Robert Vesco stole $220m, tried to bribe the US government to drop charges, and went on the run for 23 years. Now Fidel Castro has jailed him, and all that remains is to untangle a mysterious saga of drugs, money, Aids cures and geopolitical intrigue

Phil Davison
Saturday 15 July 1995 23:02 BST

TO MOST of his neighbours in the once-plush but long run-down Havana neighbourhood of Siboney, and to fellow golfers who used to wonder why his four burly "caddies" were always looking somewhere else while he putted, he was known as Senor Adams, or Tom El Americano. Given the United States government's ban on travelling to, or doing business with, Cuba, just to be known as "the American" was enough to bestow a certain mystique in Havana. But there was something about Senor Tom - perhaps the "caddies'" disinclination for small talk, perhaps the unmistakable bulge of pistols beneath their loose, tropical shirts - that discouraged too many questions being asked in the 19th Hole Bar of Havana's only golf club - a club with just a nine-hole course.

Even six weeks after his startling arrest as a "provocateur and agent of foreign special services" by the very Cuban state security agents who had protected him for 12 years, most Cubans remain blissfully unaware that "Tom the American", the man who looked like an ageing rocker trying to beat the clock, was none other than Robert Lee Vesco, an errant "financier" at the heart of an arcane drama involving one of America's most wanted fugitives (a part played by "Tom" himself), a stolen $220m, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, the late Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cocaine cartel, Colombia's M-19 guerrillas, the Sandinistas, the nephew of an American president and a miracle drug that is said to be a cure for Aids and cancer .

But those who have been warned by the Cuban authorities not to talk to prying foreign reporters, those who bought Vesco a casual round in the 19th Hole Bar, are now well aware that he must have been a very big fish indeed. What they don't know is the extent of this arch-criminal's pond, which big Cuban fish he was swimming with, and, even more intriguingly, why those fish should have turned against him. And to that question, only Vesco - and Fidel Castro - may know the answer.

"ROBERT VESCO? Born in Detroit, Italian and, if you've read any Elmore Leonard, you'll put it together," says one journalist who has studied his career. It didn't seem so obvious in 1970, when the 34-year-old ex- high school drop out rode to the rescue of Investment Overseas Services (IOS), a Geneva-based mutual funds concern whose seemingly imminent collapse had caused panic on the London stock exchange. IOS had been the creation of Bernie Cornfeld, a flamboyant financial impresario with a life-long attraction for beautiful women (Victoria Principal was his "backgammon teacher", Heidi Fleiss his "discovery", and, shortly before his death in March this year, he was spotted in his Rolls-Royce accompanied by two leather-clad lesbian chauffeuses). Cornfeld asked his salesmen the simple question: "Do you sincerely want to be rich?" They did, and so did thousands upon thousands of investors. For most of the Sixties, profits were enormous and IOS became one of the world's largest financial organisations. But the bubble burst, and Vesco saw his great opportunity; in 1970, for just $5m, he got his hands on an operation which, in 1971, still controlled funds worth $400m. Better yet, so chaotic had been Cornfeld's control systems that Vesco found himself free to plunder to his heart's content.

The son of a car factory worker, Vesco had started work in an automobile repair shop at the age of 15, and taught himself engineering at night school. By his late twenties he had aggressively put together a New Jersey- based machine-tool company called International Controls Corporation. A few lucrative contracts with NASA (not to mention some close contacts with the Mafia) helped make Vesco a millionaire; by 1969, ICC had total annual sales of around $100m, and profits of $4.7m, and had enjoyed financial aid from the Bank of America and the Prudential Insurance Company, respectively the biggest bank and the biggest insurance company in the world. A nice little earner, but nothing to what Vesco found on offer in the hall-of- mirrors that was IOS.

By 1971, complaints from investors about IOS's dwindling returns, and increasing confusion as to where their investments actually were, gradually pointed to the inescapable conclusion that the funds' assets were becoming bubbles in the wind. By the end of the year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] had launched a formal investigation, and in 1972 it lodged a civil indictment charging Vesco with swindling investors out of $224m - according to court records filed later in the USA, Vesco had been selling off assets to paper companies as fast as he could print up imaginative new letterheads. ("He was somebody that actually showed an open contempt for the law," said John Lewis, a Philadelphia lawyer who tried to recover the funds. "He had one meeting where he was talking about some of the new companies he was going to create and he put the letters LPI on the blackboard. Somebody asked him what it stood for, and he said it stood for Looting and Plundering Incorporated.")

