The Black Hand of Havana

“What was I supposed to do, man? He offered me $7 an hour, when I knew I could make over $1,000 a night selling drugs, you know what I mean?” Alberto laughs, exposing his last three teeth.

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The biography of Alberto, “Mano Negra,” is both fascinating and sad. After spending a couple of hours in his company we were left speechless with sorrow. And confused, because how could we feel sorry for a murderer? No doubt, he had brought his bad fortune on himself.

Alberto was never good for anything. Growing up he was lazy, didn’t want to work and spent his time looking for trouble. In Fidel Castro’s Cuba, unemployment was a crime, and soon enough Alberto was thrown into prison for being a dangerous (i.e., idle) person, serving a 4-year sentence.

But then, out of the blue, his fortune changed. In 1980, when tens of thousands of Cubans were fleeing their country in boats chartered by Cuban-Americans, Fidel Castro saw his chance to embarrass its eternal antagonist. To rid his country of thousands of dangerous criminals and the mentally ill, Castro released them from prison and shipped them across the ocean to the United States.  A heartfelt gift that not only embarrassed the Jimmy Carter, the then-president of the United States, but robbed him of the his second term.

Alberto ended up in Arkansas with a lovely Catholic family who helped him organize welfare checks and food stamps. God had thrown Alberto a lifeline and given him a chance to start on a new path. But for the 28-year Alberto, fresh out from prison, freedom was blinding. Instead of building the foundation for a new life, all Alberto wanted to do was to party from morning to night. The handsome Cuban got drunk, conquered women and made new friends in the nightclubs and bars of the early 80’s Arkansas. He tried drugs – marijuana, cocaine and crack – and just like Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino) in Scarface he learned how to make easy money to support his lifestyle by selling the illegal goods. So when his honest American friend offered him a good job with the decent salary, Alberto declined. With $70,000 in his pocket, he was already making good money.

And that’s where his luck ran out. In 1983, in a heated agreement with another crack-head, Alberto raised his gun and shot his friend. For some unknown reason, he wasn’t charged with homicide. But a few months later, in Tacoma, Washington, he shot and killed another man. This time the law wouldn’t look the other way and sentenced Alberto to ten years in Folsom state, a maximum security prison in California. But Alberto is a friendly guy and made new contacts. When he was released he just continued peddling the same merchandise. Only this time, the police had him under surveillance, and he was caught with 7 oz of cocaine and $8,000 in cash. The US authorities, who had finally realized what category of refugees Fidel Castro had sent them, made a list of all the Cuban delinquents who had managed to screw up their private American Dream and deported them straight back to their communist hell.

“We will give you $25,000 if you go,” the Americans promised. But all Alberto got was 100 Cuban pesos (about $4) and a set of clothes from the Cuban government. Then he was left to fade away on the streets of Havana, sleeping on park benches and scavenging for food and clothes out of the garbage cans.

“Did you ever go back to drug-dealing?” I asked.

Alberto shook his head. “No, the laws are too strict here, it’s not worth it. But you know what? Everyone says I should just forget about those guys that I killed, that it was so long ago. But I can’t. I’ve killed two human beings. I know what I’ve done and I’m paying for it every single day of my life.”

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