Sixty years ago this month, Gustavo Villoldo Argilagos died of what his supporters called “politically induced suicide.”
The family blamed Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries for Villoldo’s death. They later filed a wrongful death lawsuit and a Florida court awarded an eye-popping $2.79 billion in damages in 2011.
Since then, Villoldo’s sons, Gustavo, now 83, and Alfredo, 81, have taken their case to courts in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Texas and New York, where the Southern District of New York entered a judgment in favor of the Villoldo family in the amount of $2,903,233,898.07.
They had recovered $11 million to $13 million in Cuban assets by 2016, lawyer Andrew Hall told LAW360.
The Villoldo brothers have since joined forces with the families of two other victims of alleged Cuban “terrorism.” One was Aldo Vera Serafin, an anti-Castro activist gunned down by unknown assailants in Puerto Rico in 1976. The other was Robert Fuller, a plantation owner killed by firing squad in Cuba in 1960.
U.S. courts have traditionally declined to hear claims against foreign governments. But if a foreign nation commits a terrorist act or is designated a state sponsor of terrorism, then they can be sued under U.S. law.
By 2015, plaintiffs had won 11 cases against Cuba under the terrorism exception and courts awarded damages totaling more than $4 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Their fight provides a glimpse into the kind of legal wrangling that will likely occur if the Trump administration allows Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton law to go into effect.
Title III would allow Americans to sue over expropriated property in Cuba. Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in Arlington, Va., criticizes the law. He wrote:
Helms-Burton lawsuits would clog U.S. courts with litigation over foreign property; provide minimal to zero benefit for U.S. claimants; start a needless conflict with U.S. trading partners; hand Cuba a political victory; and defeat some of President Trump’s own objectives.
But if the Villoldo case is any sign, Cuban exiles would pounce on Title III with the devotion of Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield, the Samuel L. Jackson character who said, “I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance…”
Villodo’s son, Gustavo Villoldo Sampera, found a measure of vengeance in Bolivia, where he helped track down and capture Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was then executed on Oct. 9, 1967.
Villoldo posed for photos with corpse of the Argentine revolutionary, cut off strands of Guevara’s hair and later sold them for $100,000.
He had blamed Guevara for the death of his father, Gustavo Villoldo Argilagos, who was born in Cuba on Christmas day in 1901 and grew up in Havana.
The elder Villoldo attended Candler College in Havana, went to law school at the University of Havana and graduated as valedictorian.
According to court records:
After earning his law degree, Mr. Villoldo studied business and economics at the Wharton School of Business in the United States.
Gustavo Villoldo Argilagos subsequently returned to Cuba and opened one of the first General Motors dealerships in the country. Mr. Villoldo gained enormous financial success and came to own numerous other businesses and substantial amounts of commercial, residential, and agricultural real estate. He was a member of the highest society and participated in international athletic competition, including the 1920 Olympics. He and his family enjoyed a life style consistent with this wealth.
During the early morning hours of January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro assumed control of the government of Cuba. The Villoldo family was targeted by the Cuban Defendants because of their financial wealth and American citizenship. Members of Castro’s security forces led by Ernesto “Che” Guevara repeatedly accosted Mr. Villoldo and his family members, at their homes and businesses.
The Villoldo family lawyer describes an encounter with “Los Barbados” – I think he means “Los Barbudos.”
On January 6, 1959, fourteen heavily armed, bearded soldiers known as “Los Barbados,” surrounded Alfredo Villoldo’s home threatening to kill him. Alfredo telephoned his brother for help. Gustavo immediately traveled to Alfredo’s home. On arrival Gustavo was accosted by the Cuban soldiers, who severely beat him. Both Villoldo brothers were taken into custody and transported to a stadium, where the Cuban Defendants were administering mass executions.
Gustavo Villoldo was put in a 30’ x 30’ cell with approximately 140 other prisoners, mostly former police officers and members of the Batista army who had been captured by Castro’s forces. Gustavo Villoldo was detained for five days and tortured. While he was interrogated numerous times, he was deprived of food and sleep and was repeatedly told that he was going to be sent to the Cabana Fortress to be killed by Che Guevara’s firing squad for being an American agent. Gustavo Villoldo and his family members were accused of being lackeys of the United States and Yankee Imperialists. Gustavo Villoldo was beaten during his imprisonment, and his head was placed in a plastic bag. He was also taken to a location where other prisoners were executed by firing squad. After five days of confinement and torture aimed toward a confession or the obtaining of information, all of which would have been contrived, he was released. Of the 140 prisoners held with Gustavo Villoldo, Gustavo was one of only a small number who were not executed.