Needless to say, Vesco was not around to face charges; by the time the indictment was laid, he had fled the US on a commercial flight, reportedly carrying with him several hundred dollars' worth of excess baggage and, in it, some $60m in cash. Vesco was not averse to spending it in a good cause; soon after he fled the US, one of his employees was reported to have handed $200,000 cash to Maurice Stans, then US Commerce Secretary and chief fund-raiser for President Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, allegedly to encourage Stans and John Mitchell, then the US Attorney-General, to call off the SEC investigation. Vesco was indicted for making an "illegal payment to the presidential campaign"; both Stans and Mitchell were acquitted of any wrongdoing.

For Vesco, it was the start of a self-imposed Caribbean exile. He was first sighted again in 1972, in the Bahamas, but by 1973 had astounded the local media by flying into Costa Rica in a custom-fitted Boeing 707 complete with discotheque and a couple of saunas. There he settled, and obtained residents' documents with ease; as Jose Maria Figueres, the Costa Rican president, explained, Vesco had invested $13m in the Central American nation and had plans to pour in $42m more. Vesco had the ranch, the plane, the money and the clout. But, as anybody who likes to potter about on his boat of a Sunday afternoon can understand, he missed his yacht, the Patricia III, a 137ft vessel confiscated by a US court as collateral with which, one day, to repay swindled investors. And so it was that late one night 20 years ago this month, a limousine with tinted windows pulled up alongside the Patricia III at her berth in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she was guarded by a federal US marshal and private security guards. Guards notwithstanding, the impounded yacht set sail and was next seen under a Panamanian flag in Nassau in the Bahamas, being used by an Italian- American gentleman with the matinee-idol moustache and luxuriant sideburns that Vesco favoured.

It could not last. In 1978, after a change of government in Costa Rica and a slew of extradition requests from the US, Vesco was refused re-entry after a trip to the Bahamas. He was on the move again, drifting between Nicaragua and the Bahamas, evading an FBI plot to kidnap him from Nassau airport, living on yearly residence permits until US pressure led the Bahamian government to expel him in 1981. The prime minister, Lynden Pindling, was forced to deny accusations that he had taken money from Vesco.

The rogue capitalist seemed to be running out of road. But then, in 1982, after reports of a kidnap threat against one of his four children, he found what appeared to be the perfect hiding place: just 100 miles from Florida, but in a territory distinctly hostile to US agents, Vesco found sanctuary in Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Why Cuba? There was talk, perhaps pushed by Castro himself, that Vesco had been allowed in for "humanitarian reasons"; he was ailing and in need of the unmatchable benefits of Cuba's then still formidable health system. If so, Cuban medicine worked wonders. Vesco recovered rapidly and began to use his expertise in the formation of paper intermediary companies to help Castro's faltering regime to get round the crippling US economic embargo. (Vesco had apparently come to Castro recommended not only by the former Costa Rican president, Jose Figueres, but also by Tomas Borge, the Nicaraguan interior minister. Why Mr Borge, a Sandinista, should have given his blessing to the fugitive was not at first clear; however, in 1989, a US indictment charged Vesco with helping Colombian cocaine to reach the Bahamas, and ultimately the US, via Nicaraguan and Cuban airspace.) But perhaps Castro just enjoyed annoying his American enemies. It was not until 1985, at a press conference in Havana, that the Cuban leader first admitted the presence of his American guest. "They've been persecuting Vesco like a deer," Castro said. "What do they want to do? Gouge out his eyes, or make mincemeat of him?"

"They" probably did. Instead, diplomats at the US Interests Section in Havana, the equivalent of an embassy in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, had to content themselves with regularly "expressing interest" in Vesco. As for Vesco himself, for more than a decade, he "laid pretty low", said a Western diplomat, adding: "But he was an avid golfer. There were Vesco sightings, though not quite as bad as the Elvis sightings. Some of his children went to the international school here, on 18th Street in the Miramar district. I think a granddaughter of his still does, along with my son. I think one of Vesco's daughters married a Cuban and may still be here." If Vesco is ever brought to trial in the US, such details may finally become clearer; but, for now, every aspect of his life remains clouded with mystery. The financier's other three children are in their late twenties or early thirties; at least one, Danny, is pursuing a business career in the US. Little is known of Vesco's wife, Patricia, but she was not at the Siboney villa when 18 plainclothes state security agents arrested Vesco on 31 May.

