Watergate: who were the Cuban “plumbers” involved in the fall of President Richard Nixon

They were protagonists of the biggest political scandal that the United States has experienced in the last half century, but their names were on the verge of oblivion, dragged by the maelstrom that meant the fall of President Richard Nixon.

That was an outcome that probably none of them would have imagined that morning of June 17, 1972, when the police arrested them for having entered without authorization the headquarters of the National Committee of the Democratic Party, located in the Watergate building complex in Washington DC

The next day, the press would report that five men had been arrested in those offices and that they were being charged with second-degree robbery, for which they were initially known as the “Watergate burglars.”

Four of them had strong ties to Cuba: Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martínez and Virgilio González had been born on the island and had gone into exile in the United States.while Frank Sturgis was an American who for decades had participated in covert operations, first for and then against Fidel Castro.

The fifth, James W. McCord, was an electronic intercept expert who had worked for the CIA and was then the security coordinator for the Nixon campaign team.

Later it would become clear that, rather than thieves, they were a kind of spies hired to obtain information that would undermine the presidential candidacy of Democratic Party hopeful George McGovern, Nixon’s rival in his run for re-election to the White House.

But how did four people linked to Cuban exile in Miami end up being central figures in the Watergate scandal?

It all started at the Bay of Pigs.

Exiles and former CIA agents

“If you are still the man I knew, come see me,” said the note that Bernard Barker found next to the door of his house.

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E. Howard Hunt, a White House security consultant, had established links with the Cuban exile in Miami during the buildup to the Bay of Pigs invasion.

It was signed by E. Howard Hunt, who in the early 1960s He had been the main interlocutor of the Kennedy government with the Cuban exile community in Miami and political leader of the CIA during the organization of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Barker had been his right hand man.

It was April 17, 1971. It was the tenth anniversary of that failed operation and Barker went with Eugenio Martínez to meet with Hunt. They met next to the monument erected in Miami’s Little Havana in memory of those who fell in that invasion and then went to eat.

Then Hunt told them that he had retired from the CIA and was now working at a public relations firm in Washington. “We talked about the liberation of Cuba and he assured us that ‘all this matter had not ended’ (…) he said that he wanted to meet the people from before. It was a good sign. We did not believe that he had come to Miami for nothing,” Martínez said about that meeting in an article published in 1974 in Harper’s Magazine.

Known as “Musculito” for his strong physical complexion, Martínez was the only one of the three who was still on the CIA payrollalthough this only became known after the Watergate scandal broke.

Born in Artemisa, in the province of Pinar del Río, he had to leave Cuba in the 1950s due to his participation in activities against the government of Fulgencio Batista. He returned in 1959, but had to leave again because of his opposition to the Castro regime.

He joined Brigade 2506 -the group of 1,500 Cuban exiles who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion- and later worked for the CIA in special infiltration operations on the island, carrying out more than 350 missions to transport people by sea. to and from the island.

At the time of the Watergate scandal, his tasks for US intelligence were limited to informing his contact officer about the arrival of new Cuban immigrants in Miami that could be of interest to the CIA, for which he received an income of about $100. monthly dollars.

In Little Havana, in Miami, there is a monument to the fallen of the 2506 Brigade that participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion.

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In Little Havana, in Miami, there is a monument to the fallen of the 2506 Brigade that participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Barker had also been a CIA agent until 1966 and had a more prominent role, both in the invasion of Bahia and in the Watergate case, since he was the key to recruiting the other exiles who participated in the illegal raid on the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The son of an American father and a Cuban mother, Barker grew up and studied in both countries. He joined the US Air Force during World War II, piloting a B-17 bomber that was shot down over Germany, where he spent 18 months as a prisoner.

At the end of the war he returned to Havana, where he joined the secret police of the Batista regime, after whose fall he fled to Miami, where he joined the CIA and helped organize the failed invasion.

From the Pentagon Papers to Watergate

Shortly after the Miami meeting, Hunt began working as a White House security consultant.

The former CIA agent had joined a team created after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a report that revealed the mistakes and lies of the US government in the Vietnam War.

This unit would later be popularly known as “the plumbers” because its task was to deal with the “leakage” of classified information.

“Eduardo [Hunt] he told Barker there was a job, a national security job to deal with a traitor from this country who had given papers to the Russian Embassy. He said that they were forming a group with the CIA, the FBI and all the agencies, and that it would be run from inside the White House,” Martinez wrote in the magazine. Harper’s.