The torment to Gustavo Villoldo Argilagos and his family continued after the release of his sons from imprisonment. Che Guevara, members of the rebel army and members of the Ministry of the Interior continued to threaten Mr. Villoldo, and they forcibly removed him from his home with machine guns held to his throat on several occasions. At least two times he was taken to “El Laguito,” a lake where victims of executions were dumped. Mr. Villoldo was also taken to the Ministry of Interior where executions were carried out. The threats were then conveyed directly by Che Guevara, who threatened to summarily execute Mr. Villoldo, accusing him of treason. Mr. Villoldo was told repeatedly that he, his sons, and his wife would be killed, unless he acquiesced to the turnover of his property and took his own life. The abductions lasted several hours. When he returned home, after each such event, Mr. Villoldo was visibly shaken. Mr. Villoldo was unable to eat or sleep, and at times lost control of his bodily functions. On February 16, 1959, Mr. Villoldo’s body was found in his home, an apparent suicide, resulting from the threats and demands made to him. Thereafter, Mr. Villoldo’s businesses and farm were taken over by the Cuban government, and Mr. Villoldo’s bank accounts were confiscated.
Gustavo and Alfredo Villoldo were subsequently able to leave Cuba. However, in the United States, the Cuban Defendants continued in actively engaging in efforts toward assassination and threats of assassination against the Villoldos, which continued until the middle of 2003.
Surviving sons Gustavo and Alfredo Villoldo contend that the events that led their father to kill himself “continued until the middle of 2003 with threats of assassination and assassination attempts.”
And their lawyers say Cuba’s actions amount to “torture.”
According to court records:
…on numerous occasions, armed assassins surrounded the Villoldos’ home for the purpose of causing severe mental distress and as part of the Defendants’ efforts to assassinate members of the Villoldo family, including Gustavo Villoldo.
Gustavo Villoldo’s daughter, Elia, said she saw “men armed with rifles” surround her home “in an attempt to murder Gustavo Villoldo.” The family lawyers wrote:
The Court concluded that these “threats of assassination and assassination attempts . . . are properly classified as torture.” In reaching this conclusion, the Court considered that the Villoldos were in the direct physical control of the armed assassins when they surrounded the Villoldos’ home.
In its Final Judgment in the supplemental proceeding, the Florida court confirmed its findings regarding its jurisdiction:
[At the 2011 trial] this Court heard testimony of several witnesses both live and through deposition and received documentary evidence, all of which established to the Court’s satisfaction that: (a) the Defendants’ conduct rose to the level of “torture” as that term is defined in the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991; (b) Cuba was designated a state sponsor of terrorism as a result of, in part, Cuba’s exportation of terrorism throughout Latin America (demonstrated by Che Guevara’s stated intent of inflicting 1,000 Vietnams on the United States), and the actions against the Villoldos established by the record were part of this activity, and (c) the acts of torture, including assaults on the Villoldo home and attempted assassinations against the Villoldos, continued through 2003, after Cuba was designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
In considering the evidence presented at the 2011 trial, the same Florida state court that heard the evidence at trial repeated its findings:
This Court found that the torture inflicted by the Defendants began in January 1959 with the imprisonment and physical torture of the Villoldos that led to the suicide of Mr. Villoldo Sr. and the theft of the Villoldos’ enormous wealth by the Republic of Cuba which was then used by Cuba to fund its efforts to support terrorism in Latin America and around the world.
This Court determined that, for purposes of 28 U.S.C. §1610A, this Court had subject matter jurisdiction because Cuba was designated a state sponsor of terrorism based on its efforts to fund terrorism-based revolutionary efforts and the acts against the Villoldos were the same acts that resulted in the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
In an order dated Oct. 24, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence E. Kahn in New York disputed whether the Villoldo family had enough evidence to show that the defendants were trying to kill Gustavo Villoldo and terrorize his family as late as 2003.
Kahn wrote that the Florida court:
cited no evidence to support its finding of fact and it is unclear what, if anything, the court relied on to conclude that Defendants attempted to assassinate Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs offer little more to enable the Court to conclude that Defendants ever made assassination attempts.
The Florida court did not cite any specific testimony in either the Florida Judgment or the 2013 Judgment. Likewise, Plaintiffs have not offered any testimony to support the court’s conclusions. Nor do Plaintiffs offer any evidence regarding when and where these alleged assassination attempts occurred, how Plaintiffs determined the alleged assassins were Cuban agents, or whether any of the attempts resulted in physical injury. Without these and other critical facts, the Court has no basis to conclude that Defendants attempted to assassinate Plaintiffs. Therefore, Plaintiffs may not rely on the post-1982 acts to invoke the FSIA’s (Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act’s) terrorism exception.