SOMEONE ELSE was: Donald Nixon, ex-hippie, erstwhile businessman, longtime Vesco crony, nephew of the former president of the United States, and son of a man who is said to have given Vesco a helping hand in the NASA days. And if Donald is typical of the company Vesco has been forced to keep these last years, one can only sympathise.

I traced Nixon, who told me he was "49 going on 70", to Room 329 at Havana's out-of-the-way Biocaribe Hotel, where he was being allowed to stay while being questioned about his links with Vesco. I found him in the hotel lobby, where a 70-year-old cigar-maker called Pedro Lugo was deftly rolling leaves around a long Havana that Nixon had broken in his pocket. The Nixon profile was unmistakable, despite the rimless glasses and the greying hair. He was friendly enough, even glad to see me and Independent photographer Tom Pilston. "No picture, please, it's too dangerous. This place is crawling with state security," he said. "But I suppose you've already snuck a few."

He turned to Lugo. "Show him the one in the box, maestro," he said, as plainclothes (but conspicuous) security agents looked suspiciously on. A grinning Lugo produced his masterpiece, a 9in-long Havana rolled in the shape of a penis, complete with foreskin, testicles and pubic hair. "Awesome, huh?'' said Nixon, "and only 15 bucks a piece. Oh, and if you're in the Hotel Sevilla, ask to see the sex chair." He never got round to telling me what the chair looks like. Or what it does.

Settling into a sofa in the bar lounge and ordering what the waiter called "Donald's Thing" (Hatuey, a local beer, with crushed ice and limes), Nixon veered between wide-eyed excitement at his "Cuban project" and terror that the Cubans would stage "a show trial. They're accusing me and Mr Vesco [he alternated between "Mr Vesco" and "Bob"] of working for the CIA, laundering money and international drug trafficking. This is like the Hotel California," he went on. "You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. I'm scared to death."

The truth, he insisted, was different. He had come to Cuba, to press on with a project, involving Vesco and the government, to develop a new drug called TX (Trioxidal), extracted from the citronella plant. This would, he said, cure Aids and some forms of cancer and might eventually allow man to live hundreds of years by bolstering our immune systems.

"This is the biggest story ever," he enthused. "I'm sitting on top of the biggest breakthrough in the history of man. It's going to change the total social and economic structure of the world; this could be worth $l0bn a month net. We've tried it on people from five to 80, and Cuba now knows how to manufacture the material in large quantities. Once the international pharmaceutical companies know this exists, the inventor [an American doctor he declined to name] will ultimately receive the Nobel Prize."

How had he come upon this miracle cure? After his wife Helene was operated on for breast cancer 10 years ago, he said, she was given five years to live and contracted crippling arthritis as a result of chemotherapy. Efforts to save her led him to an American doctor who believed he had a cure for Aids. "I saw the blood tests for all his Aids patients, and it worked. I got the drug for my wife. Do you ski? She skied 34 straight days that same winter - you know what that takes. She's had nothing since. Not even 'flu. The drug is against the law in the US. My wife's got to have it or she'll die. A few drops on the tongue every day."

And that, said Nixon, was why he had got in touch with Vesco. "He's the most brilliant man I've ever met. I knew him 25 years ago when I was his assistant, when he ran IOS. I did everything he asked of me, but I had nothing to do with the financial affairs - I don't think he took the money. Three years ago I called him about my friend's drug, and I've been coming here regularly ever since, staying at Mr Vesco's house. Mr Vesco had thought this could be his swansong, to regain his stature, because of what this means to the world. Our deal was that for every two doses, one would be sold, while one would be free to Cuba for use by all the people."

Before Vesco's arrest, these laudable sentiments were, according to Nixon, being put into practice. "We worked on TX at the Labiofam plant, just up the road. Its president is Gloria Castro, who's a relative of Fidel's. She's in charge of sales. Fragga Castro, Fidel's nephew, is a director - he managed the whole operation. Mr Vesco handled the relationship with the Cubans, the processing and manufacturing - we were building the lab up to GMP [good manufacturers' practice] standards. We finally figured out how to produce it in large quantities about six weeks ago, just before we were detained and they stopped the project. I think Mr Vesco must have upset somebody at the top, and I mean the top level."

If the extraordinarily effusive hotel staff were anything to go by, Nixon himself remained popular with ordinary Cubans. For that, he had an explanation: "These people," he said,"have all used it. They call me Dr Donald. The word has got around;. I've had people stop me in the street and thank me."

