LA HABANA, Cuba. – In addition to the residence of Vilma Rodríguez Castro, Raul Castro’s granddaughter, there is one additional, super luxurious Airbnb listing in Havana, which, in the opinion of former renters and guests at both mansions, possibly offers higher comfort than the one rated number one and going for over US$ 650 per night.
We are talking about Villa Palmera, a mansion larger and more luxurious than the one owned by the daughter of Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja, which rents for a lesser price: US$ 585 per night. It is located in the very same Siboney neighborhood and has been listed on Airbnb since December 2016. It has its own Wi-Fi connection and central air-conditioning system; a pillow menu; four bedrooms; a spectacular swimming pool with a waterfall (a plus feature that Vilma’s mansion lacks); exquisitely landscaped gardens; multiple outdoor environments; two living-rooms with both modern and colonial furniture, and vintage cars for going out on the town, which once belonged to Max Marambio’s personal collection.
As described by it owner in the promo material: “The best option if you wish to enjoy a luxury stay in a Caribbean island.” Should clients require more than four bedrooms, that is not a problem. In the promo announcement, Lupe Maria Nuñez Velis, the daughter of Antonio Nuñez Jimenez, and the former wife of Chilean businessman Max Marambio (who was expelled from Cuba in 2010 by his best friend, Fidel Castro) states that “across from the Villa there is another one just like it, which brings the total number of bedrooms to eight.”
Lupe’s father was a former guerrilla who fought along with Che Guevara, and her ex-husband was a very powerful man. The inheritances they left her allow Lupe to meet any requirements posed by her clients, regardless of how whimsical those requirements may be. In fact, if her clients were to require three or four additional bedrooms in the neighborhood close by, she would solve that immediately because her sister, Liliana Nuñez Velis, owns and rents another mansion which she inherited.
The mansion is located at 6614 Fifth Avenue-B, in Miramar. Liliana markets it on several Internet pages and in social media for around US$ 500 per night because it is a two-story edification with three bedrooms. It’s not as lavish as Lupe’s mansion, but it is at a prime location, right next door to the mansion where Antonio Nuñez Jimenez lived (6611 Fifth Avenue-B) until his death in 1998, the same mansion where the foundation that bears his name is located under his daughter’s administration.
Liliana Nuñez Velis, aka Lilo, was in the official Cuban news media recently. Last May 7, Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel and several ministers visited the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation (FANJ, by its Spanish acronym) as part of an official tour of several “entrepreneurial projects” in Havana’s Playa municipality. Playa is where the most important Cuban government officials reside, so the “tour” was like a neighborhood stroll or a neighbor’s visit.
It’s interesting that no mention was made of the other places the group visited on that day, and that on the Cuban president’s Twitter account there is emphasis only –photos included- on the FANJ visit, during which Liliana Nuñez Velis explained everything about her new and promising natural botanicals business, the product line for body-cleansing products, and her make-up line, “Filifiore-Habana”, the business she runs together with her sister, Patricia Nuñez Velis, who lives in Mexico.
A family business that manufactures and sells products, and is run from a not-for-profit institution that is also linked to the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Science (CITMA, by its Spanish acronym), and that, further, is supported and financed by international organizations that deal with environmental protection?
Is any other Cuban citizen allowed this kind of broad license, one that resembles perqs more than anything else? Could this particular “exception” have anything to do with the fact that these two sisters are the daughters of one of Fidel Castro’s best friends, or that one of them was married to Colonel Jose Luis Padron before he was removed from his post as Minister of Tourism? Not only was Padron Tourism Minister in the 1980s, he was also involved with the Cuban import-export-production company CIMEX and other companies registered in Panama with then Ministry of the Interior officials Antonio “Tony” de la Guardia and his cousin Amado Padron, both of whom were executed by firing squad as part of the summary trial against General Arnaldo Ochoa.
Could it have something to do with the relationship between the Nuñez Velis sisters with Max Marambio and with the fortune he left behind when Raul Castro decided on a whim to expropriate it from him in 2010 unleashing the Rio Zaza Company corruption scandal?
A lawsuit that was settled in Europe when the International Court of Arbitration ruled that dictator Raul Castro had acted in bad faith. However, years later, the regime’s attorneys, with Rodolfo Davalos at the helm, managed to reverse the verdict on appeal.
If we pay close attention to these “family stories”, one might ask what secrets are these sisters keeping? How much is their silence worth and –even when some live outside of Cuba- how can we understand their loyalties to a regime that –it appears- has not always played fair with them? Could it be that they have lent themselves to play the regime’s game?
