As a kid, Sergio Florez remembers a lot of interesting company coming over for dinner in his New York City home. The conversations were peppered with references to international affairs, Fidel Castro, and Cuba.
Florez’s father, Armando, was a former Cuban diplomat to the United States, Belgium, India, and Czechoslovakia who later defected to America and became a vocal critic of the Castro regime.
At the time, Florez didn’t think too much about it. It was only when he got older that he began to realize the history his father lived through—the Cuban Revolution, the missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and the dashed dreams of that revolution.
Now he wants to write a book about it, but the best information source is the Central Intelligence Agency and transparency isn’t high on its priority list. So Florez, a managing editor at the New York Times, is suing the CIA to get its files on his father.
Florez said his father was nearly as tight-lipped as the CIA about his days as a diplomat.
"He was always very reluctant to talk about it," Florez said of his father. "If you asked a direct question he'd answer, but he wouldn't expand on it. A couple times I asked him to talk more about it, and he would sigh and say that was all in the past, it was a difficult period, he’d rather not discuss that, and so forth."
Then Florez’s father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, locking away those memories forever.
"I had always envisioned this time when he would retire, and we would sit down and talk about those times, but he was diagnosed when he was still working, only about 63 years old," Florez said. "Very acute memory problems. For a very long period he just got more withdrawn."
In 2001, Florez read about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and filed a public records request with the CIA for its files on his father. Given his father’s history as both a diplomat and defector from one of America’s geopolitical foes, there is little doubt the spy agency has extensive records on his father.
"The CIA replied that they wouldn't be able to do any search unless he signed a release waiver," Florez said. "But he was very ill. He would not be able to sign that. So I let it go. He got worse and worse, and when he died, it was very difficult, even though you knew it was coming. I started thinking a lot about his legacy."
Florez quickly put in another FOIA request, but this time, the CIA said it could not confirm or deny the existence of files on Florez—what’s known as a "Glomar response"—out of national security concerns.
However, Florez and his attorney say they found references to Armando Florez on the CIA’s website that publicly acknowledge the spy agency had an interest in the elder Florez.
"Thus, both the CIA's assertion that its search was adequate and its assertion that it cannot confirm the existence of any records without jeopardizing national security are not only illogical and implausible but also indisputably false," a recent court filing by Florez’s lawyer wrote in a recent filing. "More generally, the facts of this case bespeak the basic growing concern that the government's classification of documents as national security secrets through Glomar responses has become overbroad to the point of absurdity."
Even without the CIA records, though, what is known about Florez’s father is quite a story.
Born in 1931, Armando J. Florez was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution, and after the successful overthrow of the Batista government in 1959, he became the chief Cuban diplomat in Washington, D.C.
When the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, Florez was notified to close all business and return to his home country within a few days. When Florez failed to comply, the outgoing Eisenhower administration ordered him to leave the country by JFK’s Jan. 20 inauguration. On the day of the inauguration, Florez was escorted to the airport by federal agents and put on a plane back to Cuba.
The Cuban government stationed Florez in India and later Czechoslovakia, at that time an important ally to Cuba.
Sergio Florez has pieced together stories of his father’s tenure there from old colleagues and fellow defectors. One time, the elder Florez organized a cocktail reception at the embassy, but when the guests arrived, he was nowhere to be found.
"Everybody was a bit miffed that he would organize a reception and not show up," Sergio Florez said. "Right as everyone was getting ready to leave, he walked through the door followed by this guy in a long raincoat. He said, ‘I'm sorry but our minister of industry just arrived.’ And there was Che Guevara. Suddenly everyone decided they could stick around a bit longer."
Despite being a diplomat, Florez apparently had a rather undiplomatic streak.
At one state function, Florez refused to shake the hand of the Soviet consul, a major breach of protocol. Czechoslovak official Alexander Dubcek, who would later go on to become leader of the country, was beside himself. According to Florez, his father replied to Dubcek, "We have just overcome being a colonial appendage of the U.S. We're not going to become one to the Soviet Union."
Dubcek should have listened to Florez: In 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, crushing the liberal reforms put in place by Dubcek, who was forced to resign and later expelled from the Communist Party.
"A lot of people view the situation as you were either for Castro or against," Florez said. "A lot miss the point there were people like my father who were supportive of the revolution, and admired Castro’s leadership during it, but viewed the revolution as being about democratic socialism. He believed profoundly in the revolution."
Florez’s belief in democratic socialism, led him to become more and more disillusioned in the autocratic Castro regime and its ties to the Soviet Union. It also drew the ire of the communist party leadership.
According to court filings, in 1965, Dr. Julio Martinez Paez attempted to shoot Florez's bride Ivette Hernandez—one of the most accomplished Cuban pianists of the 20th century—on the day of their wedding.
Paez, a member of Castro’s inner circle, was never apprehended, and Florez denounced the Cuban government for what he called a cover-up. For his dissent, he was recalled to low-level position at the foreign ministry in Havana until 1968.
Later that year, during a layover in Madrid, Florez and his wife announced their intention to defect. Cuban and Spanish officials attempted to intervene. Then several CIA agents arrived from the U.S. embassy.
After promising to exchange information on the Cuban government in exchange for help immigrating to the United States, Florez and his wife were shuttled out of Spain by CIA agents.
Florez told the Associated Press: "For many years the political process of Cuba has followed a course of complete anarchy and arbitrariness, which is revealed in the irreversible economic failure to which the country has been led."
In August 1968, Hernandez was formally expelled from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba as a traitor to the revolutionary cause.
Florez, Hernandez, and their two children applied for asylum in the United States, which they received in 1971.
In 1976, Hernandez played a recital in New York City that included "Adios a Cuba," a piece by composer Ignacio Cervantes, who was deported from Cuba in 1876 for supporting the war of independence from Spain.
"I had to make a choice between my country and my necessity for freedom," she told the AP. "It was for me a question of personal dignity."
"The Cuban people think Fidel is a god born for the 20th Century," she said in another interview that year. "He is not a god but a mean person. I have seen the jails. Friends of mine in jail, dying in jail. Socially, they have given a lot. They have good hospitals and the schools are free. But those are not the only things in life. There is a beauty in life which you cannot see there. A person has a mind that must work and dream. You cannot have a spiritual life there."
In the United States, Florez worked as a tie and shoes salesman, a bank teller, and eventually an editor for the Associated Press. He and his family were granted citizenship in 1979.
He was invited to a work for Radio Marti, a U.S.-backed radio station that broadcast from Miami to Cuba, but the federal government never responded to application for security clearance.
The rest of Armando Florez’s story is hidden away under the veil of national security interests.
"I wonder what else is in those files, just given the stories we have," Florez said.