Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Photo: Gerardo's 1960 journal.

Of Musty Journal Pages and Black-Ops Plots

Funny what a grandson can turn up among the musty papers of a shuttered filing cabinet.

A few weeks after the death of my grandfather, Gerardo, I took to the task of sifting through the detritus of his life, organizing decades worth of paperwork with my mother, Rosi, tossing out garbage bags full of old bills, checkbooks, receipts and tax returns. One of the last repositories of “stuff” to catch my attention was an old filing cabinet, which for years, had sat at the back of their suburban New Jersey garage.

A quick search through the first three drawers revealed nothing but odds-and-ends, bits-and-bobs of dull paperwork: a 1949 Hertz Car Rental card from Havana, 30-year-old office correspondence, maps of U.S. maritime shipping routes (he was in the container ship business). Rather dull stuff. The real gems were tucked away in drawer number four. Wedged in the back of the bottom drawer sat a black soft-cover book titled “Journal 1960.” Bingo. Our family had fled Cuba in 1960, this had to contain something of interest.

The book gave off the pungent smell of age. I’m somewhat of a connoisseur of printing ink odors. I revel in the act of sticking my nose into the spine of a new book, inhaling the wonderful smell of commercial ink with abandon. Screw Testor’s – a new photo book offers an even more complex bouquet than any tube of glue ever will.

As I used my thumb to flip through the book’s pages, I happened upon a vellum business card neatly tucked into the month of May.

Dr. Juan A Orta Cordova
Director General – Jefe de Despacho
De Las Oficinas del Primer Ministro

Chief of the Prime Minister’s Office? Fidel Castro’s private secretary? Interesting, although not that incredible. Gerardo had been meeting with the revolutionary hierarchy – including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – for months in the run-up to his flight from Cuba. Noted in the Cuban shipping industry, he had been slated to run the Mambiza Shipping Lines, a new line created by the Castro regime, composed of ships seized by the revolutionary government.

Photo: Juan Orta's business card, as found in Gerardo's journal.

That night as I sat sniffing that old piece of vellum – alright, I’m kidding – I began to probe into the life of Juan Orta. What follows is the stuff of true cold warriors.

In August of 1960, a few months before Gerardo and much of the family left Cuba forever, the CIA’s Richard Bissell approached Colonel Sheffield Edwards, then director of security, with hopes of identifying any assets that might assist in the assassination of Fidel Castro. Bissell and his CIA boys were eventually introduced to one Johnny Roselli, a high-ranking member of the Las Vegas mafia who had connections to Cuban gambling.

During a September 14, 1960 meeting at the Hilton Plaza Hotel in New York City, CIA operatives made their pitch to enlist Roselli in an assassination attempt against Castro. Roselli, in-turn, introduced the operatives to “Sam Gold” and another individual identified as “Joe,” both of whom had connections in Cuba. The two men were later identified as Salvatore Giancana and Santos Trafficante.

Photo: The boys: Roselli, Trafficante and Giancana.

At the suggestion of Giancana, a set of lethal pills would be ferried to a perspective nominee, Dr. Juan Orta, a Cuban official who had direct access to Castro and had - at one time - been receiving gambling kickbacks. Six poison pills were subsequently furnished to Orta and the plan was set in motion. In the end however, their “man in Havana” failed in various attempts to dose Castro’s drinks, suffered cold feet and pulled out of the operation.

It is very likely that Gerardo never knew Orta’s true identity during his meetings with Havana’s top-cats. His business card had sat forgotten in a garage for over 40 years and I’m not sure how he would have reacted to my discovery. I remember him as a man of impeccable morals. Although he was a bitter opponent of the revolutionary regime, Orta’s contacts with La Cosa Nostra certainly would have left a bad taste in his mouth. In looking back, it seems rather likely that Gerardo would have pulled out of his early dealings with Castro and Che, not wanting to deal with someone of Orta’s ilk. If that had happened, a 20-something grandson in suburban New Jersey would never have discovered detailed accounts of meetings with “Dr. Castro,” “Conchita Fernandez” and “Che” in a long-overlooked journal wedged tightly into the back of a rusty filing cabinet.

Here’s to mold, mildew and memories. Cheers!


Anonymous said...

Hey - You should look up the recent El Nuevo story on Juan Orta. It ran on Sunday. I believe the English version will run in the Miami Herald soon.

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