Saturday, September 6, 2014


Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

March 1999

We returned to Hotel Nacional. 

I looked around for Al Lewis.  No luck. 

Up in my room, the B.O. of communism had dissipated.  No, it had not gone away; it had seized me, now I was part of it.  Once you are within its grip, it takes a half-dozen hot showers and four bars of Irish Spring to scrape away. 

I'd barely washed my hands when Howard called.

"We're going back to see Hernandez," he said.  "He's got news." 

I grabbed a bottle of Macallan scotch whiskey, one of three I'd brought along to gift helpful Cubans. 

I gave one to Hernandez. 

"Why you give me?" he asked. 

"Because you're such a nice guy." 

Hernandez laughed.  He leaned forward.  "I have something interesting.  A friend of mine has written a biography of Fidel Castro." 

We thrashed this around.  Apparently, Castro had cooperated with the project.  The manuscript, in Spanish, had not been published anywhere. 

"When can I see it?" I asked.

It would be sent, said Hernandez, by diplomatic pouch to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. 

"Get it to Luis Fernandez," I said. 

"You know Luis?"  Hernandez smiled. I returned his smile, like, do I know Luis.   

"Luis and I worked together in Venezuela," said Hernandez. 

As we walked back to the Nacional, Howard told me that the scotch whiskey I'd given to Hernandez represented a month's salary.  

At seven p.m. I planted myself at the Salon de la Histoirie bar and sipped a mojito while Cuban mariachis strolled and strummed and sang, with a power and passion unique to this people.  You just knew that the 50-something band leader was a heart surgeon by day who moonlighted in tourism to put food on the table; and could only feed his family (if there was any food to buy) because, in the absence of their Russian Big Brother, Cuba now catered to tourists by commercializing Che Guevara on tee shirts and key chains made in Spain.

But the music, ah, the music.  Aye, Cuba.  Yeah, right.  It's all they had left. 

Howard, Orlova and I taxied to La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway's haunt in Old Havana.  A fifteen-minute ride for $4.40. (You pay in dollars, of course, because nobody in their right mind wanted Cuban pesos, except dumb tourists who bought Cuban banknotes with Che's likeness.) 

I handed him a fiveski.  "Keep it." 

"Sixty cents is a whole day's salary to a Cuban doctor," admonished Howard, who did not want the natives spoiled. 

A crowd of people gathered in front of La Bodeguita.

"Damn, a line," I said. But the maitre d', recognizing Americanos, hauled us into the bar. 

"What about them?" I said, motioning at the throng behind me. 

"Them's Cuban," he replied. 

"So what?"

"These tables are reserved for foreigners," he said.  "We have only few tables for Cubans." 

If Mr. Cuban Restaurateur thought this state of affairs ironic, he did not let on.  Hell, at least he was making a little brazhort. 

In Bodeguita's small, graffiti-bedecked bar, I asked Howard what his DGI buddies had to say about who would succeed The Bearded One. 

Would it be his brother Raul? 

Howard whispered that Raul got caught in a drug-trafficking scheme a few years earlier.  A few generals took the rap; Raul's role was hushed up.  But his chances to succeed Fidel had been trashed. 

Howard and Orlova were not getting along.  She wanted a gin-and-tonic and he made a face and snidely said they don't do that kind of thing in Cuba (i.e. it was too expensive for this tightwad). 

Orlova stormed out; Howard went after her. 

I sipped a mojito and studied photographs of Hemingway, this dive's claim to fame. 

Howard and Orlova returned and, behind them, Rolando Salup and his "former" DGI pal Salvador Perez. 

A maitre’d escorted us to a corner table upstairs, handed us menus, all prices in U.S. dollars. 

"For someone who hates the United States," I commented, "Fidel sure likes their monetary system."

"He not dislike United States people," said Salup.  "He dislike U.S. government.  You like nice traditional Cuban meal?" 

I deferred to Salup's judgment on this.  He ordered pork, rice, black beans, fried bananas, and a cucumber salad.

I'd heard the official line on foreign investment from Elvira Castro.  Now the 33 year-old Perez would tell me the unofficial truth:  Don't waste your time or money investing in Poland-on-the-Caribbean.  You want to make money?  Trade.  As in embargo-busting.  With private entrepreneurs (read:  DGI) like Perez. 

"We need things all the time," said Perez in good English.  "One day it might be rice, the next day paint, the day after something else.  If we're there to meet the market, to fill the gap, we make money.  I call you, tell you what's needed, you find it, and we make the deal."

