Thursday, September 4, 2014


El Floridita, Old Havana
Painting: Thomas Van Stein

Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

March 1999

Howard looked a lot heavier than when we'd last met, fourteen months earlier.  Not only was he chunky, with a paunch, but his face was thick and bloated, a picture of poor health.  (Later, I caught a glimpse of his tongue: yellow-green.  But, hey, he'd just spent twelve-and-a-half hours flying overnight, Aeroflot, economy.)

Howard, wearing stone-colored shorts, an olive-green knit shirt, white socks and sneakers, insisted we immediately go meet the chief of some entity called Centro de Prensa Internacional Minrex, whose office, in the Vedado district, was around the corner. 

Howard's DGI pals had decreed that an officer of theirs named Juan Hernandez should work with me. 

Dark-skinned and handsome, Hernandez had a fast, easy smile and twinkling eyes. 

Although he Cuban spoke reasonable English, Howard greased our dialog with fluent Spanish.  (Before joining the CIA, Howard had worked in South America for the Peace Corps.) Hernandez had his hands full with the upcoming Baltimore Orioles exhibition game in Cuba.  That, and the visit to Baltimore by the Cuban all-star team, was his operation. 

(Four years later, posted to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., Hernandez would be expelled for "activities deemed harmful to the United States.")

Hernandez lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.  What did I want? 

I wanted Robert Vesco to write a book.

Vesco was an international financier-slash-crook who had settled in Cuba, a fugitive from U.S. justice.

Hernandez smiled, shrugged.  "Vesco is in jail.  He stole a million dollars from the Cuban people." 

"Okay," I said, "I want Joanne Chesimard to write a book." 

Chesimard was a Black Panther who had been serving a life sentence for murdering a New Jersey State trooper when she escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba, which of course granted her political asylum.

Hernandez said he'd try to get a message to Chesimard.

Now the crown jewels:  I wanted Fidel Castro to write a book. 

Hernandez smiled, blew cigarette smoke at the ceiling.  "This one is difficult." 

"Of course," I said. "The things most worth doing in life often are.  But I'll settle for his brother, Raul.  In some ways, Raul's memoirs may be more interesting, if less marketable." 

Hernandez nodded, smiling, then told a joke, which Howard translated:  Raul's generals brought to his attention that he was smoking women's cigarettes.  Raul replied that if he was smoking them, they were definitely for men."  Hernandez laughed. 

I waited for a punch line.  But apparently we’d already heard it. 

Then Hernandez said he had a book idea of his own:  "The Unknown Influence of the Chinese in Cuba."

This seemed like a good time to move from book projects to business opportunities. 

"What do you want to do in Cuba?" asked Hernandez.

"I'd like to own a bar," I said.  "With him."  I pointed to Howard. 

Hernandez hooted.  "I have people come in here and say they want to invest one hundred million dollar in Cuba.  And you just want to own a bar?"  His eyes twinkled.  "I like that." 

I hoped he liked it enough to hand me the keys to a bar.   

"I will make you a meeting," he said.  He gave me Castro's business card.  Not the Bearded One, but Elvira Castro, director of something called Investments Promotion Center.  

Howard and I walked back to the Nacional.  I glanced around the lobby, checking out sofas. 

"Looking for someone?" asked Howard. 

"Yeah.  Al Lewis." 


"He was Grandpa in The Munsters.  I read two books that say he's a fixture in the Nacional and Capri lobbies." 

"Sounds scary," said Howard.  "C'mon, I'll buy you a drink." 

He led me through the back portico, to a bar adjacent to the Salon de la Historie, whose walls celebrate colorful characters who stayed at the Nacional in more convivial times, including Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante.

We occupied a pair of stools at the bar:  a mojito for me, Fanta orange soda for Howard. 

"Mind if I smoke?"  Howard produced a pack of Salem cigarettes.  "At least I've switched to Lites.  Busy day," he added.   

Upon his arrival that morning, Howard received a call from the Cuban DGI.  They wanted to see him immediately.  So though he was jet-lagged, Howard spent most of the day at a safe house in Havana's Miramar district. 

"I was with Senor Deema," he said.  "Chief of the North American division.  He's jet-black, trained in Leningrad.  They all did back then.  His first love was a Russian girl.  I don't think he ever got over her.  Deema asked me lots of questions about you.  I told him about your working with Kryuchkov and Prelin, that the Russians like you.  It didn't seem to matter.  They don't care much about the Russians any more.  They want to know you for themselves.  Deema has an idea for a book."

 (Everyone has an idea for a book.) 

I sipped my mojito.  "Yeah?" 

"In 1989 the Cubans rolled up a CIA spy ring.  Every one of the 28 agents the CIA recruited turned out to be doubles, working for the Cubans.  The DGI is disappointed nothing big ever came of it in the media.  They consider it one of their major coups and would like to see more made of it.  Maybe a book." 

I shrugged.  "That's what I'm here for.  What did they want to see you about?" 

"Oh," said Howard.  "Most of today was spent on all the exams and interviews you have to take if you want to join the CIA.  They wanted to know every detail."


"Obvious, isn't it?" said Howard.  "They'd like to get one of their people, somebody from Miami, into the Agency.  I told them everything I knew.  They laid on a pretty nice lunch, a buffet.  Surprisingly good food." 

Howard was exhausted from flying overnight then jumping straight into a daylong debriefing, but he agreed to join me for dinner at El Floridita.   

We taxied to Old Havana. 

They refused to seat us in the restaurant, a wiggy affair, because Howard's shorts defied their dress code.  So we grabbed a bar table and ordered the Cuban Sandwich:  Ham, cheese, pork, butter, mustard, a garnish of near-rancid coleslaw. 

The daiquiri, supposedly invented here by Ernest Hemingway, tasted weak and bland.   I pushed it aside and ordered a mojito. 

At the next table, a repugnant 60-something Spaniard held hands with a teenage Cuban girl. I asked Howard about Mila, the girlfriend I'd met when last in Moscow.

"It's an on-again, off-again relationship," said Howard.  "Currently off.  She wanted to come to Cuba with me, but I nixed that.  She was here with me a year ago, so to hell with her." 

Howard told me that a KGB officer named Vladimir Popov had first introduced him to Havana ten years earlier.  Popov, who spent six years in Cuba after getting the boot from Washington for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status (spying), taught Howard the lay of the land.  

Early on, Howard considered settling in Havana with wife Mary and son Lee.  A house in the Miramar district had been offered to him by the Cubans for $1,000 per month.  But he and Mary declined due to their dissatisfaction with the schooling Lee would receive.

Howard was equally happy their son had not been brought up in Moscow. 

"I have a friend with a thirteen year-old daughter," Howard told me.  "One day she did not arrive home from school.  Police were called, the search began.  They found the girl in a brothel five days later.  What happened was, the girl was walking home from school, a car pulled over, two men jumped out and dragged her in.  They beat her, sold her virginity, a thousand bucks, raped her, and put her to work as a sex slave."

Outside, El Floridita's colorful neon sign contrasted the otherwise low wattage of Old Havana.  

My sleep that night turned manic, punctuated by sudden awake-ness and odd sounds: a drumbeat at three a.m., probably produced by a power generator outside; later, two synthesized female voices holler, "We don't understand--noooo!" 

And then a strobe light penetrated my brain. 

The mojitos?  I still haven't figured it out. 

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