Gustavo Villoldo testified that he believed that Cuban agents wanted to kill him in retaliation for his role in Guevara’s capture.
In 1999, Villoldo wrote a book called Che Guevara: the End of a Myth (The untold story of the man who buried Che).
He is a former agent of the CIA. According to a May 1972 secret memo declassified in June 2017:
Educated in the United States as a young boy, he later studied pre-law at Havana University for two years. Upon the death of his father in 1959 and confiscation of the family business, the Villoldo Motor Company, Mr. Villoldo returned to the U.S. as a political exile. He resides in Florida with his wife and seven children who range in age from 10 to 17.
He was Chief of the Intelligence Service of Brigade 2506 in Guatemala in 1960 and 1961. Later he worked as a spotter of Cubans for recruitment, and as principal agent for PM teams which included training and planning infiltration operations and as infiltration team leader. By far his most notable and important assignment was foreign technical adviser to the Bolivian Government in mid-1967 working with the intelligence unit of the Second Ranger Battalion which located and destroyed Che Guevara’s guerrilla band in Bolivia. As the result of extensive Bolivian and international photographic press coverage of this event, the life of Mr. Villoldo and his family has been and continues to be in considerable jeopardy. As an example of the constant fear in which he must live, he learned in August 1969 that he was the target of an assassination attempt directed by the Cuban Government to be carried out by the Cuban U.N. Mission. Fortunately the Cuban recruited to perform the assassination was a form JMWAVE agent who alerted Villoldo and cooperated with the FBI.
Since his return from Bolivia Mr. Villoldo has trained the Ecuadorean Intelligence Service for the Agency and has been a penetration into the militant activities of the Cuban exile organizations in the Miami area, in which capacity he has provided much valuable information. The time has come, however, that his services in this capacity are no longer required and there is no place in the Agency for his other special talents. By mutual agreement and understanding, therefore, he has made a concerted effort for some time to re-establish himself in a sound business. In this connection he has been given the opportunity to invest in real estate and the construction of condominium units in the Miami area with a prominent Miami Cuban builder who is a reliable friend. Mr. Villoldo needs $30,000 as his share of the initial capital investment.
In view of the unusual circumstances of this case, and in accordance with the referent memorandum, it is requested that the sum of $30,000 be made available to Mr. Villoldo from the Special Annuity Fund to aid him in establishing himself on a sound business basis in the Miami area. For cover purposes a check will be issued to Mr. Villoldo form an ostensible interest-bearing account in an MHMUTUAL holding company in Nassau. The source can be money from the successful family business which Mr. Villoldo was able to get out of Cuba prior to confiscation of the business by the Castro government.
James E. Flannery, acting chief of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division, signed the memo. It says Villoldo’s father died in 1959. Court records later set the date of death as Feb. 16, 1960.
According to court records, Villoldo said in 2017 that attempts on his life “lasted through 2003 and have recently started once again.” According to his sworn statement:
During trial, I offered the following testimony regarding Cuba’s multiple attempts to carry out my assassination and answered all of the Court’s questions related to those attempts.
These questions led to my disclosure to the Court of my role with the CIA. I specifically referred to the mission where I located and captured Che Guevara. I began tracking him in the Dominican Republic and later through Africa. With Bolivia’s Second Ranger Battalion, I ultimately located Che Guevara in Bolivia and participated in the planning and execution of the mission that lead to his capture. Che Guevara was then executed at the direction of the President of Bolivia.
Following Che Guevara’s death in 1967, and in order to retaliate and punish me for my role in his capture, Cuba commenced a concerted and continuing effort to locate me in order to carry out my assassination. These attempts lasted through 2003 and have recently started once again.
I was first warned during the Johnson administration that an assassination team had been deployed to the United States.
On six other occasions between 1982 and 2003, I was directly restrained and threatened by armed individuals who I knew to be Cuban agents. These agents were attempting to harm me and/or cause severe mental suffering due to my involvement in the capture of Che Guevara.
During these attempts, the individuals, who were armed, approached me in an aggressive manner. Each time, I was able to escape. However, because of the continued nature of the attempts, I experience a high level of anxiety, had difficulty sleeping, and became fearful of my surroundings and for my life and my family’s lives. This fear was exacerbated after the assassins involved my family.
The Cuban government has not responded in court to the lawsuits. That makes it easier for U.S. judges to make rulings based on their own political leanings and scant evidence.