is very well assimilated - he married a Cuban woman and has a daughter - and right away he set up import-export companies. Besides food, they import metallurgy technology, which they acquire from the French branch of Babcock&Wilcox, and they also make footwear. They received economic aid from the Basque government under [Basque premier] José Antonio Ardanza and especially under Juan José Ibarretxe, occasionally through SPRI [a business development agency]. They also make piping and sanitary equipment, but they had trouble with a partner, someone named Echegoyen. Later, Iñaki Etxarte and his wife, Amaia Egiguren, set up a company named Euskalherria that imported digital printing equipment via Panama. We had a serious problem with that because they had the idea of selling that equipment to the Catholic Church. They got a real scolding for it. Amaia Egiguren returned to Cuba with papers from the Spanish embassy, even though the 1984 agreement said that if you left the island you could not come back. There were others who negotiated with the Spanish embassy in Havana. Cuban counterintelligence always suspected that there was a mole working inside the ETA colony on the island.

Q. Did some of these companies serve as fronts for ETA's finances?

A. Gadusmar was introduced by Gorka Martínez Bilbao as just another ordinary company from the Basque Country. It might be that [historical ETA leader] Josu Ternera knows something about that. All it ever sold on the island was two containers full of cod brought in from Norway, worth approximately 40,000 euros - about which the Cuban government had no knowledge, by the way. Carlos Ibarguren and Agustín Azkarate worked there. Spain protested and the decision was made to shut down the company. The restaurant Zargarzazu, where a few Spanish diplomats dined, was also shut down.

Q. Would you say that the intention to mediate between ETA and the Spanish government was always on Fidel's mind all these years?

This is a sad story, one of many sad stories that are part of the Revolution"

A. Like I said, I think the Socialists played a role in that, but they were not the only ones: a member of the Basque Nationalist Party delegation, who visited the island in February 1998 - I can't remember whether it was Joseba Egibar, Iñaki Anasagasti or Josu Jon Imaz - asked Fidel Castro just as they were saying goodbye at the elevator whether Cuba would mediate in a hypothetical negotiation. Fidel replied that if all parties, including the Spanish government, agreed to it, then Cuba would not hesitate to collaborate in a negotiated process.

Julio Alfonso Fonseca speaks with the assertiveness that comes from having organized the visit to Cuba of Batasuna spokesman Arnaldo Otegi; he also met with the heads of international relations for Batasuna and ETA, acted as a guide for the envoys of Askapena (a unit in charge of creating international support for ETA), and personally witnessed the encounters between ETA and the IRA-Sinn Fein. He says that ETA got in touch with IRA-Sinn Fein in the late 1980s in Cuba, thanks to the fact that the Irish group had a permanent representative on the island.

It was there that they met with Siobhán O'Hanlon, a survivor of the British ambush against the IRA in Gibraltar in March 1988. "Cuba produced a very fluid exchange of considerations that had a notable influence on the way out of violence that ETA has since sought," he holds.

The former Cuban leader who is most familiar with ETA says that "the Basque patriotic left must put down its weapons, now that it is rectifying serious historical mistakes." And he also says that he, Julio Alfonso Fonseca, wants to apologize to the Spanish people, if, while performing his duties as a government worker in his country, he did something that contributed to offending Spaniards, and most particularly the victims of terrorism.

"In the end, this is a sad story, one of many sad stories that are part of the Cuban Revolution, but what must prevail are the fraternal bonds between the Cuban people and the Spanish people."

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