Eugenio Martínez, a Cuban exile who worked for the CIA, sought to overthrow Fidel Castro and inadvertently helped topple another political leader, Richard M. Nixon, after being arrested with four other burglars at the Watergate office building, died Jan. 30 at his daughter’s home in Minneola, Fla. He was 98.
His death was announced by Children of the Brigade 2506, which did not cite a cause. The group is named for the CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles who attempted to topple Castro’s regime at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Martínez said he was a part of the bungled invasion, which ended with the capture or death of anti-communist forces waiting in vain for backup.
“I can’t help seeing the whole Watergate affair as a repetition of the Bay of Pigs,” he told Harper’s magazine in 1974. “The invasion was a fiasco for the United States and a tragedy for the Cubans.”
Martínez was the last surviving Watergate burglar, often described as one of the “foot soldiers” in the 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. The arrest of the burglars led to congressional investigations and, ultimately, to Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, as he acknowledged that he did not have the votes to escape impeachment.
Aside from Nixon himself, who was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, Martínez was the only person embroiled in the scandal to receive a pardon, which President Ronald Reagan signed in 1983. In his telling, he had been duped into participating in the burglary by Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer who helped plan the Bay of Pigs invasion before becoming a White House “plumber,” tasked with plugging leaks and sabotaging Nixon’s enemies.
By the time he met Hunt in 1971, Martínez had been working with the CIA for a decade, smuggling guns and ammunition into Cuba and ferrying people to and from the country by boat. Those maritime missions stopped in the mid-1960s, when the agency put him on a part-time retainer of $100 a month, according to a CIA memo. But over lunch in Miami on the 10th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, Hunt told him that the effort to liberate Cuba was not over.
“You’re going to be active again,” he said.
A few months later, Hunt enlisted Martínez for a clandestine operation, a “national security” job that was said to involve an alleged traitor. In fact, the mission was to break into the office of psychiatrist Lewis Fielding and dig up dirt on one of his patients, Daniel Ellsberg, who had embarrassed the Nixon administration by leaking the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government’s top-secret history of the Vietnam War.
“I have learned since that anyone who dissents can be called — even falsely — a traitor,” Martínez told The Miami Herald in 1997. “But at the time I was happy. We had received help to free Cuba; now I could help the United States.”
Martínez broke into Fielding’s office on Sept. 3, 1971, working with two fellow Bay of Pigs veterans, including his longtime friend Bernard Barker. As Martínez recalled it, Hunt celebrated by opening a bottle of Champagne, even though they found nothing significant. He soon recruited Martínez and Barker for another break-in, this time to look for evidence that Cuba and other foreign governments were donating to George McGovern’s presidential campaign.
Their target was the DNC headquarters on the sixth floor of the Watergate building, where the burglars were arrested by plainclothes police officers early on June 17, 1972, after a security guard noticed masking tape covering locks on a stairwell door.
“There was no floor plan of the building; no one knew the disposition of the elevators, how many guards there were, or even what time the guards checked the building … There weren’t even any contingency plans,” Martínez told Harper’s. It didn’t help, he said, that he was “not feeling too good” on the evening of the burglary: “I had just gotten my divorce that day and had gone from the court to the airport and from the airport to the Watergate.”
Along with Martínez and Barker, the burglary team included Frank Sturgis and Virgilio González, two other Miamians who said they had participated in CIA operations against Castro. A fifth burglar, James McCord Jr., was a retired CIA officer working for Nixon’s campaign organization, the Committee for the Re-Election of the President.
The Washington Post reported that the men wore rubber surgical gloves and were carrying bugging devices, lock picks, cameras and “three pen-sized tear gas guns,” among other items. Martínez, who was assigned to take photos during both the Fielding and Watergate burglaries, also had a key to a DNC secretary’s desk drawer, leading to speculation that the burglars may have had inside help.
He never explained why he had the key.
Martínez pleaded guilty to conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping charges in January 1973, and was also found guilty of conspiracy for his role in the Fielding break-in. (That conviction was reversed on appeal.) He served 15 months in prison, about as long as the other Watergate burglars; two organizers of the break-in, Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, were convicted as well.
Behind bars, Martínez stewed, thinking: “What the hell am I guilty of? Trusting the United States?” He and the three other Miamian burglars sued former officials in the Nixon campaign, saying they were tricked into believing they were working for a national security agency. They received $50,000 each through an out-of-court settlement in 1977, and all four petitioned for presidential pardons.
By some accounts, Martínez’s pardon was the result of a final chapter in his life as a covert operative. According to former CIA officer Félix Rodríguez and documentary filmmaker Shane O’Sullivan, author of the book “Dirty Tricks: Nixon, Watergate and the CIA,” Martínez worked as a double agent starting in 1977, providing intelligence to the FBI after meeting with Cuban intelligence officials in Mexico, Jamaica and Havana.
In Rodríguez’s telling, Martínez reached out to the CIA after being contacted by the Cubans, who apparently thought he had become disillusioned by Watergate. The agency told him to contact the FBI, resulting in an arrangement that was later documented in CIA agency memos — and that apparently contributed to his presidential pardon in 1983.
Reagan denied similar requests from Hunt and Jeb Stuart Magruder, another Watergate conspirator.
“I have been carrying around for 12 years the label of burglar,” said Martínez.
“I believe [Reagan] has given me the chance to show the American people that the burglar of the Watergate was a good citizen before, and has been a good citizen after.”
Eugenio Rolando Martínez Careaga was born July 7 or 8, 1922, in what is now the city of Artemisa, Cuba. He rarely spoke about his early years, but presentencing reports and CIA memos say that his parents were farmers, and that his father made a fortune after going into the real estate business. Complete information on survivors was not available.
Martínez was nicknamed Musculito — Little Muscle — for his athletic physique, and studied medicine at the University of Havana before dropping out to support the family after his father became sick. Inspired by an uncle, a pineapple exporter who was active in politics, he began to oppose President Fulgencio Batista.
After Castro came to power in 1959, Martínez left the country. He settled in Miami, worked as a sailor and joined a salvage company that was apparently a front for the CIA. An agency memo reported that he was recruited in 1961 and captained a six-person crew on “hazardous missions to accomplish exfiltrations” from Cuba.
“Mr. Martínez was a loyal and reliable employee … willingly endangering his own life for the cause of the missions in which he strongly believed,” the memo concluded. He was officially “terminated” from the agency on the day of the Watergate break-in.
Martínez later worked in real estate and leased Chevrolets in Miami, where his clandestine exploits made him a hero to many Cubans. “Give me a hundred men like Eugenio Martínez,” a character declares in “Harlot’s Ghost,” a CIA novel by Norman Mailer, “and I will take Cuba myself.”
For decades, he remained frustrated that he had been unable to oust Castro at the Bay of Pigs, or see the country’s Communist regime collapse. “After 75 years, I cannot abandon my vision,” he told the Herald in 1997. “I will not go to Cuba until Cuba is free. I cannot shake the hand of someone who killed so many.”
Still, he added, “When you get to be my age, you are like the elephant who must go home to die. I don’t even know where my father and my mother are buried. I would go home to die.”