She survived Castro’s prisons for 19 years. But will she be able to escape eviction?

Rene Rodriguez
·8 min read

When she was a 2 1/2-year-old growing up in Cuba, Ana Lazara Rodriguez snuck out of her house and went to the movie theater to see 1933’s giant-monster classic “King Kong.”

“Only a 2-year-old would get scared by a movie like this, because it was a cartoon,” said the sprightly, self-effacing 82-year-old. “But I didn’t know how to read yet and the movie was in English, which I didn’t speak. The only thing that I could gather was that King Kong was grabbing women, and I felt threatened.”

At night, as Rodriguez got into bed and fall asleep, she would stare up at her cracking bedroom ceiling and imagine King Kong was looking for her. She spent months living in fear, until one day she decided this was no way to lead her life.

“I went outside and called King Kong so he could kill me and I would be finished,” Rodriguez said. “Of course he didn’t appear. But I always remember that as the moment I became brave.”

Today, Rodriguez is still finding the courage and energy to fight impossible fights, but not against Hollywood monsters.

Lazara Ana Rodriguez is an 82-year-old survivor of a Castro prison and lives in a home in Miami that the bank has foreclosed on. She is at risk of being evicted. But her lawyer says the foreclosure is illegal and is fighting it in court.
Lazara Ana Rodriguez is an 82-year-old survivor of a Castro prison and lives in a home in Miami that the bank has foreclosed on. She is at risk of being evicted. But her lawyer says the foreclosure is illegal and is fighting it in court.

For 19 years, she survived inhuman horrors as a political prisoner in Castro’s Cuba. Today, she is in a legal battle against Bank of New York Mellon, who foreclosed in 2018 on the modest three-bedroom home near Southwest Eighth Street and Le Jeune Road she has lived in for nearly 14 years.

The new owner, a California resident who bought the home for $415,000 in August 2020, is now evicting Rodriguez.

Attorney Bruce Jacobs, who signed on to represent Rodriguez pro bono after a 2019 Miami Herald story recounted her 19 years as a political prisoner, says the foreclosure is fraudulent, so there should be no eviction.

The attorney representing the new owner of the home in the eviction did not reply to a request for comment for this story.

On Friday, a judge will hear Jacobs’ evidence as to why the eviction — and the previous foreclosure that cost Rodriguez her home — are illegal.

“This case is about forgery, perjury, destruction of evidence, backdating of records and other racketeering activity,” said Jacobs. “This violates Florida’s RICO statute, the $25 billion National Mortgage Settlement from 2012 and the Florida Supreme Court’s Doctrine of Unclean Hands.”

Jacobs said he will argue that Bank of New York Mellon’s foreclosure case against Rodriguez is riddled with violations of the law, including a robo-signed mortgage assignment and later a forged rubber-stamped endorsement by Countrywide. Forgery is a felony in Florida.

A looming eviction

On Feb. 16, 2021, Judge Charles Johnson issued a Writ of Possession — the document that allows Miami-Dade Police to enter a home and remove its tenants — in favor of Vanessa Veytia, the California resident who purchased the home.

The judge agreed to stay the writ until Friday, when Jacobs will ask the court to stop the eviction until there is a full hearing of his evidence of fraud.

Although the moratorium on COVID-related evictions continues, former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez issued an order on Nov. 13, 2020, directing Miami-Dade Police to resume enforcement of Writs of Possession in cases filed on or before March 12, 2020.

Rodriguez, whose foreclosure case stretches more than a decade, is not protected. But in an email to the Herald, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava wrote that Rodriguez does not have anything immediate to worry about.

“What’s happening in Ms. Rodriguez’s case is very troubling,” Levine Cava wrote. “Her case is in process in the courts and no action will be taken by the county until she has had due process. In the meantime my administration is taking all possible steps to connect her with resources and support her at this extremely difficult time.”

Shining a light

Other government officials are doing their best to bring more attention to her case. On Thursday morning, City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla will present a proclamation to honor Rodriguez and ask for the courts to let her case run its course.

“Writs of Possession are a civil matter,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “There could be a freeze placed on these evictions. That’s what we’re looking for until due process is met. It’s not fair that people can’t exhaust every possible process available to them. After that process is completed and an eviction is issued, then I understand. There’s a humanitarian side of this but there’s also a legal side.

