The Strange Career of Max Marambio

Once a revolutionary, then a businessman, now wanted by Cuban authorities

“The revolutionaries of my generation had taken on death as something without great transcendence. This certainty gave us the strength to overcome our fears.”

So begins Las Armas de Ayer, or in English, Yesterday’s Weapons, the autobiography of Max Marambio, a Chilean guerrilla-turned-businessman whom a Cuban court this week sentenced in absentia to 20 years imprisonment for fraud, bribery and “falsification of banking or commercial documents, all of a continuing nature.”  Marambio had been a close friend of Fidel Castro, a bodyguard to socialist president Salvador Allende and co-owner of Rio Zaza, a food company he ran with the Cuban government since the early 1990s.  The court also sentenced a former Cuban food industry minister to 15 years for “bribery and acts detrimental to economic activity.”

In 1966 a 17-year old Marambio accompanied his father, Allende and other Chilean socialists on a trip to Cuba, where he was dazzled by Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader, he wrote, “was far from the Cuban stereotype” and appeared to be “a solemn man, with good manners, evoking the image of a Spanish gentleman who has had the best education.”  He underwent guerrilla training in Cuba, returned to Chile and joined a rather bumbling attempt at armed insurrection, became one of Allende’s paramilitary bodyguards and fled into exile after the 1973 military coup.

Marambio did not let his political background stand in the way of business opportunities, and over the years he built up sizeable holdings in real estate and construction. Rio Zaza was one of the first joint ventures the Cuban government set up with foreign companies, producing packaged juice and milk. He kept a large house in Havana where Fidel Castro was a frequent guest and in Santiago directed the 2009 presidential campaign of Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a filmmaker and son of a dead Chilean guerrilla.

About that time Cuban authorities began imposing stricter controls on the amount of money foreign businesses could withdraw from local banks. According to some accounts, Marambio had an angry confrontation with Cuban Central Bank officials, who responded by launching an investigation. With Raul Castro now in his brother’s place, Marambio had no strings to pull. In February of last year Cuban authorities closed two plants operated by Rio Zaza and froze $23 million in assets. Two months later a Chilean who had been the company’s manager and was interrogated three times during the investigation was found dead in his apartment; his body was flown to Chile and cremated without a complete autopsy. Cuban officials ordered Marambio, who had fled the island, to return to Havana by August 23 and when he refused, issued an international arrest warrant.

Marambio has filed an appeal with an international business tribunal in Paris and called the ruling “political persecution,” and said there was no legal basis for the Cuban authorities’ case against him. “I was never a saint of Raul Castro’s devotion, nor of his followers and the people around him,” he told Chile’s Radio Bio Bio. He suggested the younger Castro resented his youthful activities with the Cuban military, and was now carrying out a longstanding grudge against him.

The Cuban media have offered few details of the case, with Granma publishing the official court ruling and the English-language Havana Times commenting that Rio Zaza had enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the packaged fruit juice market and that the country has been hit by several high level corruption scandals in recent years. Blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote an interesting piece several months ago on the effect Rio Zaza’s closing has had on Cuban consumers.

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