Sunday, September 20, 2020


Old Havana
Ed Howard, Eringer, Lena Orlova, Salvador Perez, Rolando Salup

Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

Havana, Cuba March 1999

I awakened in my Havana hotel room as dawn cracked.  

From my window I witnessed a clear sunrise over the sea; to my right, Old Havana was enveloped in a haze of smog.  

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 un-appetizing.  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 through the day before.  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 eleven a.m. we would meet his friend Rolando Salup, a DGI (Cuban intelligence) 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," added 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 biggest fear these days:  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 yankee 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 overpriced, 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 is 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 residential 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 renown.  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 stepbrothers had fled to Miami.

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

"No, no." 

So very sad, for Cuba, for Cubans.

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.

We returned to Hotel Nacional.  I looked around for Al Lewis of The Munsters.  No luck.  

Up in my room, the B.O. of communism had dissipated.  

No, it had not gone away; it had seized me and 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 o'clock 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 15-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 priced 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," explained 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?  


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 conspiratorially (a habit I'd picked up from Clair George) "...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 asked.

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 (statues, murals, t-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 for "good luck."  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, if unwitting. The irony.

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 terrifying 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 $20 (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 show off 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 overpriced at $375 (worth far more now) but I sprang for it, a gold medal self-rewarded to myself 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 knocked around 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.