“If Ana loses on Friday, there will be an appeal,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “Until that process plays out, we’re not going to evict her. If she’s being wronged because the banks committed fraud, we have to help her. We have a strong-mayor system of government. [Mayor Levine Cava] could make a strong statement to millions of people and solve the issue with a signature to give them a fighting chance to go through the judicial process. I’m urging her.”

Attorney Bruce Jacobs, state Sens. Annette Taddeo (second from left) and Ileana Garcia (far right) joined together in support of Ana Lazara Rodriguez (second from right), who is an 82-year-old survivor of a Castro prison and lives in a home in Miami that the bank has foreclosed on.
Attorney Bruce Jacobs, state Sens. Annette Taddeo (second from left) and Ileana Garcia (far right) joined together in support of Ana Lazara Rodriguez (second from right), who is an 82-year-old survivor of a Castro prison and lives in a home in Miami that the bank has foreclosed on.

State Sens. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat, and Ileana Garcia, a Republican, showed up at Rodriguez’s home on Tuesday to express bipartisan support for her case.

“We want to make sure we are fighting for someone who fought for freedom and was incarcerated for so long, and now they’re having to fight big banks at this stage of their lives when they’re seniors,” said Taddeo, who sits on the Florida Committee of Banking and Insurance. “We need to make sure there was no wrongdoing and see if there’s anything we can do at the state level to help people who don’t understand the documents being sent to them when their mortgages are being bought by one bank from another.”

“It’s a matter of accountability and fairness,” Garcia said. “These seniors are our most vulnerable population and they’re also part of our heritage. It’s very important for us at the Florida Senate to make that there’s fairness in all processes and we’re here to oversee that.”

A complicated history

Rodriguez moved into the home in 1997 after Maria Antonia Mier, a friend who also served time in Cuban prison, bought it for $140,000. She and Rodriguez split the bills, with Mier handling the various monthly payments, until she died from brain cancer in 2008. Mier willed the home to Rodriguez.

Before her death, Mier refinanced her mortgage with Countrywide Financial, one of the subprime mortgage companies that was forced to settle claims of discrimination against predatory loans for senior citizens and minorities. Countrywide, which was bought by Bank of America in 2008 after the real estate market crashed, was also found guilty of mortgage fraud in 2013.

Rodriguez stopped paying the new mortgage in 2010 because she could not afford the payments on her own. According to court records, Rodriguez filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Meanwhile Bank of America changed counsel three times and the bank moved slowly on the case.

It wasn’t until 2019 that the foreclosure case went to the courts for judgment.

The delay is not unusual, Jacobs said, especially for modest properties like Rodriguez’s three-bedroom home, which was built in 1976. “I have many cases pending from 2009-2010 where the clients are still in their homes,” Jacobs said. “The courts are still foreclosing on cases from 2009-2010 and some of those cases are this same kind of fraud.”

South Florida attorney Margery Golant agrees, saying that many of the cases following the recession dragged on because they were based on a shaky foundation.

“Many of these cases were so bogus the documentation was not available, the facts were not appropriate, and they filed them anyway,” Golant said. “Unfortunately many of the borrowers didn’t understand they should have defended them. But those who did and were represented by people who understood how poor the case foundation was, those are the cases that took a very long time.”

A community effort to help Rodriguez following the 2019 Herald story, including a benefactor who was willing to buy the house outright for her, failed because the bank demanded a total payoff of $700,000 — which includes the inflated interest rates, fees and taxes of the predatory loan, even though the home was worth less than $400,000.

Rodriguez said she remains hopeful and confident. The woman who once endured — and survived — being stuffed into a tiny windowless box with just a trickle of water to drink no longer feels alone.

“I have a lot of support from the media and a lawyer who knows how to fight,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a sign from God. I feel like I’m surrounded by people.”

And what will she do if she ends up getting evicted?

“I have a lot of people who would take me in, but I’m also caring for a friend of mine from prison who has Alzheimer’s, and that’s not something most people would be willing to take on,” she said. “So I will have to sleep in my car.”

Lazara Ana Rodriguez sits outside her home in Miami on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. She is an 82-year-old survivor of a Castro prison at risk of being evicted.
Lazara Ana Rodriguez sits outside her home in Miami on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. She is an 82-year-old survivor of a Castro prison at risk of being evicted.