Jun 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The Latino burglars of Watergate

Defendants charged with breaking into the DNC offices at the Watergate complex stand outside with their attorney. Virgilio Gonzales, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez are among the men.

From left: Virgilio Gonzales, Frank Sturgis, attorney Henry Rothblatt, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez, outside of their Watergate trial at a district court. Photo: Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Image

It's been 50 years since the Watergate break-in that resulted in the fall of President Richard Nixon, but the story of the three Latinos on an anti-communist crusade who carried out the burglary is still little known.

Why it matters: This came at a time when both political parties were courting Cuban Americans and Mexican Americans, who have had decades-long divisions in political ideology.

  • To this day, misinformation tying Democrats to socialism and communism, and the party's progressive policies, drive many Cuban Americans to vote Republican.

Details: Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martínez, all since deceased, were three of the five burglars who broke into the Watergate Office building to illegally obtain information on Democrats.

  • The crew, which also included Frank Sturgis, an Italian American, and Oklahoma-born James McCord, the head of security for Nixon's Committee for the Re-Election of the President, carried bugging devices, cameras, film, and walkie-talkies.

The Cuban Americans were exiles and right-wing hardliners who believed, with no evidence, that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was helping Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern against Nixon in the 1972 election. They wanted to ensure McGovern lost and also hoped Nixon would help topple Castro.

  • González was a Cuban-born locksmith who fled after Castro took power. He was recruited by Nixon aides to join the Watergate mission due to his skills as a locksmith and his anti-Castro activism.
  • Barker was born in Havana to a Russian American father and a Cuban mother. He was part of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and was recruited by Nixon 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 on C.I.A. 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 operative for the CIA and was often mistaken for a Cuban American because of his work to overthrow Castro.
A U.S. marshal escorts Eugenio Martinez from a courthouse after his Watergate arraignment.
A U.S. marshal escorts Eugenio Martínez from a courthouse after his Watergate arraignment. Photo: Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images)

Flashback: The men were arrested at the Watergate complex with McCord on June 17, 1972. In the coming months, more of Nixon's aides would be arrested and indicted as investigators and journalists unveiled a massive political cover-up.

  • "Watergate was the mother of all political scandals that gave birth to all future political scandals," Michael Dobbs, author of King Richard: Nixon and Watergate--An American Tragedy, told Axios.
  • Dobbs said the Cuban Americans told a judge they broke into the DNC headquarters to fight communism. "They were unable to explain the nature of the connection — and did not worry too much about the distinction."
  • The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy, theft, and wiretapping. They each served over a year in prison.

The intrigue: Some of the men were unapologetic in later news interviews.

  • “I wanted to topple Castro, and unfortunately I toppled the president who was helping us, Richard Nixon,” Martínez said in a 2009 interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo after telling an English-language journalist years earlier that he regretted the decision.
  • "I don't regret my role in Watergate...If I were presented with an operation like the one then, I would accept again," he added.
  • Asked if he held a grudge against Nixon after serving time in prison even the president was pardoned, Martínez said in Spanish: "Never. A president with that responsibility is not going to be aware of some Cubans." Martínez died in 2021.

González rarely gave interviews about Watergate. But on the 25th anniversary of the break-in, he told The Associated Press what he did was appreciated in Miami's anti-Castro Cuban community, where he settled after serving time in prison.

  • "...Everyone figured out we were fighting communism. If I had to do it again tonight or tomorrow I'd do it."
  • "McGovern said he didn't want any fight with Castro," said González, who ran a locksmith business, then a mechanic shop later in life. "He forgot how many people got killed over there." González died in 2014.
Bernard Barker and Virgilio Gonzales outside of a district court before their Watergate trial.
Bernard Barker and Virgilio González outside of a district court before their Watergate trial. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

But, but, but: The Cuban American Watergate burglars were not heroes among Mexican Americans, the nation's largest Latino group in 1974 and today, Ignacio Garcia, a history professor at Brigham Young University, told Axios.

  • Nixon opposed efforts by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to bring better wages and working conditions to farmworkers and especially opposed their grape boycott, he said
  • Watergate confirmed Chicanos' deep suspicions about Nixon spying on civil rights groups and ignoring democratic principles for the sake of power, Garcia said.
  • "Chicano Movement activists also vehemently opposed the Vietnam War because of the high number of Chicano casualties. To us, Nixon was enemy number 1."
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