American Financier Sentenced to Cuban Jail After Decades on the Run
MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Cuba once seemed the safest haven of all for aging financier Robert Vesco, one of America’s most infamous fugitives, but his luck just ran out.
On Monday, a Cuban tribunal found Vesco guilty of producing and marketing a cancer and arthritis drug without the Communist government’s knowledge _ and sentenced him to 13 years in a Cuban prison.
The five-member tribunal said Vesco must also repay foreign investors who claimed they poured tens of thousands of dollars into producing and marketing the drug.
The man in the blue-gray jail jumpsuit who testified earlier this month in a sweltering Havana courtroom barely resembled the photographs of the dashing, dark-haired fellow who fled the United States 25 years ago to avoid charges that he bilked mutual fund investors of $224 million.
Haggard, graying and suffering from chronic urinary tract problems, Vesco looked old beyond his 60 years. He reportedly has been in and out of the hospital over the last 14 months while in custody awaiting trial.
Vesco is also wanted in the United States on various charges, including making an illegal $200,000 contribution to President Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. A 1989 U.S. indictment accuses Vesco of using Cuba as a base for drug trafficking.
Over the years, Vesco lived in the Bahamas, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, always successfully evading U.S. extradition attempts. In 1982, he finally settled in Havana, where he could often be seen sailing or socializing with friends at the Hemingway Marina.
In Cuba, he was safe from American justice. Cuba, for decades at odds with the United States, refused repeated American requests to extradite him.
He also cultivated a friendly relationship with government officials. Many of them testified at his trial, saying they felt betrayed when they learned that Vesco had tried to develop and market the drug TX behind their backs.
Developing TX with the help Cuban government labs, Vesco had emphasized that the product could be used not only to treat the Cuban people but to help their ailing economy, the officials testified.
Donald Nixon, nephew of the former American president, had initially told Vesco about the drug and later become his business partner. Nixon was staying at Vesco’s Havana home when the financier was arrested in May 1995, and was interrogated for several weeks afterward.
Nixon said his interrogators told him they believed the drug project was actually a CIA front operation. The CIA denies any connection to Vesco.
Government officials testified they became suspicious about Vesco when they discovered that he had been meeting with foreign businessmen, soliciting tens of thousands of dollars from them and even sponsoring non-clinical trials of the drug in other countries.
The Cuban government had approved only clinical trials of TX, saying it was too early to test it on humans.
During rambling testimony earlier this month, Vesco denied defrauding the country that had given him refuge.
``Why would I try to defraud people of money in a country where I am alive because they have let me stay here?″ he asked the court.
Still, Vesco had admitted pressuring government officials and investors to get the drug TX patented in Cuba ``so our enemies wouldn’t get it and register it first.″
Cuban officials said they felt so betrayed that prosecutors originally thought about filing charges of espionage and sabotage, either of which could have meant a death sentence, U.S. authorities have said.
They later charged him with economic crimes, including harming the government’s economic plans. He had faced up to 20 years, but was sentenced to 13.
Lidia Alfonso Llauger, Vesco’s Cuban wife, was convicted of lesser charges in the case and sentenced to nine years.
Vesco and his wife have 10 days to appeal to the Cuba’s Supreme Popular Tribunal.
There was no immediate response to the sentencing from Vesco, who remained jailed when the announcement was made, or from his wife or defense attorney.
Vesco’s lawyer presented only a handful of witnesses during the trial. He argued that the evidence was weak, and said Vesco had always acted in good faith in hopes of aiding Cuba’s ailing economy.
Prosecutors presented depositions from 31 foreign investors who said they gave Vesco money to invest in a corporation that would market the drug _ on the understanding that Cuba had approved the project.
Among the witnesses who testified for the prosecution was Jose Antonio Fraga Castro, President Fidel Castro’s nephew and the director of the laboratory testing the drug.