LUISA YANEZ – MIAMI HERALD
MAY 29, 2009 07:06 PM
MIAMI — In what may be the largest civil judgment ever against the Cuban government, a Miami-Dade judge on Friday awarded more than $1 billion to a Homestead man who blamed Fidel Castro and Ernesto ”Che” Guevara for driving his father to suicide in 1959.
”What the defendants did was torture this family and tear it apart,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Peter Adrien in ruling for Gustavo Villoldo, 73, who ironically became a CIA operative and helped track down Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967.
In keeping with its practice in a handful of similar lawsuits, the Cuban government did not respond to the suit or attempt to defend itself.
Despite the judgment, Villoldo may not receive the full payment anytime soon because it may take years for him to tap Cuba’s frozen bank accounts. Adrien acknowledged that, saying he awarded the eye-popping judgment following the one-day civil trial to ”get Cuba’s attention” and “make a statement.”
”I wish you the best in trying to collect,” the judge told Villoldo, whose brother, Alfredo, also joined the suit.
Still, an emotional Gustavo Villoldo rose from his chair in the courtroom: “Your honor, you have brought closure for my family after 50 years. Justice has prevailed.”
Outside, Villoldo hugged his 71-year-old brother and his son. ”I’m very grateful,” he said wiping away tears.
The Villoldos’ attorneys, Jeremy Alters and Beth Vogelsang, said they will now attempt to collect the money from the current and frozen assets of the Cuban government in financial institutions throughout the world.
The largest amount identified by the Treasury Department is in a New York bank account whose funds have already been used to pay the Brothers to the Rescue as part of a $187 million settlement in 2006, along with three other million-dollar judgments. Alters said he believes there is $321 million remaining in the U.S. account.
Alters said they will also go after a newly found source of Cuban cash: bank accounts linked to Castro found in Spain, which reportedly hold more than $3 billion.
”We’re confident we’ll find some assets,” Alters said.
Villoldo’s suit against the Castro brothers and Guevara was rooted in the Cuban government’s confiscation of the elder Villoldo’s business and property in the early days of the Cuban Revolution.
The elder Villoldo, also named Gustavo, came from a well-off Cuban family. He studied in the United States, became an attorney and attended the Wharton School of Business. He returned to Cuba, briefly practicing law before deciding to open a General Motors car dealership and distribution center.
Cuba’s upwardly mobile society of the 1950s purchased their new cars at Villoldo Motor Co. in the center of Havana. Soon, Villoldo’s dealership expanded. Just before the revolution, annual sales were nearly $15 million, Gustavo Villoldo testified at at the non-jury trial.
”My father was a very good businessman,” he said. By the time Castro rolled into Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, Villoldo’s personal fortune — which he would have passed on to his sons — included the dealership, a waterfront family compound, a home in Varadero near the Kennedy family and another home in Baracoa. There were also rental apartment buildings in Miramar and Havana, a farm and other property.
The new rebels wanted it all — and took it.
Guevara, who had been named head of Cuba’s Banco Nacional, immediately began dismantling all traces of capitalism and eyed Villoldo’s General Motors distributorship.
Villoldo said his father was deemed a Yankee lover because of his friendships and dealings with Americans.
The dealership was looted then seized. And Guevara systematically began harassing the elder Villoldo and his sons, who were later arrested, interrogated and threatened with el paredon — the firing squad.
”My father became a former shadow of himself,” Villoldo testified. “He was a broken man.”
On Feb. 16, 1959, some 12 hours after being questioned by Guevara, his heartbroken father ended his life by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. He was 56.
”I still cry and can’t sleep every February 16,” Villoldo told the judge.
Villoldo later fled the island, headed for Miami and joined Brigade 2506, taking part in the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.
He became an officer in the U.S. Army by direct commission of President John F. Kennedy and later was recruited to work with the agency.
In a strange twist of fate in 1963, he was contacted by the CIA to help track Guevara.
Leading a squad of three Cuban exiles into the Bolivian jungle, Villoldo helped track down Guevara for the CIA.
”There was a certain amount of satisfaction in burying the man who I felt was responsible for my father’s death, ” he said.
OTHER CIVIL CASES
The last major civil case brought against the Cuban government involved the family of Rafael del Pino Siero, who had broken with Castro over suspicions that he was a communist and was among the first Cubans to be jailed after the revolution.
Del Pino Siero was captured while trying to help a Cuban escape to Miami in July 1959. He died in his prison cell 18 years later at age 51, leaving behind in Miami two youngsters: Rafael del Pino Jr. and his sister, Milagros Suárez.
Miami-Dade County jurors in April 2008 gave the del Pino children almost $253 million, which was the biggest award to date in a wrongful death claim against the Cuban government.
That amount eclipsed the $187.6 million awarded to the relatives of three victims in the 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by a Cuban MiG.
Family members in that case collected about half the award from frozen Cuban assets in New York.