But, although the Cuban exiles apparently did not know it until much later, the mission was not a matter of national security nor did it have the endorsement of the United States intelligence agencies, although Hunt used special equipment -costumes, communication equipment , false identifications – that the CIA had given him for other purposes.

Equipment seized from Watergate "burglars".

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The equipment seized from the Watergate “thieves” had been provided to Hunt by the CIA.

For this mission, in addition to “Musculito”, Barker recruited Felipe De Diego, another Cuban exile, Bay of Pigs veteran and former CIA agent who worked with him in his real estate business in Miami.

On September 3, 1971, the three Cubans broke into the Los Angeles offices of Dr. Lewis Fielding, a psychiatrist for Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press.

Although officially his mission was to search for information to determine if Ellsberg had passed information to the Soviet Union, the real objective of the White House was to obtain material that would allow Ellsberg to be discredited. In any case, the spies walked away empty-handed.

Daniel Ellsberg.

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The Nixon administration sought to damage the credibility of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press.

At the beginning of May 1972, Hunt mobilized Barker along with 15 other Cuban exiles in Washington with the aim of neutralizing an anti-government demonstration organized on the occasion of the wake in the Capitol of Edgar J. Hoover, the feared former head of the FBI.

According to Martínez, the protest in which recognized figures such as Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland participated was effectively dispersed.

At the end of that day, Hunt took Barker to see the Watergate complex and announced that his next operation would be there, at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, assuring him that there were reports that Fidel Castro had been sending money to the Democrats.

“That rumor has circulated throughout Miami. You don’t have to tell me any more about it,” Barker replied, as Hunt recounted in his book. american spy.

A couple of weeks before being captured by police in the early hours of June 17, 1972 at the Watergate complex, Hunt’s team of spies made their first successful raid on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters. in English).

So, they had taken about 40 photos of lists of donors to the party and had planted some microphones in the phones. By then, Virgilio González, Frank Sturgis and James McCord had already joined the team.

González had participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion and had been very active in the anti-Castro community in Miami, where he worked as a locksmith.a function that he also performed while entering the DNC offices.

Sturgis, meanwhile, was a complex character. Born in the United States, but closely linked to Cuba even before the revolution, during the Watergate trial he was described as a “mercenary” by the Prosecutor’s Office.

Frank Sturgis.

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Although he was not born in Cuba, Frank Sturgis was linked to the island for decades.

“Sturgis is one of the most colorful characters in all of this. He had fought in Cuba and then became a CIA asset and was very intimately involved in Cuban politics. and the Cuban Revolution although, at the same time, he was a kind of soldier of fortune”, says Garrett Graff, author of the book “Watergate, a New History“, to BBC Mundo.

As Sturgis told a committee of the US Congress in 1978, his relationship with Cuba began in the 1950s when he agreed with former Cuban President Carlos Prío – exiled in Miami – to go to the island to give training and take weapons to the guerrillas of Fidel Castro who were fighting against the Batista regime.

While on the island he became an informant for the CIA and, after the triumph of the revolution, he worked for a time with Castro, but then he joined anti-Castro groups in Miami organizing covert operations against the island’s regime.

Years after Watergate, Sturgis and Hunt were investigated for their alleged possible involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.a statement that both denied.

Convictions, pardons and resignations

Following their arrest at Watergate, Barker, Martinez, Gonzalez and Sturgis acted in concert. In January 1973 they decided to plead guilty to the charges against them, which was interpreted as a maneuver to avoid incriminating more people in the case.

Months later, they were convicted of crimes of conspiracy, theft and violation of federal laws on communication issues.

Hunt and McCord followed a different strategy, working with authorities to get lesser sentences.

In the end, the four “plumbers” linked to the Cuban exile served about 15 months in prison each.

According to their testimonies, during the Watergate operation they only received money to cover their expenses and the “aid” they received during the trial was mainly dedicated to legal expenses.

After leaving prison, Barker and Sturgis began working as health inspectors for the city of Miami, Martínez became a salesman in a car shop in Little Havana, while González left the locksmith to work as a vehicle mechanic.

Eugenio Martinez.

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Eugenio Martínez was the only one involved in the Watergate case – apart from Richard Nixon – who received a presidential pardon.

