Excerpt

OUR MAN IN CUBA

March 1 2004
Excerpt

OUR MAN IN CUBA

March 1 2004

OUR MAN IN CUBA

Excerpt

On Six Continents

THE MAIN occupation of everyone—Cubans, visiting sympathizers and diplomats alike— was Castro-watching. For Cuba was a oneman country in 1981, just as it had been ever since Fidel Castro, sporting a long black beard, a cigar clenched in his teeth, and with his favourite rifle cradled in his arms, led his Twenty-Sixth of July Movement out of the mountains to power. Castro dominated everything. His every utterance received lead coverage in the state-controlled newspapers, and on radio and television. His picture, most often accompanied by a text daring the United States to do its worst, was on display provocatively on huge billboards at main intersections and the square in front of the old United States embassy building.

Our first contact occurred within two weeks of our arrival in Havana. The Interparliamentary Union, the organization of parliamentarians, was holding its annual meeting that year in Havana. A senior group of Canadian members of Parliament and senators was in town. Most were predisposed to like Cuba and its president. At the opening ceremony, however, Castro made a virulent speech attacking the U.S. for being an imperialist exploiter and the United Kingdom for oppressing the Catholics of Northern Ireland. Castro’s romantic image was destroyed for the Canadians, who had never heard anything like this before. Several started to make plans to leave in protest.

I decided to force a face-to-face meeting between Castro and the Canadian delegation in the hope of heading off a premature departure. It was common knowledge that the telephone lines of all diplomats were tapped by the Ministry of the Interior and that the president was an avid reader of this form of raw intelligence. I therefore made a series of telephone calls to diplomatic colleagues on the open line loudly telling them that the Canadian delegation was on the point of departing to protest the president’s speech; only a personal appearance by Castro that evening at my residence would prevent a walkout. Within 30 minutes, I received a call from a flustered Foreign Affairs official to tell me the president was coming. Within another 30 minutes, a dozen tough, heavily armed Ministry of Interior agents arrived to search our residence for weapons. Before long technicians arrived to install new telephone equipment and a full medical team was occupying a spare bedroom.

Fifteen minutes later, the president himself was at the door. Castro joined the Canadian parliamentarians in the library and the charm offensive began. He told the group that he held Canada in great esteem. Canada had stood by Cuba during its darkest hours, resisting pressure from Washington to cut relations and restrict trade. Cuba considered Canada a special friend. He considered himself to be a friend of Prime Minister Trudeau. The monologue continued with the president allowing that he may have been somewhat harsh on the United States and the United Kingdom. However, Cuba was under threat from the United States. With a smile, he said that he had not realized so many Canadians had Irish roots.

The Canadian delegation, with one or two exceptions, was awestruck. To my surprise, after having vehemently criticized Cuba and Castro among themselves, they did not challenge the president when faced with him in the flesh. This scenario was repeated over the two years of our posting. The Cuban president would reduce even the most critical visitor to an admirer with the strength of his personality, the depth of his knowledge, his imposing physical presence, and the revolutionary mystique. He would then send them gifts of the finest cigars and rum, allowing his guests to return to Canada to boast about their intimacy with one of the world’s great revolutionary figures. Former external affairs minister Flora MacDonald was the only visitor out of the dozens I brought to see Castro who had the guts to ask him directly about the thousands of political prisoners in his jails. She didn’t get a straight answer.

FOR REASONS best known to himself, President Castro maintained a close but ambivalent relationship with me. At the time, I flattered myself in thinking that this was because he valued my views. I had to abandon this ego-enhancing theory when I noted that he never, ever, asked my opinion on anything, and while he would visit for hours, the dialogue was confined to the president talking and to me listening. The real reason was probably that he wanted to send a signal to Prime Minister Trudeau, whose funeral he would attend almost two decades later, that he valued their friendship and wanted closer ties with Canada.

The president took a close personal interest in our housing situation and made the renovation of the Canadian official residence—which looked remarkably like a dilapidated mansion from Gone with the Wind —virtually a Cuban national priority. The walls were black from mould and the roof was so rotten that 20-gallon garbage pails had to be placed at strategic locations to catch rainwater. Headquarters did not have a budget to cover renovations, but Castro took matters in hand, sending a construction brigade to carry out the work at a price I personally set. He appointed the president of the National Assembly, Flavio Bravo, to supervise. The residence was completely redone at minimal cost to the Canadian taxpayer.

The president became a regular visitor to our residence, coming to dinners and remaining until the small hours of the morning, reminiscing about his days as a student revolutionary in Colombia and elsewhere. For security reasons, his office rarely confirmed his acceptance of invitations before he appeared at our door. It did not take a genius, however, to read his intentions. Ministry of the Interior troops would seal off the neighbourhood, guards would materialize in the garden, the president’s personal food taster would take up his position beside the cook in the kitchen. The president would then roll up in his big, black Soviet Ziv limousine, leave his Uzi machine pistol on the back seat, and come in to spend the evening with the Bartlemans, wearing, as always, a bulletproof vest under his wellpressed military shirt.

THE ATTENTION accorded to me would have been flattering if the Cubans had not at the same time subjected my family and me to constant harassment. Shortly after I arrived, a general in the Ministry of the Interior whose cover was that of a senior official in tourism, asked me to override Ottawa’s objections and issue him a visa to visit Canada. This I refused. He was furious, as was his boss. I introduced myself to the Minister of the Interior at a function. He said, ‘T know who you are,” and turned his back.

The first attempt to compromise me was farcical. One evening, the telephone rang. Still unused to ambassadorial conduct, I answered it, rather than wait for the butler. A woman with a sultry voice was on the line. She had seen me at an official function and she wanted to get to know me better. Could we not arrange a meeting?

The next evening the telephone rang again and I answered. The caller had a large supply of gold. He had no means of getting it out of the country. I could become a very rich person if only I would meet him quietly and take it off his hands for a modest price.

The third call, the following evening, was from a man. He had seen me and I was so handsome. He had fallen in love with me and we just had to meet. I gave up answering the phone, although I often wondered what would have been on offer in a fourth call.

POISONING animals is a despicable act unworthy of a government that claimed to be defending the principles of an enlightened revolution

At the beginning of my second year things became truly nasty. One morning, all the Cuban cooks and cleaners employed personally by the 10 other Canadian families at the embassy were either thrown into jail or resigned without warning. Someone nailed a dead rat to the door of the commercial officer’s house. My colleagues at the embassy were besieged by telephone threats. The first secretary called to say that his dog had been poisoned and was dead. Marie-Jeanne and I checked our dog, Zaka. She too had been poisoned. We rushed her to a veterinarian, who pumped her stomach and kept her alive for the time being. I raced to the Foreign Ministry and demanded to see the director for North America.

My message was blunt: “Call off your goons!” He was taken by surprise and grumbled that someone was trying to destroy Canada’s relations with Cuba. Within minutes of my return home, a Cuban government veterinarian was at the door. I shipped Zaka to my parents in Canada in the hope that Canadian veterinarians could restore her to health, but within six months she was dead.

The Cuban staff were released from jail and reported for work later the same day. The harassing calls to my staff stopped on cue. I never learned why the Ministry of the Interior acted that day as it did. Whatever the reason, poisoning animals is a despicable act unworthy of agents of a government that claimed to be defending the principles of an enlightened revolution. flil

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.