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The Ochoa Affair

By mid-1989, the changes then taking place on the island and abroad had already likely resulted in a shared sense among the Cuban leadership that a crisis might be at hand. The shakeup of Cuba's security apparatus later that same year, together with the events that preceded it, seemed to confirm this. As a result of the shake-up, the prestige of the Ministry of Interior was diminished and its capabilities weakened as many career intelligence officers were forced out of the institution and replaced by military personnel. The events surrounding this shake-up, in which Army Corps General Abelardo Colome Ibarra, the FAR's ranking officer under Raul Castro, was installed as minister of interior, has continued to be debated among scholars who follow Cuban security issues. Because of the secrecy related to these changes in the security apparatus, it remains one of the least understood actions undertaken by the regime.

The Ochoa affair was named after Division General Arnaldo T. Ochoa Sanchez. Although it involved the detention and trial of a number of ranking officers of the country's security forces, nearly all of them Ministry of Interior personnel, it was named the Ochoa affair because it began with the court martial and execution of Ochoa, along with three other officers. Ochoa was a widely respected FAR officer who was not only popular among his men but, as the recipient of the MINFAR's highest decoration, a Hero of the Republic. At the time, the Ochoa affair raised widespread speculation about support within the military for the regime, given Fidel Castro's resistance to implementing any political or economic reforms similar to those then being carried out in the Soviet Union under President Mikhail Gorbachev and recurring rumors that Ochoa was somehow involved in plotting against the leadership. It also raised questions yet to be answered concerning the regime's underlying motives in singling out Ochoa for punishment and in joining his case with that made against the Ministry of Interior officials implicated.

The purges and show trials of General Arnaldo Ochoa and other military and security officers, together with other related initiatives by Fidel Castro, constituted the most spectacular upheaval in the Cuban leadership in decades. Since he won power the Cuban leader had imprisoned and rarely exrcuted once powerful colleagues, but no other case since the Huber Matos trial compared in its gravity and implications to the one Castro has orchestrated against the still widely-respected and popular General Ochoa. In June 1989, six months after his return from a tour of duty as the commander of Cuba's "internationalist" forces in Angola, General Ochoa was slated to take over as the chief of the Western Army, the most important of the FAR's three territorial commands. Instead, on June 13, the well-regarded general was arrested and charged with "serious acts of corruption and illegal use of economic resources." Within weeks, a Military Honor Tribunal, composed of forty-seven fellow general officers, was convened. The Honor Tribunal stripped Ochoa of his rank and honors, recommended that he be tried for high treason, and expressed its support for the application of the "full weight" of the law against him, if convicted, by a Special Military Tribunal.

The court martial by the Special Tribunal began on June 30, 1989. In addition to Ochoa, the government identified three other officers, each also stripped of rank, as the key players in a wide conspiracy of self-enrichment that included trafficking in drugs, diamonds, and other contraband, and money laundering. Another ten individuals, who had backgrounds in either the Ministry of Interior or the MINFAR, were tried on related charges at the court martial, but were convicted of lesser crimes. Many foreign observers at the time described the hastily convened Special Tribunal, the proceedings of which were broadcast on state television, as a "show trial" that was reminiscent of the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. In July, following the Council of State's review and approval of the sentences handed down, the four former officers were executed by firing squad.

The affair had many of the characteristics of political watersheds and crises of the past. Once again, for example, Castro has placed himself in its calm eye. Until his speech to the Council of Stateuly, he had remained almost entirely in the background, having delegated the prosecution of the case to his brother, Armed Forces Minister Raul Castro, and to other generals. He cancelled plans to attend the presidential inauguration in Argentina, and prevented foreign journalists from covering the story in Havana or interviewing him or other officials. During his years in public life, such was his usually reliable intuition and proclivity to act invariably kept Castro's adversaries disorganized and confused at critical junctures, while allowing him to retain the initiative.

But tbe Ochoa affair was dramatically more dangerous for Castro than any previous domestic crisis. Since Matos was imprisoned, no other popular officer who had commanded major military units had been so disgraced. Ochoa, one of Cuba's most popular and decorated military heroes, had impeccable revolutionary credentials and enjoyed the respect of his peers. Even if he did undertake drug deals that were unauthorized, he may not have done so for personal profit as the regime charged. Former Air Force General del Pino, who defected to the United Statesas said publicly that it is "virtually impossible" that Ochoa could be linked to drug trafficking, and at least some ranking Cuban officers may believe that as well.

