MIA Facts Site

The "Cuban Program":
The Facts

Summary.  Between July 1967 and August 1968, nineteen US POWs in Hanoi were separated from the other US POWs and were subjected to interrogation and torture by a group of Caucasians.  These Caucasians spoke English with an apparent Spanish accent.  They seemed to have excellent knowledge of Central America and at least one of the men seemed to have spent some time in the southeastern United States.   One of the US POWs subjected to this treatment died of the torture.  US intelligence learned of this event as soon as US POWs returned in Operation Homecoming, spring 1973. 

The US POWs who were subjected to this treatment believed that the Caucasians were Cubans, thus, this has become known as "the Cuban program."  Beginning in 1973, US agencies -- FBI, CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency -- made numerous attempts to identify the "Cubans" -- with inconclusive results.  US intellignece analysts generally believe that the men were Cubans, though there is no absolute proof as to their collective or individual identities.

Now (November 5, 1999) there is a resurgence of interest in the "Cuban program," spawned by an article that appeared in the Miami Herald in August 1999.  That article was initiated by one CDR William "Chip" Beck who -- for reasons that I cannot discern -- is trying to prove that the US government covered up this hideous treatment of US POWs.  This is a twisted tale; if you can sort it out, let me know.  After you read this article, read the rest of the articles in this series.

  1. First, read the following statement made by Mr. Robert Destatte before Congress on November 4, 1999; it is the best single description of the "Cuban program" and of US attempts to identify the individuals involved.
  2. Follow this link to an article regarding CDR Beck and his fantasies.
  3. Follow this link to an article about former Congressman Bob Dornan and his venture into the "Cuban program."  This link takes you to a copy of a "special orders" speech made by Dornan, attacking bob Destatte.
  4. Follow this link to a collection of newspaper articles that report on the November 4 hearings.
  5. Follow this link to a collection of items from the official record of a previous Congressional hearing.
  6. Follow this link to an attempt by author Al Santoli to make something out of nothing.
  7. If you have a copy of the book Honor Bound:  American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961 - 1973, you can read about the "Cuban program" on pages 394 - 407

Begin quote of Bob Destatte's statement.

Testimony of Mr. Robert J. Destatte,
Senior Analyst, Research & Analysis Directorate,
Defense Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Office,
before the
Committee on International Relations,
House of Representatives, Congress of the United States
November 4, 1999

 

"The CUBAN Program": Torture of American Prisoners by Cuban Agents"

Good morning Chairman Gilman and distinguished Committee Members. I join Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Jones in saluting the American heroes who shared with the Committee this morning their experiences as victims of what has become known as the "Cuban Program." Thank you for the opportunity to present an overview of the historical record of efforts by the Department of Defense and other Federal agencies to answer questions about the "Cuban Program." I ask that my statement, in its entirety, be entered into the record of this hearing.

I would like to begin with a brief description of the "Cuban Program."

What Was The "Cuban Program"?

American POWs coined the term "Cuban Program" to describe a program in which a small team of Caucasian interrogators brutally beat and tortured 19 American aviators in a camp our POWs nicknamed "the Zoo," in Hanoi, between July 1967 and August 1968. One of the POWs, USAF Major Earl G. Cobeil, eventually died from the beatings.

The Caucasian interrogators spoke English fluently, but with a Spanish accent, and spoke knowledgeably about Central America and the Southeastern United States. In an exchange with one of our POWs, a Vietnamese guard referred to the Caucasian interrogators as Cubans. These and other factors led many POWs and analysts, including me, to believe that the interrogators were Cubans, possibly Cubans who had lived in the United States.

The POWs nicknamed the chief Caucasian interrogator "Fidel." They nicknamed his principal assistant "Chico."

Several days before the "Cuban Program" ended a third man the POWs nicknamed variously "Pancho" and "Garcia" appeared to replace "Fidel."

The POWs observed another man who might have been Cuban working as an electrical technician in the POW camp during the closing months of the program. They also heard the voice of a woman they believed was Cuban on the camp radio for about two weeks near the end of the program.

When did the Department of Defense first learn about the "Cuban Program"?

The DOD first learned about the "Cuban Program" in March 1973 when the reports of the first post-homecoming debriefings began arriving at DIA's POW/MIA office.

How did the Department of Defense respond to these first reports?

By 19 March 1973, nearly two weeks before the last POW was released, the DIA’s POW/MIA Office had brought this issue to the attention of senior DOD officials.