The Hatuey - neat, without the Donald's Thing additives - helped me through the interview, but when Nixon began explaining how he also had the answer to the lack of food in the world, something to do with tomatoes and lettuces that would last for 16 months, we remembered that we had another engagement. We left him to re-read the one book he had with him, The Last Lion, a biography of Churchill. "This guy Churchill was awesome. He had the balls of an elephant," Richard Nixon's nephew gushed as several pairs of eyes followed us to the door.

Just a few days later, the Cubans returned Donald Nixon's passport, and he left Havana on 2 July to face a grilling from the FBI before returning to his wife and boys at their home in Tustin, California. He had a few words for reporters at Havana airport: "I have," he declared, "a pure heart."

WHETHER VESCO was telling his interrogators that he, too, had a pure heart, is not on record. Activities at the Villa Marista, the sprawling headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior's state security branch, where Vesco is thought to be held, are rarely made public.

Even more mysterious are the reasons for the sudden downturn in Vesco's fortunes. Why should a man who, despite his known criminality, had been a welcome guest of the Cuban government for 13 years suddenly find himself facing magnificently vague but menacing charges? On the Havana diplomatic circuit, more questions have been posed than answers offered (and none of them referred to a miracle cure for Aids). Had Vesco simply, as some cynics believe, run out of money with which to keep his hosts sweet? Had he made a deal with the Americans to spill the beans on alleged drug-trafficking through the island in return for leniency - and had Castro then got wind of the deal and been forced to shut the financier up? Or was Vesco's arrest part of a grander geopolitical game? Was Castro throwing Vesco as a bone to the American government? Was this the prelude to a thaw in US-Cuban relations?

It was precisely this interpretation that Cuban exiles feared when, on 8 June, the news broke, and ABC, the US television network, reported that Cuba had detained Vesco and was waiting for the US Justice Department to send an arrest warrant based on the 1989 cocaine-trafficking indictment lodged in Jacksonville, Florida. A Clinton administration official announced that the US Interests Section in Havana was discussing Vesco's extradition; prosecutors around the US began dusting off their files; and the US Securities and Exchange Commission began wondering whether it would get back any of the missing IOS funds, now calculated as being worth, with interest, close to $1.5bn. And then, eleven days later, Fidel Castro himself nipped such talk in the bud, telling senior executives from CNN that extradition would be "immoral", that Vesco should not become "a pawn" in US-Cuban relations and that Vesco would be tried in Cuba if enough evidence were found.

Enough evidence of what? During his early days in Cuba, Vesco invested in sugar, tobacco and coffee futures and turned his expertise to getting American computers and modern sugar-harvesting equipment on to the island via third countries and false documentation. But as his fortune, already depleted by pay-offs during his Caribbean odyssey, dwindled, he is alleged to have turned to something he had always said he abhorred - drugs. And drugs, Castro and Cuba is a murky tale.

While US officials are reluctant to confirm it, West European diplomats push the line that Castro has been trying to "clean up his act" after reports that, in the Eighties, cocaine was being smuggled via the island with official involvement. The "clean-up" theory is largely based on the fact that in 1989 Castro executed two of his senior personnel, Colonel Tony De La Guardia, head of the Interior Ministry's intelligence apparatus, and General Arnaldo Ochoa, for alleged corruption and drug trafficking. The problem with that theory is that many Cubans, and US officials, believe that the two men were executed not because of drugs, but because their popularity and contacts posed a threat to Castro, or even because they had plotted against him (the charismatic Gen Ochoa was a hero of the long involvement in Angola, where 200,000 Cubans had served). Furthermore, it's argued, if De La Guardia and Ochoa had been involved in drugs, they could not have been so without Castro's knowledge.

Cubans who have gone into exile since 1989 say that Vesco and De La Guardia knew each other well. As head of both CIMEX, the government's import-export corporation, since 1986, and of the Moneda Convertible (Convertible Currency) department of the Interior Ministry, Colonel De La Guardia was reputed to have used Vesco's contacts and knowhow to help set up a network of disguised trading companies around the world to circumvent the US embargo. But, according to the Cuban writer Norberto Fuentes, who had close links with the Castro regime before he went into exile last year, the colonel did not trust Vesco: "Tony used to say Vesco was capable of selling his mother," Fuentes says. (Fuentes recently described how Fidel Castro's office approached him in the mid-Eighties to help Vesco write two books. The first would have been about people Vesco had dealt with, and would have made their identities obvious without naming them. Vesco would then ask them to "grant my requests", and those who didn't cooperate would feature in the second volume, under their own names. "Just a little exercise in blackmail supported by the entire machinery of the Cuban revolutionary government," wrote Fuentes. He managed to talk Castro's aides out of the idea.)

