By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
Carlos Sánchez Berzaín
Terrifying nickname: Bolivia's Dick Cheney
Iron-fisted infamy: As Bolivia's defense minister in 2003, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín presided over a government crackdown against mostly indigenous protesters who had blocked roads leading to La Paz. They were picketing plans to sell the country's natural gas reserves to foreign investors. On September 20, 2003, according to filings in an ongoing civil lawsuit, Berzaín flew on a military helicopter to a picturesque, backpacker-friendly hamlet called Sorata to negotiate the release of some tourists. The negotiations quickly went sour. In the lawsuit, victims claim the defense minister ordered troops to fire on the locals. That fight exploded into a month of widespread violence, now nicknamed Black October, that eventually led to 67 protesters dead under a hail of bullets from Berzaín's army. Berzaín said the deaths were collateral damage in a battle to save his country. Most Bolivians disagreed. They ran him and President Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada out of La Paz and into South Florida exile by the end of the month.
Finding him in South Florida: 13277 SW 59th Ave., Pinecrest, purchased in 2006 for $950,000. Since 2003, Berzaín has lived mostly in an exclusive, gated waterfront suburb in Pinecrest. His home is far from the most impressive on the street; it's a solid-looking ranch house with a few palm trees out front and a tall wooden fence around the backyard. It's a '70s throwback on a strip of three-story, million-dollar mansions with lavish swimming pools.
Berzaín has kept a low profile. Soon after arriving, he showed up for a few speeches at the University of Miami but was dogged by protesters and has since stayed out of the public eye.
The former defense minister has earned Dick Cheney comparisons thanks to his dark visage and reputation for manipulating several Bolivian presidents prior to Evo Morales, who has ruled since 2006. In 2008, several relatives of indigenous protesters killed in Black October sued Berzaín.
He has repeatedly declined to speak with New Times about the allegations, but his lawyers maintain his innocence.
Neighbors have heard about the hubbub but have a hard time connecting it to Carlos, the guy who runs a few miles around the suburb most mornings. "He's a really bright guy, an excellent person," says Guillermo Alvarez, a retired corporate exec who lives next door. "Whatever happened in Bolivia was just politics."
The aftermath: After two years of courtroom fighting, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan handed Black October victims a partial legal victory this past spring, ruling that they had standing in U.S. courts to proceed with a civil lawsuit against Berzaín.
He has appealed.
Nickname: El Comandante en Jefe
Iron-fisted infamy: Really? If you live in South Florida and need some clarification on this point, strap on a Che T-shirt and head to Versailles on Calle Ocho. If you make it back with both kneecaps intact and feel lucid enough to recall the encounter, give us a call.
Finding him in South Florida: It's not possible, is it? Did el jefe máximo — scourge of the yanqui empire, enemy of 11 U.S. presidents, grand old bastard of the Caribbean — actually call South Florida home for a spell?
Well, no. Not exactly. But he did pass through on at least one important occasion. The year was 1955. The place was Miami's original Little Havana, the area just west of downtown Flagler Street, where thousands of exiles from Batista's corrupt regime had set up shop and scores of paunchy men in guayaberas spent long afternoons sipping cortaditos.
Near Flagler and NW Second Avenue, Castro — then an angry anti-Batista firebrand — drew thousands of exiles on November 20, 1955. He spoke inside the Flagler Theater, an art deco masterpiece once located at 313 W. Flagler St.
Luis Conte Aguero — now an 86-year-old part-time TV host on Telemiami and then a Castro ally — was there. He was on the dais, in fact, while a 29-year-old Fidel raged against Batista and collected a few thousand dollars from the Cubans in the room. "The thing I remember to this day is how in his speech he made a big deal of pointing out that there were 26,000 Cubans at the time in exile. And look what he ended up doing?'' Aguero told the Miami Herald in 2008.
Castro even gave the Herald an interview before the rally. "We have an organized movement of 100,000 persons,'' he said. "If Batista continues to remain in power by force, then there is no other way but to remove him by force."
Today, there's nothing left of the Miami that Castro visited. The Flagler Theater and most of its surroundings were bulldozed in the '60s to make way for I-95 and the various interchanges that entwine behind the downtown public library. "We lost a significant piece of history there," historian George says. "There's no doubt that Castro spent time in this part of Miami."
Try to track down Castro's past here and you'll find a trash-strewn gravel lot under the rumbling highway. Walk west to the Miami River and you're unlikely to see another soul beyond a sleeping, shirtless hobo gently cradling a Busch tallboy like a pillow.
The aftermath: Castro left Miami that day a few thousand bucks richer and in 1958 launched a certain revolution, which you might have heard a word or two about on that visit to Versailles.