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Friday, September 5, 2014

40. HANGING IN HAVANA 3





Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

March 1999



I awakened as dawn cracked.  From my window I witnessed a clear sunrise over the sea; to my right, Old Havana, enveloped in a smog haze. 

I parked myself in the Nacional's cafeteria when it opened for complimentary breakfast at seven a.m. Howard joined me soon after. 

The coffee wasn't Starbucks, but it wasn't bad.  I stopped drinking, however, after it appeared to stain my fingers. 

The buffet was abundant, if unappetizing. 

Howard gorged himself, making the most of the Nacional's bedlam-and-breakfast deal. 

Suddenly, a surprise:  Lena Orlova appeared.  Turns out, she'd flown in with Howard and slept all day.  This was her first time in Cuba, she said. 

Howard acted sheepish about Orlova's presence; he mumbled something about paying her way himself, a bonus for her work as his assistant. 

Howard and I talked travel, always my favorite subject with him.  Where had he been?  Where would he go?

For one thing, Howard had visited Santiago and "got Chile out of my system."  He had also visited Egypt, a cruise down the Nile with his son.  He'd spent Christmas in Vienna with his ex-wife Mary and son; and he had been to Germany, Luxembourg, and Paris, France. 

"I go anywhere in Europe," Howard boasted.  "Except the UK." 

Next, Howard's plan for the day:  At 11 a.m. we would meet his friend Rolando Salup, a DGI officer who had spent seven years in New York City under UN diplomatic cover and six years as intelligence chief in Moscow. 

Howard knew Salup from Moscow; he had become personal friends with the Cuban and his wife, entertaining them at his dacha.  Howard told me that Salup's father owned the famed Copacabana in its heyday, before it got nationalized by the state. 

"Rolando wants to get it back," said Howard. 

It was only nine o'clock, so I hired a taxi to take Howard, Orlova and me on a tour of Havana's neighborhoods.  We drove as far as the Marina Hemingway on Havana's outskirts, double-backed through Miramar and stopped at an artisans open-air market. 

"My mother always gets mad when I tell her I've been to Cuba," said Howard, for whom this was visit number six.  "She has a Cuban refugee friend, and she's convinced the Cubans will sell me back to the Americans for a few dollars.  The Cubans would never do that."  Howard paused.  "But some Russians might." 

Howard's greatest fear:  the FBI would make a deal with the Red Mafia for his safe delivery to the USA. 

Salup appeared in the Nacional at eleven sharp.  He seemed easy-going, with an edge.  I sensed he had a mission, probably as simple as making a buck:  a dollar percentage for brokering a deal. 

I'd expressed an interest in native art.  So that's where we headed, in a Russian Lada driven by Salup's daughter's boyfriend, Eric.  He barreled along the Malecon, engaging in accelerate-and-break, a game Cuban motorists play with the many police officers who stand at street corners to wave down and ticket speeding motorists. 

Gallery number one, in Old Havana, was a mish-mash of over-priced, low-quality contemporary schlock-art and bric-a-brac masquerading as antiques. We cruised over to "gallery" number two, in a suburban Miramar neighborhood.  This, a hub of middle-aged men who broker Cuban family heirlooms to moneyed foreigners.

Up and down the squalid street, private enterprise flourished:  stalls outside private houses hawking ice cream, pizza and, in the back alleys, young women. Next we journeyed to Eric's apartment, which doubled as a warehouse for his inventory of merchandise. 

There wasn't anything I needed.  And nothing I wanted.

Howard admired a glass duck.  He collected ducks, had a thing about ducks, possessed over fifty ducks in his dacha, he confided.  As a kid, whenever Howard doodled, he doodled ducks.  But he didn't buy this duck. 

Onto the home of a deceased Cuban artist, allegedly of some renowned.  An old woman sat fixated on an ancient black-and-white TV set as her family tried to sell me their few remaining possessions of value. 

I liked a few watercolor paintings, but begged off a decision, feeling sadness for this family and disgust of Fidel Castro for the indignity he had forced upon his people. 

Salup calmed down because I was at least considering a purchase.   

Time for refreshment. 

We drove to the Copacabana, sat by the pool.  Cuban sandwiches all round (except Howard, who opted for tuna), garnished with lukewarm fries. 

Salup told me that he'd spent much of his childhood around the Copacabana, which, as Howard mentioned, Salup's father owned.  After Castro took over, the state transformed it into housing for medical students, and never paid his family a single peso. 

I asked Salup if he felt bitter about this. 

"No, no."  He looked both ways.  It was now valued at $35 million, he said. 

Salup's three step-brothers had moved to Miami.

"Do you stay in touch with them?" I asked. 

"No, no." 

Howard telephoned Juan Hernandez, who confirmed a meeting with Elvira Castro at three p.m. 

"We have to pose as reporters for the Washington Times," said Howard. 

"Why?" I asked. 

"It's the only way Hernandez could organize a meeting for us at short notice." 

(These people were rusing each other for access.)

And so, posing as a pair of Washington Times reporters, Howard and I appeared at the Investments Promotion Center at the appointed time for our "interview." 

Castro was accompanied by an interpreter, who translated her overview of foreign investment in Cuba. In a nutshell, they wanted foreigners to provide capital to Cuba to enable the state to better suck greater numbers of foreign tourists to fuel their decayed economy. 

In 1998, 1.3 million tourists visited Cuba. 

In 1999, 1.7 million were expected. 

In 2000, over two million. 

They projected that seven million tourists would visit Cuba annually by 2010.  

So they needed hotel rooms:  80,000 hotel rooms, said Castro.  And they wanted foreign investors to pay for them. 

"Bars, nightclubs, and small hotels are not available to foreigners," said Castro.  "We can do those things ourselves." 

So much for my bar. 


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