The Nuñez Velis Sisters
Patricia, Liliana, Maria Teresa and Lupe Maria are the daughters born of the marriage between Antonio Nuñez Jimenez and Esther Velis, the love of his life. It has been said that she was Fidel Castro’s mistress during the early years of the Revolution, even while married to the man who is considered the “Cuban Jacques Cousteau”. However, besides an anecdote here and there told by author Norberto Fuentes in his book Dulces guerreros cubanos, or by opposition leader Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas in interviews where he tells of his own experiences, there is no proof that this kind of relationship ever occurred.
What is true is that this couple was in Fidel’s most intimate circle of friends, and that, although he was not one of the “Commandeers of the Revolution”, Antonio Nuñez Jimenez enjoyed privileges as if he had been.
His presence as explorer, geographer and speleologist –supported by his undisputed contributions to those fields, even before 1959- from a man who had held the rank of captain and had assisted Che Guevara in the guerrilla struggle in Santa Clara and later at La Cabaña prison where hundreds of men were executed at the firing squad, served Fidel Castro’s purpose to spread the influence of the Communist ideology and the notion of guerrilla warfare throughout Latin American and Caribbean universities.
Between 1960 and 1990, Nuñez Jimenez gave numerous lectures at scientific institutions throughout the world. His “exploration travel” in the Andes as well as the Caribbean islands, numbered in the dozens. The study he conducted on Peruvian petroglyphs, he did while serving as Cuban Ambassador to Peru between 1972 and 1978.
In addition, he served as Director of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform between 1959 and 1962; as founding president of Cuba’s Academy of Science, between 1962 and 1972; as deputy Minister of Culture between 1978 and 1989. During that same period, his wife Lupe was in charge of the foreign relations department of the Culture ministry. He was elected to the National Assembly in 1976 and to assume the presidency of Cuba’s National Bank when Che Guevara resigned from that post to become Minister of Industries.
In 1994, when Nuñez Jimenez became ill and decided to retire, he received permission from Fidel Castro to create and preside over Fundacion de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (Foundation of Nature and Man) and to run it from his home in Miramar. His daughter Liliana had graduated with a degree in history from the University of Havana the year before, in 1993. Aware as he was that his illness would kill him sooner than later, he wasted no time in settling her as “director” of the “family business”. He would serve as the Foundation’s president while his most beloved daughter, recently graduated, would serve as executive director. The young woman did not need to leave the house to earn a living.
Liliana was the only daughter left whose future he still had to guarantee. The other three daughters had married into fortunes (one with Chilean Max Marambio; another with the powerful Jose Luis Padron); or they were “lucky” in their posts in governmental institutions where they followed in their mother’s footsteps in the field of international relations either in the former Ministry of Sugar, today’s commercial entity AZCUBA (Grupo Empresarial Agroindustrial Azucarero); at the Foreign Trade Ministry, at the Culture Ministry, and especially at Fundacion del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano (New Latin American Film Foundation), created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a good friend of the family.
When her father died in 1998, young Liliana Nuñez Velis became the absolute president of FANJ, just like her aunt Esther Velis, after Lupe Velis’ death, took over the duties of international relations of the family institution, as well as its “donations” department. The foundation was renamed immediately as Fundacion Antonio Nuñez Jimenez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (FANJ). By that time, the foundation had established delegations in most Cuban provinces.
Curiously, the FANJ delegation in Pinar del Rio is headed today by Carlos Aldana, the son of Carlos Aldana, the former ideological secretary of the Cuban Communist Party and former chief of staff of the Armed Forces minister, who would become the third most powerful man in Cuba after Fidel and Raul Castro. The elder Aldana’s demise came in the turbulent 1990s, when plenty of demotions and executions occurred, and where fear of a repeat in Cuba of what had happened to dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama due to his links with the drug traffic, set the tone for anticipating a U.S. military intervention in Cuba. Why? Because the Noriega affair provided proof of the link between the Colombian drug cartels and Communist Cuba’s military institutions.
Although it was, and still is, an institutional project launched by a high-ranking official of the regime, and even registered as part of the Ministry of Culture, Fundacion Antonio Nuñez Jimenez promotes itself on its webpage (bearing the state institution’s domain “cult.cu”) as a non-governmental, civil society, not-for-profit organization. Those false premises have allowed it to pretend it is an individual initiative and to be regarded as successful entrepreneurs by the likes of Miguel Diaz-Canel and his cohort of ministers. It would seem that the regime is sending a special signal to “someone”.
To the European Union, perhaps, in the wake of Prisoners Defenders’ report about the EU’s financing of NGOs in Cuba, funds that the Cuban rep office then reroutes to government institutions?
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence, but it’s nevertheless surprising that Diaz-Canel’s visit to FANJ took place on the same week, just days before the announcement that the European Union would be financing the independent (non-state) sector of the Cuban economy. If something good can be said about the Cuban military that controls the economy is that they can smell the money light-years away.
It is also possible that the visit is part of a routine process wherein the designated successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, just hours after Raul Castro’s departure, keeps a mission tasked to him by his predecessor to communicate to his most loyal subjects –the very same who are most afraid of any changes that may occur, the Nuñez Velis sisters among them- that it does not matter who holds power now, that their privileges will be respected as long as the secrets they keep remain buried where they are. He must have assured them that no changes are in sight regarding them, that they are part of the strategy of “continuity”, and that, therefore, no one will touch the mansions they rent out nor the cosmetics business they run from Mexico, Italy and Havana, least of all affect their lifestyles with world travel included as part of the Nuñez-Marambio family.
“Don’t worry, everything stays as is,” could have been, undoubtedly, one of the messages. Liliana’s young son, Mauro Rodriguez Nuñez, will continue to live between Mexico and Havana, boasting about his life, showing off his luxury Aston Martin sports-car for which someone paid more than 125,000 Euros -its cost in Europe- without giving it a second thought.
Liliana will continue to attend conferences about climate change anywhere that she is invited, where she will be able to drink Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux 1996, an expensive red wine, even if it costs the host more than US$ 250 the bottle.
She will also take advantage of her privileges to visit family in Mexico, the United States or Spain, or to go shopping with Valentina Marambio, her niece (her sister Lupe Maria’s daughter) whom she misses so much. Valentina was named by her father after his deceased Chilean girlfriend, Valentina Venegas, so that he could always remember her from when he was part of Unidad Popular and dreamt of being a guerrilla fighter, an occupation for which he was trained in Cuba. As author Norberto Fuentes describes in his book Dulces guerreros cubanos (1999) Max Marambio was an ostentatious and ambitious man, raised in the shadow of Fidel Castro. Lupe Maria must have kept her jealousy to herself for it was not worth risking so much over a name.
Maria Teresa “Maritere” Nuñez Velis, the other sister, will likewise continue with her adventures around the world. There is a photograph from when she was a little girl cradled in the arms of Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin from the time he visited Cuba in July 1961. Today she is an officer at Grupo Empresarial AZCUBA (the sugar marketing company). There is probably no country that she hasn’t visited. She has been in Dubai, in London, in New York. She vacations in Estoril or in Lausanne, and when she visits Mexico on business, she always makes time to get together with her friend Deborah Andollo, a general’s daughter, or with her sister Patricia.
For her part, Patricia “Patry” Nuñez Velis will continue under the protection of Communism in Mexico, where things are going very well for her and the natural cosmetics business. She creates biodegradable shampoos and hair masks. Between publishing posts against the US embargo and in favor of the Cuban regime (all Nuñez Velis sisters do the same), she promotes hair creams and facial tonics from her Facebook page, relying on red wine and her sister Lupe’s mansion under the slogan “Live a dream”.
Exfoliating and skin-clarifying soaps, serums and boosters, designed by Patry herself for her version of the ideal woman: white-skinned and blond-haired, what she insists in calling “the Filifiore complexion”, i.e. her own image that she cared for so much ever since she became a runway model in Cuba. The beautiful skin that enveloped a body which powerful military men and some foreign businessmen sought after. The Nuñez Jimenez sisters were regarded as the most beautiful among the daughters of the regime’s elite.
When she was young, Lupe Maria Nuñez Velis was dazzling as well, which made it easy for her to catch Max Marambio. Taking advantage of that opportunity is what allows her today to own a mansion that only a few protégés of the regime can have in Cuba. That, and her yacht voyages along the coast of Europe, as well as the good coverage on official media about Miguel Diaz-Canel’s visit to her sister Liliana’s house.
She liked that said visit was for the purpose of “talking about entrepreneurship and promoting local development projects, those small efforts that make a country great.” She gets very excited and posts about it, as she does about her trips to New York, Portugal and Paris. But she keeps quiet about things that are best kept quiet, especially when someone indiscreetly asks her about Max Marambio, the man Fidel Castro and his circle fondly called “Guaton”.
The husbands, and the husbands’ friends
Chilean Joel Max Marambio Rodriguez arrived in Havana in 1966 as an adolescent. His father, a congressman from the Socialist Party, had been included as part of the delegation that accompanied Salvador Allende on his first visit to Havana as president of the Chilean Senate. Marambio narrates details of his father’s fascination with Fidel Castro in his autobiography titled Las armas de ayer (Yesterday’s Weapons), published in 2007.
Fidel Castro proposed to the young man that he should stay in Cuba to study agriculture. No sooner had young Marambio agreed, things changed. Instead of registering him at the university, his training in a special military camp began under the supervision of Commander Manuel Piñeiro, aka Barbarroja, the creator of Cuba’s secret service, under the guidance of Markus Wolf, who was then director of the Stasi and in charge of training radical-left groups in Latin America. Max ended up as an official with Tropas Especiales (Special Troops) and shortly thereafter would become chief of Salvador Allende’s personal security.
With the toppling of Allende and his mission in Chile finished, he returned to the island. At Fidel Castro’s behest, he becomes a businessman and also a film producer. He would become one of the visible faces of the thousands of Castro businesses inside and outside of Cuba, but the fortune he amassed and controlled in the end did not work in his favor.
In 2009, Fidel ceded power to Raul Castro. The younger Castro would not allow the Chilean to control so much money, especially because he –Raul- needed that money to inject it into the businesses of the military through GAESA and to start negotiating Cuba’s debt with its European, Japanese, Chinese and Russian lenders.
In addition, the Cuban economy did not grow in 2009 as had been predicted. Income from nickel exports and from tourism plummeted due to the international crisis, and the unemployment rate rose from 1.7% to 2.5%. The national bank needed a fast transfusion of liquidity, and it accomplished it by taking everything it could get its hands on.
The end had come for the once-useful guerrilla-turned-impresario, and not just him, but also others close to him who had kept their “savings” under the mattress, like General Rogelio Acevedo (fired from his post as president of Cuba’s Civil Aeronautics Institute) and his wife, Ofelia Liptak, trade manager for Alimentos Rio Zaza, Max Marambio’s most important business in Cuba.
Gina Gonzalez Garcia, the wife of Alejandro Gil Fernandez, today’s Minister of the Economy and Cuba’s Deputy Prime Minister, worked with Ofelia in the same department at Rio Zaza at that time. Gil Fernandez was part of the delegation that visited FANJ recently and who showed great interest in the Filifiore cosmetics line. The minister’s sister, Maria Victoria Gil Fernandez, perhaps could take note of this. She went from being a program host on Cuban television and owner of the Habaneciendo piano-bar in Havana to being the owner of a beauty salon and spa in Tenerife, Spain.
However, the power of Max Marambio and that of his brother Marcel, a graduate in finances from the University of Havana, extended to the tourism business through Havanatur; to the Carisub S.A. Foundation for the search of underwater treasures; to the sale and purchase of automobiles and spare parts; to the Ministry of the Interior’s CIMEX Corporation. That power extended also to dozens of off-shore companies established in Panama whose mission was to purchase supplies for hotels in Cuba and for real estate investments like ING holding company, Inversiones Nazca S.A., and Constructora Tinguiririca Ltd. These represented another business path started as an initiative of the Cuban regime when Marambio was charged with selling the building that headquartered the Cuban Embassy in Chile.
It was at CIMEX that Max consolidated his relationship with Tony de la Guardia and Amado Padron Trujillo, both executed at the firing squad in 1989. Padron Trujillo was a cousin of Jose Luis Padron who married one of the Nuñez Velis’ sisters and became Max’s brother-in-law.
Colonel Jose Luis Padron was president of the Tourism Institute between 1980 and 1986. However, his most important “mission” on behalf of the Castros was carried out together with Tony de la Guardia and Amado Padron in Panama when Fidel Castro himself charged the three of them in 1977 with establishing channels of communication with members of the Cuban exile community aimed at starting conversations, for the first time, with officials in the United States government. Soon after, these channels would lead to the accords established with U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
Years before, starting in 1972, Fidel Castro had started to survey in detail the make-up of the Cuban migration to the U.S. He tapped loyal and trusted researchers for that task through the Center for the Study of Migrations at the University of Havana.
There is no proof that can link one thing to the other, and the few details that could be considered “proof” only signal to corruption and drug trafficking in the ranks of the Interior Ministry and the Armed Forces. It is interesting to keep in mind that the men who initiated these first meetings in Panama were later executed by firing squad or ostracized, as was the case of Jose Luis Padron. It is also astonishing that so much happened in a period laden with such fatal coincidences, and yet the glamorous Nuñez Velis sisters still rise to the surface over and over again.
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