A Cold War Prisoner Swap Involving Cuba
A Cold War Prisoner Swap Involving Cuba
December 8, 2014
Por Alcibiades Hidalgo* (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — In March of 1989, South African Sargeant Johan Pepenfus
was released from the same prison in Havana’s Carlos J. Finlay Military
Hospital where US citizen Alan Gross has been kept for five years this
week, to be exchanged for three Cubans captured during the war in Angola.
Papenfus had been taken prisoner by Cuban troops on May 4, 1988 in
Donguena, a remote place close to the Namibian border, when his Casspir
troop-transportation vehicle, part of a 12-armored-vehicle column, was
neutralized by an anti-tank missile. According to different testimonies,
five Cuban and seven South African soldiers died in the clash, which
cost the South Africans four vehicles. A day before, in London,
representatives from South Africa, Angola and Cuba had begun
negotiations, mediated by the United States, which would put an end to
Cuba’s military presence in Africa and Pretoria’s domination of Namibia.
I was Cuba’s spokesperson during this diplomatic process and, after an
agreement had been arrived at, I supervised South Africa’s withdrawal
from Namibia next to UN forces.
Fidel Castro’s Orders
Wounded in his backside by machinegun-fire, Papenfus was urgently taken
to Cuba to receive medical attention. Nothing of the sort had taken
place in the course of the war in Angola before. The timely capture of a
white South African soldier and the circumstances surrounding his
wounding gave Cuba a card to play on the negotiations table.
“Bring him over immediately. We can’t trust the Angolans…,” Fidel Castro
ordered a few days later, after going over the details of the upcoming
talks in Cairo.
Bernardo Heredia (alias “Shogun”), the soldier who had fired his RPG7
and hit the legendary Casspir, the anti-mines vehicle designed by South
Africa to control the plains, was declared a war hero. Johan Papenfus
arrived in Cuba from Luanda, a strange mixture of VIP and POW, and
transferred to the Wajay military base, a facility located some three
kilometers from the main terminal of Havana’s International Airport,
away from prying eyes.
Less than a year later, following heated negotiations in three different
continents, when the war was about to end, the young South African
sergeant climbed on board a well-guarded Soviet IL62 plane at a runway
of that same airport. He was on his way back to Africa, accompanied by
Cuban negotiators, to be traded for other prisoners of war.
A Derelict Spot
The exchange was to be made at the Angola-Namibia border, close to the
town of Ruacana. On their side, the South Africans built a large
grandstand to accommodate dozens of colonial officials, high-ranking
officers and their wives, all dressed in their Sunday best, as though
planning to attend a mass in the dusty highly remote location.
Following brief declarations by both sides, made under a scorching sun,
the flimsy barrier was lifted and the prisoners crossed the border.
Three Cuban soldiers handed over to South Africa by UNITA and fourteen
Angolan officers, including a pilot, walked into Angolan territory, as
Johan Papenfus headed towards his family. As the 17 men, nearly all
black, crossed in front of a single white South African soldier, the
people on the grandstand began to applaud.
Rodolfo Estevez Lantigua, Raul Estela Martell and Luis Milla Gonzalez,
the only Cubans recognized as prisoners of war by the enemy, had been
captured by UNITA forces under different circumstances. Lantigua, a tall
mulatto man with an empty stare, who had forgotten how to Speak Spanish,
had spent six years in captivity as a prisoner of Jonas Savimbi, who had
had the fingers of both his hands broken as punishment for protesting
about his mistreatment in prison.
Raul Castro, someone whose proven experience in the taking of hostages
dates back to 1958, when he kidnapped a number of American citizens
travelling down a road in Guantanamo, must have considered the
similarities between Papenfus and Gross. His current Minister of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces, General Leopoldo Cintras Frias, was the
Southern Troops Chief during the war in Angola, where the impeccable
exchange of prisoners took place. What’s more, generals Abelardo Colome
and Carlos Fernandez Gondin, today at the helm of the Ministry of the
Interior that turned Gross into a scapegoat, where the ones who
transported Papenfus to Cuba for medical attention, and took him back to
Africa to be traded, as heads of Military Counterintelligence at the time.
Between Papenfus and Alan Gross
It is difficult to find other parallels between the cases of Johan
Papenfus and Alan Gross. The South African, a professional military
officer wounded and captured in the battlefield, was unequivocally a
prisoner of war and treated as such. Gross, arrested in 2009 while
returning to the United States after his fifth trip to the island
(without ever having been interrogated by zealous Cuban Customs), is
more a hostage taken as part of the political arm-wrestle between
Washington and Havana.
The “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the
State” for which he was convicted to fifteen years in prison on March
2011 consisted in delivering equipment for the setting up of Internet
networks outside government control to Jewish communities in Havana,
Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey. The prosecution didn’t even try to
demonstrate how the small Jewish institutions on the island, which had
lived under a virtual siege since Fidel Castro broke relations with
Israel in 1973, could have posed any threat to national security by
connecting to the Internet.
According to documents presented by the prosecution, Cuba’s political
police knew of the work carried out by Alan Gross since his first trip
to the island in mid-2004, when he delivered a video camera and
medications to a Masonic leader (who turned out to be a State Security
agent and testified against him).
Since his imprisonment, Havana has asked for nothing less than three
Cuban spies, convicted to long prison sentences in the United States, in
exchange for Gross’ freedom. One of them, head of the espionage network
and linked to the deaths of four people, is serving two life sentences,
ratified following appeals to all competent courts. The White House has
insisted on the unevenness of the trade and refused to negotiate for
five years, the same amount of time Gross has been in prison, thwarting
progress in US-Cuba relations. Any similarities to the Cold War are
*Former Cuban Ambassador before the United Nations and ex-Chief of Staff
under Raul Castro. Took part in the negotiations that ended the war in
Angola. Deserted to the United States in 2002. This article was
published by the Chilean newspaper La Tercera and republished by
CafeFuerte with the author’s consent.
Source: A Cold War Prisoner Swap Involving Cuba – Havana Times.org –