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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

38. HANGING IN HAVANA






Undercover With FBI Counterintelligence

March 1999


"You shouldn't be going to Cuba, sir."  The check-in clerk at Baltimore-Washington Airport gave me a scorching look after examining my Air Jamaica ticket: Baltimore-Montego Bay-Havana"You're an American citizen." 

She motioned irately at my U.S. passport in case I hadn't noticed. 

I could not exactly tell her I working as a secret agent for FBI foreign-counterintelligence.  And I could not be bothered to flash my Press card (working journalists are exempt from the U.S. Treasury Department's ban on travel to Cuba). 

"I don't know if I can check you in."  She stalked off to consult a supervisor, returning a minute later.  "I can only check you in for Montego Bay."  She sneered with triumph. 

I shrugged. 

An Airbus 320 cruised me to Jamaica in two hours, fifty-two minutes while I lunched on jerked chicken. 

The terminal building at Sangster International Airport stank of human sweat and stale tobacco.  Customer Service issued me a boarding pass to Havana and sold me the Cuban visa (for fifteen dollars) that Luis Fernandez of Cuban Interests never delivered. 

Inside the first-class lounge, Wright Valentine, bartender, recommended Appleton's V/X Jamaican rum.  A belt of this with ginger set me up for the one-hour hop to Havana.  

Even from on high, Cuba looked barren and beat-up; its roads oddly vacant of vehicles.  In contrast, Jose Marti Airport was fresh, modern, and colorful--if absent of travelers. 

As the first passenger to disembark our MD-80, I traversed Immigration and Customs in five minutes.  My bags were x-rayed and a young Customs agent scanned me with a metal detector.  Then he frisked me, and gestured at the bulges in both front pockets of my blue jeans. 

"What is?" he asked. 

"Money." 

"Let me see." 

I dug into my pockets and produced two wads of Yankee dollars.  In my left palm, all hundreds. His eyes popped.  

"How much?  (This was more about curiosity than official business.) 

"About four thousand dollars," I replied. 

(U.S. credit cards are not accepted in Cuba because U.S. credit card companies are exempted from dispensing money to Cuba.  Plus I had cash expenses for Edward Lee Howard.) 

He looked at me in amazement.  To him, this was sixteen years' salary.  "Go on." 

Official Cuba welcomed me (and especially my money) into their grubby mix. 

State-run dollar taxi drivers hovered everywhere.  One scampered to his South Korean car and raced to greet me at the forecourt. 

"How much to Hotel Nacional?" I asked. 

"It's meter." 

"Do it." 

Beneath a sunny blue sky, I studied the carnival of poverty around me.  Giant billboards proclaimed Socialism or Death! at passing buses whose cramped passengers appeared to be suffocating to death in 82- degree heat and no air-conditioning.  The car radio blared twenty year-old hits from Paul McCartney and Billy Joel.  In thirty minutes, we reached the Nacional, about 2:45 p.m.  

Quickly processed into an eclectic compost of foreign tourists, I ascended to my suite (rooms 705 and 706).  It was drab and dowdy and... no, let us assess what it was not:  With its dirty windows and stained carpet, it was not a five-star deluxe, as designated by Cuba. 

Yet, all things being relative, it was probably luxurious by contemporary Cuban standards.  As the bellhop said with pride, "It have hot water."  

Not only:  red-hot water.  Red from rust. 

The most irritating feature of this room was its odor. 

If one could break down the main ingredients of this smell, foremost would be stale tobacco, followed by low-grade building materials (throw in asbestos), and poor ventilation.  The B.O. of communism. 

I washed my hands, gargled Listerine, and went downstairs to look for Al Lewis. 

Grandpa Munster supposedly lurked in Havana hotel lobbies. (And why not?  Cuba is spookier than 1313 Mockingbird Lane.) 

The Nacional's lobby is a long, high-ceilinged hall, policed at either end by a pair of suited security men with receivers in their ears, on heightened alert to ensure that only foreigners make use of the state-owned hotel and its dollars-only facilities.  Cubans with pesos (and even Cubans with Yankee dollars) are barred from entering, second-class citizens in their own country. I inspected a display case of jewelry crafted in tortoise shell and black coral, banned everywhere else in the world as endangered species. 

A souvenir shop nearby peddled cheap key-chains (Made in Spain) bearing Che Guevara's likeness.  Not much of a book selection, except for stacks of one title:  CIA Targets Fidel

Al Lewis wasn't in the lobby, so I strolled into the Nacional's serene grounds overlooking the Malecon (sea wall and promenade) and the sea.  Outside, beneath swaying palms, the smell was still communism B.O.  It could not be evaded. 

This rummy island was Russia-on-the-Caribbean.  (Or as Edward Howard later put it, "This is where Eastern Europe and Latin America meet.")  I rested my bones in a white wicker chair on the grand portico.  Even the cushions reeked of rancid tobacco. 

No Al Lewis, inside or out.  And no Ed Howard, either, who, in any case, I did not expect until much later in the afternoon.  He was somewhere in the city holed up with his buddies from the Direction Generale de Inteligencia (DGI). 

I sauntered out of the Nacional, one block to Hotel Capri.  Their lobby was like a drab Intourist hotel I once visited in Kharkov, USSR, in 1980. 

And no Grandpa Munster. 

I returned to my shabby suite for a snooze. 

My telephone snorted at 4:40 p.m. 

Edward Howard awaited me downstairs. 


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