A man and a woman, both Cuban Americans, meet improbably one November morning under the swaying palms at Havana's famed Copacabana. One is a bold but affable drug smuggler, the other is a . . . fund-raiser for the Democratic Party?
As usual, truth is infinitely stranger than fiction. The Baltimore Orioles can't play ball in Cuba, but American dopers and political operators can hang out like carefree tourists.
The smuggler at the Copa was Jorge Cabrera, the Islamorada seafood dealer who would write a notorious $20,000 check to the Democratic National Committee, visit the White House and (a mere three weeks later) get busted on cocaine charges.
The fund-raiser was Vivian Mannerud, who owns a Miami charter service that arranges legal flights to Cuba through the Bahamas and Mexico.
According to The New York Times, Mannerud and Cabrera met in Havana in November 1995. Cabrera has told investigators that Mannerud solicited a donation for an upcoming Democratic Party dinner in Miami.
Mannerud has said she met Cabrera, but ``can't imagine'' asking him for money. She said she didn't know he'd been twice arrested on drug-related charges and had served time.
Cabrera says Mannerud told him his donation would help move the Clinton administration toward normalizing relations with Cuba. Mannerud denies saying that and asserts Cabrera is ``nuts.'' Nuts or not, he was a regular in Havana. Undaunted by the U.S. embargo, he traveled there often from the Keys.
When arrested last year at a Dade cocaine warehouse, Cabrera had photos of himself with Fidel Castro. He tried to get his 19-year prison sentence cut by implicating the Cuban dictator in drug running.
U.S. agents doubted Cabrera's veracity and decided he wasn't the ideal witness upon which to base an indictment of a head-of-state. Nonetheless, his tale of the Havana encounter with Mannerud can't be casually dismissed.
Days after returning from Cuba, Cabrera wrote the big check to the Democratic National Committee. He attended the Miami campaign dinner and got his picture snapped with Vice President Al Gore. A month later Cabrera was at the White House.
Once his real occupation (and rap sheet) were publicized, the Democrats sheepishly returned his money. The incident has been a centerpiece of the finance scandal engulfing Bill Clinton.
It will be even more embarrassing if investigators nail down Cabrera's story about Mannerud. It's bad enough to ask convicted criminals for campaign contributions, but it's even worse to do it in a foreign country with which the United States has hostile relations; a country most Americans cannot visit.
Clinton's official policy is to bring democracy to Cuba by strangling its economy. So the last person you might expect to find breakfasting at the Copacabana is a Democratic fund-raiser.
But Mannerud's charter service has been taking exiles to the island for years. In 1982, her father was convicted of violating the embargo, and he is now believed to live in Cuba.
Mannerud herself has Treasury Department authorization to go there. Obviously there's no law against talking politics with other visiting Cuban Americans.
We might never know what was or wasn't said at that meeting under the palms, but we know what happened afterward.
What bad luck for Clinton that Mannerud and Cabrera happened to be at the same Havana hotel on the same day, and that Cabrera turned out to be both a Democrat and a smuggler.
It's the intriguing stuff of novels, and of congressional hearings, too.
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald