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The Cuban Assassination That Could Kill Obama’s Detente Deal

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Could the murder of an anti-Castro dissident—and billions of dollars in damages from that and related cases—threaten Obama’s peace plan with Havana?

It was just past 7:30 on a muggy night in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, in late October of 1976, and the dinner crowd was turning out for the evening—when a flurry of pistol shots sent bystanders scrambling for cover.

Some witnesses said the shooters fired from a passing vehicle, while others claimed the pistoleros had taken up ambush positions in the houses and shops lining the crowded Avenida Central. Ballistics reports would later indicate there had been at least two weapons used—a 9mm and .38—perhaps making the second scenario the more plausible.

When the barrage was over a man lay in the crowded street, shot twice in the back and critically wounded.

The dying man’s late-model Ford Mustang would later be found parked just a few meters away from where he was shot, but even if he’d made it to the car, he wouldn’t have gotten away. Whoever killed him had already punctured the tires to prevent his escape.

The dying man’s name was Aldo Vera Serafin. A 43-year-old exile from Cuba, Vera was also a top anti-Castro dissident with alleged ties to the FBI and CIA. But the gringos in Washington couldn’t help him now.

The former war brother of Fidel Castro and onetime national police commissioner of Cuba had been hit in the liver and the aorta. He was declared dead at the nearby Centro Médico hospital, at which point several gruesomely detailed photographs were taken of his fatal wounds.

The photos soon leaked to the press, and within hours Vera’s death made headlines around the world.

The killing of top Cuban militant and underworld legend Aldo Vera has never been officially solved.

Gunned down on the street by unknown assailants as he stepped out of a bakery in the barrio called Puerto Nuevo—he was on his way to a meeting of an anti-Castro political group at the time of his death—the killing involved plenty of suspects but few clues. Vera’s has become known as the Cold War cold case nobody could crack.

His murder is the kind of thing JFK conspiracy theorists argue about in their spare time: a controversial moment in history that’s also a compelling whodunit. Vera played a part in some of the more outlandish and violent episodes of the Cold War era—including working as a spy for the FBI (PDF) and probably the CIA, involvement in the bombing of a Cuban airliner, and allegedly being tied to the Kennedy assassination.

Now a landmark ruling handed down last month by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court lends new urgency to solving the mystery of Vera’s death.

In fact, the future of U.S.-Cuba relations might just be at stake.

Almost 40 years after his death—Aldo Vera is once again back in the headlines.

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