The hidden Latin history of Watergate

It’s been 50 years since Watergate break-in that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon, but the story of the three crusading anti-Communist Latinos who carried out the burglary is still little known.

Why is this important: This came at a time when both political parties were courting Cuban and Mexican Americans, who had divisions that last for decades in political ideology.

  • To this day, misinformation linking Democrats to socialism and communism, as well as the party’s progressive policies, drive many Cuban Americans to vote Republican.

Details: Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barkerand Eugenio Martínez, all since deceased, were three of five burglars who broke into the Watergate office building to illegally obtain information about the Democrats.

  • The crew, which also included Frank Sturgis, an Italian-American and born in Oklahoma James McCordthe security chief of Nixon’s committee for the re-election of the president, carried listening devices, cameras, films and walkie-talkies.

Cuban Americans were exiles and right-wing extremists who believed, without any evidence, that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was helping Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern against Nixon in the 1972 election. They wanted to make sure McGovern lost and also hoped that Nixon would help unseat Castro.

  • González was a Cuban-born locksmith who fled after Castro took power. He was recruited by Nixon aides to join the Watergate mission because of his locksmith skills and anti-Castro activism.
  • Barker was born in Havana to a Russian-American father and a Cuban mother. He was part of the failure Bay of Pigs Invasion and was recruited by Nixon’s aide, E. Howard Hunt, to join Nixon’s dirty “Special Investigations Unit”.
  • Martínez was born in western Cuba and is said to have infiltrated Cuba hundreds of times about CIA missions to plant anti-Castro agents. Hunt also enlisted him.
  • Frank Sturgis, born Frank Fiorini to Italian immigrants, was a mysterious figure who worked as an undercover agent for the CIA and was ooften mistaken for a Cuban-American because of his work to overthrow Castro.
A U.S. Marshal escorts Eugenio Martínez from a courthouse after his Watergate indictment. Photo: Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images)

Rollback: The men were arrested at the Watergate complex with McCord on June 17, 1972. In the coming months, other Nixon aides would be arrested and charged as investigators and reporters uncovered a massive political cover-up.

  • “Watergate was the mother of all political scandals that spawned all future political scandals”, Michael Dobbsauthor of King Richard: Nixon and Watergate – An American Tragedy, said Axios.
  • Dobbs said Cuban Americans told a judge they broke into DNC headquarters to fight communism. “They weren’t able to explain the nature of the connection – and didn’t worry too much about the distinction.”
  • The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy, theft and wiretapping. They each served more than a year in prison.

The plot: Some of the men did not apologize in later interviews.

  • “I wanted to overthrow Castro, and unfortunately I overthrew the president who was helping us, Richard Nixon,” Martínez said in a 2009 interview with the Spanish newspaper. El Mundo after telling an English-speaking journalist years earlier that he regretted the decision.
  • “I don’t regret my role in Watergate… If I was presented with an operation like this, I would accept again,” he added.
  • When asked if he resented Nixon after serving time in prison, even though the president was pardoned, Martínez replied in Spanish: “Never. A president with this responsibility will not be aware of certain Cubans.” Martinez died in 2021.

González rarely gave interviews about Watergate. But on the 25th anniversary of the break-in, he told The Associated Press that what he had done was appreciated in Miami’s anti-Castro Cuban community, where he settled after serving a jail.

  • “… Everyone understood that we were fighting communism. If it had to be done again tonight or tomorrow, I would do it.”
  • “McGovern said he didn’t want a fight with Castro,” said González, who ran a locksmith business and then a mechanic shop later in life. “He forgot how many people were killed there.” González died in 2014.
Bernard Barker and Virgilio Gonzales in district court before their Watergate trial.
Bernard Barker and Virgilio González in district court before their Watergate trial. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

But, but, but: The Cuban-American Watergate burglars were no heroes among Mexican Americans, the largest Latino group in the country in 1974 and today, Brigham Young University history professor Ignacio Garcia has declared to Axios.

  • Nixon opposed the efforts of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to improve wages and working conditions for farm workers and in particular opposed to their boycott of grapeshe said
  • Watergate confirmed Chicanos’ deep suspicions about Nixon spying on civil rights groups and ignoring democratic principles in the name of power, Garcia said.
  • “Activists in the Chicano movement also vehemently opposed the Vietnam War because of the high Chicano casualty toll. For us, Nixon was enemy number one.”

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