Watergate burglar Rolando Eugenio Martínez was a veteran of more than 300 infiltration missions into Cuba for the CIA during the secret war on Fidel Castro in the early 1960s. He was also the only Watergate burglar still on the agency’s payroll at the time of the break-in.
He was recruited for the Watergate operation by E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA liaison to the Cuban “government in exile” in Miami before the Bay of Pigs invasion. By the summer of 1971, Hunt had retired from the agency and taken up a new job as a security consultant for the Nixon White House.
Incensed by the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon ordered a smear campaign against whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, so Hunt recruited Martínez and two other Cubans to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif. Their goal? To find embarrassing secrets that could destroy Ellsberg’s reputation in the press. Hunt subsequently employed an expanded Cuban team to break into the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in May and June 1972.
Amid rumors that Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern had financial support from Cuba, Hunt sent Martínez into DNC headquarters to find and photograph documentary evidence of collusion between Democrats and Castro. Martínez believed the Ellsberg and Watergate break-ins were “national security” operations being run through Hunt at the White House with the blessing of the CIA. After all, the agency was still paying Martínez a retainer of a hundred dollars a month to report on Cubans of intelligence interest arriving in Miami, and he had repeatedly told his case officer about his contact with Hunt.
After serving 15 months in jail for his part in the break-in, Martínez returned to Miami on parole in 1974 and was warned by former CIA colleagues that Cuban intelligence might try to recruit him. Three years later, in May 1977, the Cuban pitch came. Thinking Martínez was embittered by his Watergate experience, the Cuban intelligence service (Direccion General de Inteligencia — DGI) requested a meeting in Kingston, Jamaica.
Martínez, however, remained loyal to the U.S. government and reported the approach to the CIA through agency veteran Felix Rodriguez. He was told to contact the FBI, who approved a double-agent mission to infiltrate Cuban intelligence. After meetings in Mexico and Jamaica, Martínez sailed to Cuba on Castro’s Bluebird yacht and met Interior Minister José Abrantes. He was debriefed for several days in Havana and given a sum of money. According to Rodriguez, the Cubans wanted Martínez to use his heroic status in the Cuban exile community in Miami to support the joint efforts of Cuban exile banker Bernardo Benes and the new Carter administration to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Instead, Martínez shared the Cuban plans with the FBI, securing himself a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan in 1983. Reagan denied similar requests from Hunt and Nixon’s deputy campaign chief, Jeb Magruder, causing many to suspect that Martínez’s pardon was a political move intended to strengthen Reagan’s popularity with Cuban voters in Miami ahead of his 1984 reelection campaign.
Only those closest to Martínez in intelligence circles knew the role his secret mission to Cuba had played in Reagan’s decision to grant clemency. And Martínez’s mission had an intriguing subplot that threatened the CIA’s very existence at the time. The agency initially suspected that the Cuban pitch to Martínez was part of a broader propaganda campaign to implicate the CIA in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and further damage its morale and reputation after a series of scandals.
Kennedy had initiated his own back-channel diplomacy with Castro in the final months of his life, and his death was being reinvestigated by the House Select Committee on Assassinations at the time of the Cuban approach to Martínez. One of the committee’s key witnesses was Cuban exile leader Antonio Veciana, who told investigators that he and his CIA case officer, Maurice Bishop, had met Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas two months before the Kennedy assassination.
In April 1977, one month before approaching Martínez, Cuban intelligence had met another FBI double agent in Mexico City: Felix Zabala Mas, Veciana’s close friend and business partner. Together, the Cuban exiles had previously mounted two unsuccessful assassination attempts against Castro — with a bazooka in Havana in 1961 and with a gun hidden in a camera in Chile 10 years later. Cuban intelligence thought they had “turned” Zabala Mas against his friend. They hoped that their former enemy could give them the inside track on Veciana’s congressional testimony, Castro assassination plots and current anti-Castro terrorist activity.
Declassified FBI and CIA documents reveal, however, that the Cubans had been deceived by an elaborate plot, designed by Veciana to sabotage President Jimmy Carter’s push to restore relations with Cuba. Veciana scripted Zabala’s approach to Cuban intelligence and what he divulged in subsequent meetings, aiming to incite Castro to publicly rail against the CIA assassination plots, damage relations with the United States and establish Veciana’s name as a CIA agent. Castro refused to take the bait, however, and while efforts at detente floundered in 1977, Castro lived to see the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba in 2015.
Veciana survived a Cuban assassination attempt in 1979, and both he and Martínez lived to see the death of Castro. Martínez is now 96 and rues that his covert operations failed to free Cuba and resulted in the “loss of two presidents” — the assassination of Kennedy, which he believes was an act of revenge by Castro, and the resignation of Nixon.
A genial character, Martínez refuses to discuss anything that didn’t “come out” during his CIA-approved Watergate testimony, like the key to a DNC secretary’s desk drawer that he tried to hide from arresting officers in the early hours of June 17, 1972. When I asked him recently why he had the key that night, he told me with a chuckle, “I don’t remember and I don’t want to remember. I want to be consistent with what I said before. I don’t want it to come out, I’m sorry.” His undiminished loyalty to the intelligence community has repaid the trust shown in him by Reagan 35 years ago. The file detailing who recommended his pardon remains classified, and beyond what he told Watergate prosecutors, his secrets remain sealed.