Certainly, most Havana-based diplomats believe that cocaine may be the key to Vesco's detention. Although Vesco's precise role in allegedly smuggling Colombian cocaine via Cuba to the US was not specified in the 1989 US drug indictment against him, his co-defendant was Carlos Lehder, once a leading figure in the Medellin cartel and the only Colombian druglord ever brought to justice in the US (He is currently serving a life sentence in an American jail). What Lehder is likely to have said may be gauged from the evidence he gave at the 1992 trial in Miami of Manuel Noriega, the deposed Panamanian leader; there, Lehder testified that Vesco "was one of my partners in the Bahamas" and that the two men had "discussed the use of the island [Cuba] as a trans-shipment point."

After a government crackdown in Colombia in 1984, Lehder had, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), moved his operation to Nicaragua, with the blessing of the Sandinista leadership and, in particular, that of Interior Minister Tomas Borge. But when a photograph taken by a DEA informer which showed Lehder's associate, the late Pablo Escobar, and an aide to Borge helping to load cocaine on to an aircraft at Nicaragua's Los Brasiles airbase, was published, Lehder panicked and decided to move to the Bahamas.

To avoid a dangerous and costly detour for his cocaine around Cuba, Lehder reportedly contacted Vesco, knowing that the financier had built up good contacts on the island, and asked him if he could guarantee unimpeded passage over Cuban airspace. Lehder's pilot, Carlos Fernando Arenas, told a federal court in Jacksonville that he had personally conveyed messages between Lehder and Vesco, including the latter's assurance that he had won clearance for the cocaine flights. Arenas, currently in a US prison, testified that Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, Cuba's Defence Minister and head of the Cuban armed forces, was with Vesco at one such meeting. Arenas had more to say: he claimed that Ivan Dario Ospina, then commander of Colombia's M-19 guerrillas and a man with close ties to the Medellin cartel, acted as a liaison between Lehder and the authorities in Nicaragua and Cuba. According to Andres Oppenheimer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Castro's Final Hour, M-19 in return received weapons from Cuba on planes that both belonged to the Medellin cartel and had been given clearance to fly over, or sometimes land in, Cuba. Vesco could have been offering to confirm these stories to the US government - or Castro may finally have learnt that Vesco was indeed a drug-smuggler.

TRUTH, in the world of the narcotraficantes, is notoriously difficult to disinter. What Vesco did, what Castro knew, what is disinformation and what is simply material stored up against a rainy day, can only be surmised. Certainly, when Arthur Herzog, author of the 1987 book Vesco: From Wall Street To Castro's Cuba, met Vesco, the fugitive was looking to his financial future.

"In 1986, I went to Cuba," Herzog recently told the New York Times, "and an intermediary told me that he [Vesco] wanted to see the manuscript of a book I was writing. I sent everything except the sections dealing with drugs, and was told to wait in my hotel room. Around midnight, the phone rang, and a voice said 'Contact' and instructed me to walk down the Malecon, Havana's seaside highway. At the appointed spot, there was a man in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt: Vesco.

"We strolled into a small, dimly-lighted park, and I noticed seven or eight bodyguards trailing us - paranoia is to be expected from someone who has been on the lam for more than 10 years. 'You have most of the story but not all,' he told me. How could I to get the rest? 'Make a contribution to a trust fund for my kids.' "

In recent months, Vesco's security cover had, reportedly, been wound down. Perhaps he saw what was coming; perhaps he was worried about his children's financial arrangements; perhaps he saw his salvation in Donald Nixon and the extract of the citronella plant; perhaps Fidel Castro had come across evidence that Vesco had indeed been engaging in anti- Cuban activities; perhaps, as Cuban exiles in Miami believe, there was something about which Vesco simply knew too much. As the exiled Cuban journalist Gina Montaner wrote last month in the Miami Herald, "Something stinks in Havana. As in the Cosa Nostra, the Don sacrifices his capos when the filth gets out of hand."

She may be right; she may be wrong. But for how much longer can Robert Vesco remain a silent sacrifice? !

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in