Perez told me that one reason foreign investment stinks is because foreign investors are not allowed to hire their own labor force; labor is provided by the state and paid state-controlled wages. 

A Cuban labor force is a waste of time, said Perez, because it has no incentive to be productive. 

Salup, of all people, nodded in agreement. 

"Are you saying..." I cupped my hand over my mouth and leaned forward, "that socialism doesn't work?" 

"No, no, no!"  Both men shook their heads, mortified, eyes popping from their heads. 

"So how do we commence doing business?" I said. 

The embargo-buster laid it out thus:   

First step, establish a business entity, a trading company, in Panama or Mexico.  Cost?  A few hundred dollars. 

Second step, register the entity in Cuba.  Perez could handle that.  Cost?   A few hundred dollars. 

Third step, open a bank account in Cuba.  Cost?  Nothing. 

Then start trading. 

I asked why Che Guevara's likeness is everywhere, on statues, murals, tee-shirts, key chains, but The Bearded One’s face is nowhere to be seen? 

"Ah," said Salup.  "Fidel is against cult of personality.  That is why no statues.  For Che it is okay.  He's dead."  

I had another theory, but kept it to myself:  Castro long ago decided that the best way to instill fear among Cubans, and to stay alive, was to remain mysterious and elusive, address unknown. 

I gave Salup a bottle of Macallan, and Perez a Morgan silver dollar, a "good luck" coin.  They gave me their calling cards.     

Next morning, Howard and I strolled Old Havana for a final chat. 

Occasionally, we passed a dog in the street, and I was struck by how awful and peculiar the canines looked in this town:  diseased, or sick with worry.

"The FBI will know you were here," warned Howard.  "You may get a knock at your door wanting to know what you were doing in Cuba." 

"What should I do if that happens?" I asked. 

"Just tell them you can't afford to talk because it would cause complications with the Cubans on future trips.  They can't do anything to you.  They fooled Mary that way." 

I bought a red star revolutionary beret from a market stall. 

"I'll wear this when the G-men come a-knocking," I said.

Howard laughed.  Then he unveiled his new book idea:  "How not to do business in Russia."  All the kinds of swindles the Russians pull and are good at.  Howard had learned the hard way. 

"My KGB friends won't like it," he added.  "But I don't give a damn." 

I encouraged Howard to get cracking, screw the Russians.  

Back at the Nacional, I settled my account with Howard.  He was on my payroll, an FBI asset.   

I handed him my last bottle of Macallan.  "Give it to your concierge at Veradado," I said.  (Howard and Orlova had planned a week’s vacation on Cuba's best beach.)  

"No, I'll give it to Edouard Prensa," he said.  "The Cuban DGI chief in Moscow." 


Howard gifted me with jar of caviar he'd brought from Russia.  After he departed, I opened it for lunch, as I sure as hell wasn't eating another Cuban Sandwich.  Howard's caviar was over-salted and too tightly compressed.  I ate some for nourishment and dumped the rest.  Knowing Howard, it was the cheapest black-market jar he could find. 

After settling my tab with Hotel Nacional, I killed an hour on a wicker chair in their garden, sipping one last mojito. 

A lone peacock strutted the grounds, occasionally piercing the serene setting with a horrible shriek. 

"Yeah, I feel the same way," I muttered under my breath, one eye peeled for Al Lewis.  

Leaving Cuba was as easy as arriving, if a greater pleasure. No traffic leaving the city (few cars), no line at first-class check-in.  The only hurdle, a rip-off "exit Cuba fee" of twenty bucks (worth a thousand times that to Cubans who risk their lives to flee, sometimes in a rubber tire). 

And finally some decent shops.

I bought a bottle of Havana Club rum, a Che Guevara Swatch watch for Clair George to wear at his next dinner party.  

And finally I found something with Fidel Castro's image on it:  Not any old something, but a half-ounce commemorative gold coin.  It was over-priced at $375, but I sprang for it, a gold medal self-rewarded for a job well done. 

Waiting for my jet to board, I plucked the proof coin from its protective case and mixed it with the other coins in my pocket.  I wanted Fidel to get beat up by Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington.  I wanted to tell people, tongue-in-cheek, that I had The Bearded One in my pocket.  

Wright Valentine, Bartender, was right where I'd left him in the first-class lounge of Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay.  He poured me another belt of Appleton's V/X rum and ginger. 

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