In any event, revelations by both, Fidel and Raui Castro suggest that Ochoa's principal "crimes" were in questioning the Castros' authority and contemplating defection after he was informed in late May that he would no longer command troops but instead be assigned to Raul Castro's staff. Fidel Castro may have concluded that Ochoa had to be convicted of truly heinous crimes, rather than personal or political ones, in order to discredit him so completely as to preclude any backlash that could generate serious discontent in the military.

Well beyond the proceedings that were known formally as Case Number 1 of 1989, the Ochoa affair continued to have repercussions within the state's security apparatus. Only shortly before the court martial began, the government announced that the minister of interior, Division General Jose Abrantes Fernandez, a man who had long been responsible for Fidel Castro's personal guard and was counted among his most trusted aides, had been removed from office for failing to discover the illegal activities that were carried out by the soon-to-be convicted officials under his charge. Abrantes was immediately replaced as minister by General Colome Ibarra.

Through the ensuing month, a succession of MINFAR officers were appointed to fill the vacated posts of the top Ministry of Interior officials who resigned. Then, on July 30, Abrantes and a number of those who had worked closely under him were arrested. The crimes with which they were charged included negligence, illegal use of government resources, corruption and/or toleration of corruption by others, and the manipulation and concealment of information of interest to the government. On August 24, a second Special Military Tribunal was convened for Case Number 2 of 1989, to consider the charges against Abrantes and six other former Ministry of Interior officials. At the conclusion of this secret court martial, Abrantes, who was then in his late fifties, was sentenced to twenty years in prison, where he died of a heart attack in January 1991. The other former officials were given prison terms ranging from five to fifteen years.

By the end of 1989, with Abrantes gone and a trusted career FAR officer in his place, hundreds of Ministry of Interior officials, including many who had spent their entire careers in the organization, had been retired, dismissed, or otherwise replaced by FAR officers. These new Ministry of Interior personnel, according to some analysts, often had little training or background in intelligence matters, and as a result, the institution's effectiveness was thought to have suffered during the 1990s. Por decades, MININT has been the most reliable and ruthlessly efficient bulwark of the regime, and It has never before been the target of a purge.

Nonetheless, Haul Castro's longer-term prospects to survive long as his brother's heir were probably damaged by the Ochoa affair. The younger Castro performed poorly in his important appearance before hundreds of top officers onune, and was described in the media as having been so "exhausted and emotionally overwrought when he made the announcement of the charges that many people continued to disbelieve it, speculating on some kind of political infighting or disagreements." At times rambling incoherently, he denounced the United States, admiringly mentioned Stalin, and berated Ochoa.

Besides the Ochoa affair, Vice-president Diodes Torralba and Luis Orlando Dominguez, former General Secretary of the Communist Youth Union, were arrested and imprisoned for corruption. The day before Ochoa's arrest, Diodes Torralba, Cuba's Minister of. Transportation, was fired and arrested for corruption. Diodes Torralba, was minister of transport and a close friend of Ochoa. Tony de la Guardia was his son-in-law. The defection of brigade general Rafael del Pino also embarrassed the party.

The party was going to look beyond corrupt party cadre and search for those who were openly or privately expressing sympathy with the reforms sweeping the communist world. Since the affair involved so many unprecedented risks, it seems difficult on the surface to explain why Castro decided to launch it. Such bold and dangerous undertakings have not been unusual for Castro, however, and the Ochoa-de la Guardia affair was similar to other "crises" he provoked in the past. Cuba was experiencing its gravest internal problems since he won power: severe economic constrictions, serious generational discontinuities, rising crime, social unrest, and even the emergence for the first time of small pockets of vocal opposition.

Choosing the timing and circumstances carefully, Castro unleashed an ambitious but dangerous gambit encompassing both domestic and foreign policy objectives. There is no evidence linking Ochoa to coup plotting or other organized anti-regime activities, but the Castros would have considered any dispute with him on major policy issues a serious challenge. General del Pino speculated publicly that Ochoa and Torralba were sympathetic to Soviet-style reforms that Castro had rejected. While not that everyone removed from the party was a reformer, the removal of key individuals preempted the consolidation of an anti-regime faction.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2013 19:37:16 ZULU