Only one of them, Martínez, obtained a presidential pardon granted during the government of Ronald Reagan in 1983, which allowed him to recover his citizen’s right to vote.

Among dozens of those involved in the case, this measure of clemency had only been received by Nixon, who in any case chose to resign from office in 1974 to avoid being removed through impeachment.

Although it is not clear what motivated Martínez’s pardon, British documentary filmmaker Shane O’Sullivan hypothesizes that it was due to a last mission he would have carried out in 1977.

That year, Cuban intelligence contacted “Musculito” to ask for his help in building bridges with the government of Jimmy Carter and he informed the CIA and the FBI, who gave him the green light to act as a double agent and thus discover the plans of La Havana.

Thieves or “patriots”?

But if they did not act for economic reasons, what led the “Cuban plumbers” to become involved in this espionage operation of the Nixon administration?

During an appearance before a congressional committee investigating Watergate, Barker said that his main motivation had been the idea that if they helped Hunt, it would later be possible to enlist the support of him and “others in high places” to overthrow the regime. of Fidel Castro.

“The fact that the Castro government was helping the Democratic Party had been rumored and freely said in Miami by different organizations and personalities that I trust,” he said.

Bernard Barker.

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Bernard Barker was in charge of recruiting other Cuban exiles for the Watergate raids.

That view that helping Hunt would serve to put an end to Castroism in Cuba was repeated in similar terms during the trial by the other three.

“I still feel for my country and for the way people suffer there. That is the only reason I cooperated in that situation,” González said.

Martínez, for his part, told the judge that in Cuba he had owned a hospital, a hotel, a furniture factory and that all that had been taken from him by the Castro revolution. “Money means nothing to us,” he assured.

While Sturgis stated that he would do “anything” in situations in which Cuba and the “communist conspiracy” in the United States were involved.

But is it credible to think that they acted motivated by these reasons?

“I really think they did it for patriotic reasons. Bernard Barker was a staunch anti-communist forged in the anti-Castro struggle and the same could be said of Martínez”, says Shane O’Sullivan, author of the book “Dirty Tricks: Nixon, Watergate, and the CIA“, to BBC Mundo.

“They were really afraid of Castro’s influence on George McGovern, who was seen as very leftist, and they were afraid of what the repercussions would be if the country fell into his hands, in terms of US relations with Cuba and what that would mean. for the Cuban people or their hopes of recovering Cuba,” he adds.

George McGovern and Fidel Castro.

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Cuban exiles in Miami were concerned about the policy toward the island of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, who developed a friendship with Fidel Castro a few years later.

O’Sullivan believes that Hunt misled these Cuban exiles into believing that if they participated in these “national security” missions, there could be a new attempt to invade Cuba or a second Bay of Pigs.

“That was never going to happen, but he made them believe that if they helped the White House on these occasions, Nixon would then reactivate the operations to liberate Cuba,” he says.

Garrett Graff agrees with this vision.

“It is highly credible that the ‘Cuban thieves’ did not fully understand the purpose of the Watergate operation. It seems that they thought they had Cuban patriotic reasons for being there,” he notes.

“It seems pretty clear from the historical record that, at the very least, not all of them understood that what they were doing was illegal and that they had any legitimate belief that they were in a White House-sanctioned national security operation, up to the point in time. which they were arrested, because they trusted Howard Hunt a lot and he worked in the White House,” he adds.

Insisting on this vision that they believed they were participating in a legal mission, the four “Cuban plumbers” sued the Nixon campaign, arguing that they had been deceived into believing that they were acting with government permission in something that concerned the country’s national security. .

Richard Nixon.

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The investigations into the Watergate case forced the resignation of Richard Nixon, who in August 1974 preferred to resign rather than be impeached.

In 1977, they reached an out-of-court settlement in this case by which they were paid $50,000 each, which was interpreted by their lawyers as proof that they had indeed been duped by the White House.

But if in court they were convicted and in the world press they were known to the world as the “Watergate thieves”, in Miami’s Little Havana they continued to be seen as Cuban patriots.

Although this, apparently, was not enough to alleviate the pain of not having obtained the liberation of the island.

Thus, in an interview granted in 2009 to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Martínez expressed his frustration with what had happened.

“I wanted to bring down Castro and unfortunately I brought down the president who was helping us, Richard Nixon,” he lamented.

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