By the 23rd of March, the US government had established a coordinated effort to learn the identity of the "Cubans".

That effort involved the DIA, each of the Armed Services, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee’s Chief Investigator.

In April 1974, the CIA informed the Defense Intelligence Agency that CIA analysts had tentatively identified the interrogator nicknamed "Fidel" as one Luis Perez, also known as Luis Perez Jaen, a Captain in the Cuban Ministry of Interior. This Captain:

bulletwas in Hanoi during the "Cuban Program,"
bullethad a history of interrogating foreigners in Cuba, and
bulletwas in the US during 1956-1957, buying and shipping arms to Cuba.
bulletpossessed most of the physical and personality traits of "Fidel" that our POWs had described.

The CIA provided DIA a copy of a photograph of Luis Perez Jaen that was published in the Cuban newspaper "Oriente" on 25 February 1959. The photograph, which we have shared with the Committee, depicts Perez Jaen wearing a military cap and a full beard.

Between November 1975 and mid-1976 US Air Force investigators asked seven victims of the "Cuban Program" to examine this photograph of Luis Perez Jaen. Six of these men could not state positively that he was the interrogator they nicknamed "Fidel," primarily because the photo depicts him wearing a full beard. One of the seven men, Colonel Donald Waltman, wrote in a 16 April 1976 note to a US Air Force investigator: "I say yes, that's Fidel; or at least a guy who looks too much like him. I have to try to imagine him clean shaven, and when I do its him. (Maybe because I'd like to I.D. him so damn bad). Its the most look like Fidel picture I have seen."

Also in April 1974, the CIA informed the DIA that "Chico" might be a Cuban named Veiga (first name unknown), an employee of the Cuban Department of State Security. Reportedly, Veiga had studied at Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, during 1958-59. An extensive follow up investigation by US Air Force investigators failed to confirm the identity of this person.

Other names have been suggested over the years; however, subsequent investigations either ruled them out or proved inconclusive. For example, the DIA POW/MIA Office provided historical information about the "Cuban Program" to the FBI when it investigated a 1987 report that a Cuban employee of the United Nations might be one of the Cuban interrogators. The FBI worked closely with returned POWs in that investigation; however, the POWs could not positively identify the Cuban at the United Nations as one of the men who tortured them in Hanoi.

Recent news stories suggest that the Cuban Minister of Education, Fernando Vecino Alegret, is the interrogator our POWs nicknamed Fidel. Fernando Vecino Alegret first came to our attention shortly before he visited the U.S. in November 1978. At that time federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies examined the possibility that he was the interrogator named Fidel. We have been searching our historical files for any record we might have received from those agencies concerning Fernando Vecino Alegret. Two days ago we discovered a still classified September 1973 report that described Fernando Vecino Alegret as an engineering graduate who studied at the University of Havana during 1962-1965. The report also stated that he founded the Cuban Military Technical Institute (ITM) in September 1966, and that he was its director from September 1966 until January 1973. We have not yet had time to confirm the origin and reliability of that report; however, if the information in the report is accurate, there is little chance that Fernando Vecino Alegret could be the interrogator "Fidel."

Among the names we have received, the two names the CIA suggested in April 1974 remain the most likely candidates for the interrogators nicknamed "Fidel" and "Chico."

What Was The Purpose Of The "Cuban Program?"

The only information we have concerning the purpose of the Cuban Program comes from the American POWs who were victims and two Vietnamese military officers.

The preponderance of information in our files suggests that the "Cuban Program" was a Cuban assistance program that went awry and that the Vietnamese terminated the program shortly after the interrogator nicknamed "Fidel" beat Major Cobeil into a near catatonic state from which he never recovered.

Has The Department Of Defense Kept The Congress Informed?

The Department of Defense has kept the Congress informed about the "Cuban Program" from the very beginning. For example, the DPMO's predecessor office, the Defense Intelligence Agency's Special Office for POW/MIA Affairs, presented testimony about the "Cuban Program" to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee during hearings on 2 July 1973, about three months after the last American POW was released. A former POW who was a victim of the program, US Navy Lieutenant Commander Larry Spencer, also testified before the subcommittee.

Later, the DIA's POW/MIA office provided historical information to the subcommittee’s Chief Investigator, Mr. Alfonso L. Tarabochia, who conducted an independent effort to identify the interrogators.

