Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo, who went from fighting beside Fidel Castro as a rebel commander to spending 22 years in prison for trying to topple him, died Friday in Havana, where he had lived his last years as a tolerated dissident. He was 77.
The cause was a heart attack, his wife, Flor Ester Torres Sanabria, told The Associated Press.
On Dec. 8, 1934, Gutierrez-Menoyo was born into a Spanish family dedicated to fighting for freedom: his oldest brother died fighting fascists in Spain’s civil war. The family moved from Madrid to Cuba in 1945. In 1957, another brother died in a failed attack against the Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista. Eloy soon joined the fight against Batista, assembling an army in Cuba’s mountains almost as large as Castro’s own force.
After Batista fled on Jan. 1, 1959, Gutierrez-Menoyo and his troops arrived in Havana on Jan. 3, days before Castro led his own army into the city. Gutierrez-Menoyo was not offered a post in the Castro government, and later said he had not wanted one. He retained the rank of major, the highest in Cuba at the time. His army was absorbed into Castro’s.
But disturbed with Castro’s turn toward leftist dictatorship, Gutierrez-Menoyo and a dozen military and civilian supporters fled by boat to the United States in January 1961. He settled in Miami and formed an organization to overthrow Castro, naming it Alpha 66. It was not involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, and it grew to become one of the largest anti-Castro exile groups.
In October 1964, Gutierrez-Menoyo led a cadre of men into the Cuban mountains to establish a secure base from which to expand to fight the communist state, just as Castro had done to fight the Batista government. He told interviewers that the mission was financed by other exiles, not by the CIA.
Gutierrez-Menoyo and his men were captured by government troops. Blindfolded, he was taken on a 90-minute plane ride, and when the blindfold was removed he found himself facing Castro, who was sitting behind a desk surrounded by his top aides.
“You realize, of course, that we are going to shoot you," he quoted Castro as saying in a 1987 account in The New York Times Magazine.
Gutierrez-Menoyo told Castro of his family’s revolutionary past and said he would accept death. Castro said he would also kill his men but would spare them if Gutierrez-Menoyo would go on television and affirm that no Cubans wanted to overthrow their government. He accepted the deal and later, after a 30-minute trial, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
As an inmate, Gutierrez-Menoyo refused to work or wear a prison uniform, saying the requirements violated international law covering the treatment of political prisoners. For his refusal he was beaten so badly that he became blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. He spent time in six prisons over 22 years before being released in 1986, largely through the efforts of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez of Spain.
Gutierrez-Menoyo returned to Miami in 1993 and set up an organization to encourage peaceful dialogue between the Cuban government and anti-government exiles. He called it Cambio Cubano (Cuban Change).
He said he was determined not to be embittered.
“When you spend entire years in solitary, you learn that human beings have a lot of inner resources," he told The Times in an interview in 1993. “When you are subjected to a policy of savagery and barbarism, you come to the conclusion that you have to reject those methods, that you have to be the first to set hatred aside, otherwise it will destroy you."
In 1995, Castro agreed to Gutierrez-Menoyo’s repeated requests for a meeting. They had a three-hour exchange in Havana, during which Gutierrez-Menoyo pressed Castro to allow Cambio Cubano to function as an opposition party in Cuba.
That never happened, but Gutierrez-Menoyo was allowed to return to Cuba repeatedly and, in 2003, to settle there. He did not succeed in opening an office for his organization, but he did meet with Cuban moderates.