A Darker Look at Che's Revolution

After Guevara destroyed his family and his fortune, Gustavo Villoldo hunted the revolutionary leader to his grave.

Add it all up, top it off with a 6 percent interest rate, and the value is $393 million. The decision to file suit wasn't easy. Both Alfredo and Gustavo still awoke to images of their father dead in his study. "I have this dream where my father is drowning in the sea and I'm racing on the beach, trying to get to him, but I can't get through the sand," says Alfredo, the more sensitive and vocal of the brothers.

"It was all about our father," Gustavo adds. "This is about justice, about holding them accountable for what they did to a human being."

On March 18, 2008, they filed an 11-page complaint demanding restitution. "Defendants Fidel Castro Ruiz [and Che] Guevara...are liable for damages arising from the systematic physical and emotional destruction of [Gustavo Sr.] that culminated in him committing suicide," the suit claimed.

Members of the Bolivian military display the body of Che Guevara — proof that he was dead.
Members of the Bolivian military display the body of Che Guevara — proof that he was dead.
Gustavo and Alfredo Villoldo walk out of court after the historic judgment.
Luisa Yanez
Gustavo and Alfredo Villoldo walk out of court after the historic judgment.

The brothers' case finally went to trial this past May 28. On the stand before Judge Peter Adrien, Gustavo wept as he showed photographs of his family. He broke down as he described the walk he took with his father the night before his suicide. As in all the other cases, the Cuban government did not defend itself.

The next day, Adrien told a packed courtroom what he thought about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro's role in Gustavo Sr.'s death: "What the defendants did is torture this family and tear it apart."

Adrien awarded the Villoldo brothers the full $393 million for family assets, another $392 million for pain and suffering and $393 million in punitive damages. In all, he gave them $1.178 billion, the largest civil judgment decided against Cuba.

Many laughed it off as the latest bit of anti-Castro extremism. Castro even dedicated his May 30 "Reflections of Fidel" column in Granma to the Villoldoses' judgment. The award shows that "chaos prevails" in America, he wrote, scoffing, "Such is justice in the United States!" McLaren, the UCLA scholar, asks, "When are the victims of U.S. imperialism going to get financial restitution? Who's going to pay the families of everyone who committed suicide because of the financial crisis?"

But Gustavo figures he can squeeze the cash out of Castro. Though the frozen funds from 1959 are basically tapped out ("There's nothing left," says Joe DeMaria, a Miami lawyer who has worked on these cases), exiles have turned to American phone companies looking for Cuban money. AT&T, Sprint and others sent more than $120 million to Cuba through long-distance calls in the last half of 2008. Earlier this month, a U.S. district judge ordered the companies to explain the practice, setting the stage for a battle over the money.

Gustavo is watching the case, but has begun searching for Cuban accounts and property in Western nations such as Spain that have long had relations with Castro. He hopes to persuade those governments to recognize his judgment and freeze Cuban assets. "It's a new strategy, but it's got a good chance of working," says Jeremy W. Alters, Gustavo's lead attorney.

Nicholas J. Gutierrez Jr., a Miami lawyer representing more than 5,000 exiles who lost property in the revolution, says it's a long shot. "The truth is, many foreign governments are also owed large sums of money by Cuba," he says. "I think he's going to find a lot more debts than assets out there."

In his West Kendall home, Gustavo sits beneath an oil painting of his father and glances around at his mementos. He has no regrets, he says. Then his eyes flash.

"We are gonna collect," he says. "You don't know me, maybe. I'm telling you: We are gonna collect."

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