By September 1974, Mr. Tarabochia had tentatively concluded that "Fidel" possibly was a Cuban named Pedro Fumero. Unfortunately, the returned POWs who were victims of "Fidel" could not identify Fumero as one of their interrogators.

The DPMO’s DIA predecessor office also provided an appraisal to the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on 6 October 1977. More recently, the DPMO provided updates on the "Cuban Program" to Congressman Dornan on 23 March 1987, 22 August 1996, and 11 and 17 September 1996.

Has the Department of Defense kept the public informed about this issue?

The story about the "Cuban Program" is not new. For example, I have here eight news articles about the "Cuban Program" published in 1973, 1977, and 1981 in Washington, DC, New York, Baltimore, Denver, and Des Moines. These articles are based on information released by the DPMO's predecessor, the DIA's POW/MIA office, and personal accounts by POWs who were victims of the program.

What about the recent article in the Miami Herald?

I would like to comment briefly for the public record about recent press reports about the "Cuban Program." News reports published in the Miami Herald on 22 August 1999 and the Seattle Times on 28 October 1999 suggested that this issue was "Concealed for decades by official U.S. secrecy and…the full story of Fidel and the so-called Cuba Program is finally becoming public." The same articles speculated that the reason the story has drawn little attention is "Perhaps…because most POWs obeyed Pentagon orders to keep quiet, to protect POWs who might remain in Vietnam and perhaps because Fidel's identification as a Cuban was then only an unconfirmed allegation by the POWs."

The facts are that Department of Defense officials asked the POWs who were returning during Operation Homecoming in 1973 to not speak out publicly about the torture until after the last POW was released. The last POW was released on 1 April 1973. The first stories by returned POWs about the "Cuban Program" appeared in American newspapers the next day, on 2 April 1973.

Some of the sources cited in the articles portray DPMO's role incorrectly. We are not a counterintelligence office or a law enforcement office. Our mission is humanitarian. It is to account for American servicemen who were lost while serving abroad. All American victims of the "Cuban Program" are accounted for.

Successive Administrations, the Congress, the Department of State, the DIA, the DPMO, the Pacific Command’s Joint Task Force—Full Accounting, the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, the National League of Families--literally thousands of Americans--have worked hard for many years to build and sustain programs that today are allowing us to account for Americans lost in the old Soviet Union, North Korea, Southeast Asia, and other areas in the world.

As DASD Jones stated earlier, our mission is humanitarian and it is worldwide. Our ability to accomplish our mission is dependent wholly on the willingness of foreign governments to allow our POW/MIA specialists to have access to their citizens, records, and territory.

Suggestions that DPMO should investigate war crimes risk undoing the results of years of hard work and jeopardize our ability to accomplish our humanitarian mission.

What Is DPMO's Role With Regard To The "Cuban Program"?

DPMO is a central repository for historical information concerning the American POW/MIA issue. As DASD Jones stated earlier, DPMO stands ready to share historical information and knowledge about the program with appropriate US agencies.

Conclusion: The history of this issue is that the POW/MIA office informed senior Department of Defense officials immediately upon learning about the actions of the presumably Cuban interrogators. Those officials immediately directed appropriate intelligence and investigative agencies to try to identify those interrogators. In 1974 CIA analysts tentatively identified two Cuban officials as the interrogators nicknamed "Fidel" and "Chico." Their victims, however, were not able to confirm the identities. We also have kept the Congress and public informed. We will remain a repository of historical information about all aspects of the POW/MIA issue, and remain ready to share that historical information with appropriate federal intelligence or investigative offices. However, as DASD Jones stated earlier, we believe that DPMO should not become involved in efforts to investigate the "Cuban Program" and jeopardize our accounting mission.

End quote of Bob Destatte's statement.

Here again are the links to other articles in this series.

  1. Follow this link to an article regarding CDR Beck and his fantasies.
  2. Follow this link to an article about former Congressman Bob Dornan and his venture into the "Cuban program."  This link takes you to a copy of a "special orders" speech made by Dornan, attacking Bob Destatte.
  3. Follow this link to a collection of newspaper articles that report on the November 4 hearings.
  4. Follow this link to a collection of items from the official record of a previous Congressional hearing.
  5. Follow this link to an attempt by author Al Santoli to make something out of nothing.
  6. If you have a copy of the book Honor Bound:  American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961 - 1973, you can read about the "Cuban program" on pages 394 - 407