Twenty years ago this July 12th, CIA traitor Edward Lee Howard died in Moscow under circumstances that remain murky.
The Russians, who had been hosting Mr. Howard since 1985, the year he fled the USA and defected to Moscow on his TWA Getaway Card, claimed that “the spy who got away” fell down a flight of stairs leading to the basement of his dacha and broke his neck.
Problem: His dacha did not have a basement. The official story got changed a couple of times over the next few days and, by the time Mr. Howard’s ex-wife, Mary, and son, Lee, arrived on the scene, the Russians had cremated his remains.
We have always believed that Ed Howard was one of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s first murder victims.
Context: Going on eight years, I had been conducting a sting operation for FBI Counterintelligence against Mr. Howard. Part of the mission was to glean “Positive Intelligence” from him on his KGB cronies and Cuban intelligence buddies; part of it was trying to lure him to a place where he could be “renditioned” i.e., apprehended and flown back to the USA to face espionage charges. (Had we succeeded in the latter—and we would have if the Clinton White House had not chickened out at the eleventh hour—he would probably still be alive.)
Mr. Howard was extremely unhappy in Russia. He wanted to make a deal with the FBI to come home, but only on his terms (no prison awaiting trial). However, the FBI won’t make deals with international fugitives. You come home, go through the process, period.
Mr. Howard had a drinking problem. Most of the time he stayed sober. But on special occasions he would have a drink, which always led to a three-to-five day-bender.
On one such occasion—February 15th, 1999—Mr. Howard arrived drunk at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow at 2 am. The Russians, which maintain a guard post at the embassy, inspected his passport and noted his appearance. Inside, when no deal could be hatched with the Legat (FBI Legal Attaché), Mr. Howard became agitated and left, returning 30 minutes later (after purchasing a bottle of vodka from a 24-hour kiosk) to seek political asylum. Declined.
This did not go down well with Russian Intelligence and quite likely sealed Mr. Howard’s fate, along with discovery in September 2001 that he had compromised former KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov and others by introducing them to me. They may have even believed that Mr. Howard was working secretly, as an extension of me, for the FBI.
This column is about hanging out in Havana with Ed Howard a year before his death. My mission was to meet his friends in Cuban Intelligence, which eventually led to my penetration of espionage operations conducted from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC.
"You shouldn't be going to Cuba, sir." The check-in clerk at Baltimore-Washington Airport gave me a scorching look after examining my Air Jamaica ticket: Baltimore-Montego Bay-Havana. "You're an American citizen."
I could not exactly tell her it was okay because I was traveling on a secret mission for FBI Counterintelligence.
"I don't know if I can check you in." She stalked off to consult a supervisor, returning a minute later wearing a triumphant sneer. "I can only check you in for Montego Bay."
An Airbus 320 cruised me in just under three hours to Jamaica, where Sangster International Airport issued me a boarding pass to Havana. Inside a first-class lounge, Wright Valentine, bartender, recommended Appleton's V/X Jamaican rum; a belt of this with ginger set me up for the one-hour hop to Havana.
Even from on high, Cuba looked barren and beat up, its roads oddly vacant of vehicles.
In contrast, Jose Marti Airport was fresh, modern, and colorful, if absent of travelers.
As the first passenger to disembark, I traversed Immigration and Customs in five minutes. My bags were x-rayed, and a young Customs agent scanned me with a metal detector. Then he frisked me and gestured at the bulges in both front pockets of my blue jeans. "What is?" he asked.
"Let me see."
I dug into my pockets and produced two thick wads of Yankee dollars. In my left palm, all hundreds.
His eyes popped. "How much? (This was more his curiosity than official business.)
He looked at me in amazement. To him, this was 16 years' salary. "Go on."
Official Cuba welcomed me (and especially my money) into their grubby mix.
State-run dollar taxi drivers hovered everywhere. One scampered to his South Korean car and raced to greet me at the forecourt.
"How much to Hotel Nacional?"
Beneath a sunny blue sky, I studied the carnival of poverty around me. Giant billboards proclaimed Socialism or Death! at passing buses whose cramped passengers appeared to be suffocating to death in 82-degree heat and no air-conditioning.
It was drab and dowdy and... no, let us assess what it was not: With its dirty windows and stained carpet, this was not five-star deluxe, as designated by Cuba. Yet, all things being relative, it was probably luxurious by contemporary Cuban standards.
The bellhop said with pride, "It have hot water."
Red-hot water. Red from rust. And 30 seconds after settling from a flush, the toilet talked back, a hiccup that sounded like "Fi-del-POOP!"
But the oddest feature was its odor. If one could break down the main ingredients of this smell, foremost would be stale tobacco, followed by low-grade building materials (throw in asbestos), and poor ventilation.
The B.O. (in this case, building odor) of communism.
I washed my hands, gargled mouthwash, and went downstairs to look for Grandpa Munster from The Munsters (a 1960s TV series), who supposedly lurked in Havana hotel lobbies.
The Nacional's lobby was a long, high-ceilinged hall, policed at either end by a pair of suited security men on heightened alert to ensure that only foreigners make use of the state-owned hotel and its U.S. dollars-only facilities. Cubans with pesos (and even Cubans with Yankee dollars) were barred from entering, second-class citizens in their own country.
Grandpa Munster wasn't in the lobby, so I strolled into the Nacional's serene grounds overlooking the Malecon (sea wall and promenade) and the sea. Outside, beneath swaying palms, the smell was still Poland. This rummy island was Poland-on-the-Caribbean.
(Or, as Edward Howard later put it, "Cuba is where Eastern Europe and Latin America meet.")
Resting my bones in a white wicker chair on the grand portico, even the cushions reeked of rancid tobacco. I sauntered out of the Nacional, one block to Hotel Capri, which was like a drab Intourist hotel I visited in Kharkov, USSR, summer of 1980.
I returned to my shabby suite for a snooze, but it was short-lived, shattered by a snorting phone. Edward Lee Howard, waiting downstairs, looked a lot heavier than when we'd last met, 14 months earlier in Moscow. Not only was he chunky, with a paunch, but his face was thick and bloated, a picture of poor health.
Since flying in that morning Howard had been holed up somewhere in the city with his buddies from the Direction Generale de Inteligencia (DGI). He insisted we immediately go meet the chief of some entity called Centro de Prensa Internacional Minrex, whose office was around the corner.
Howard's DGI pals had decreed that an officer named Juan Hernandez should work with me. Dark-skinned, slender and handsome, Mr. Hernandez had a fast, easy smile and twinkling eyes. He had his hands full with the upcoming Baltimore Orioles exhibition game in Cuba; a subsequent visit to Baltimore by the Cuban all-star team was his operation. (Four years later, posted to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC, Mr. Hernandez would be expelled for "activities deemed harmful to the United States.")
Juan lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. What did I want?
I wanted Robert Vesco, a financier/crook and fugitive from U.S. justice, to write a book (so I could try to arrange a repatriation).
Mr. Hernandez smiled, shrugged. "Vesco is in jail. He stole a million dollars from the Cuban people." (No one at our Department of Justice yet knew this.).
"Okay," I said, "I want Joanne Chesimard to write a book" (so I could try to arrange a repatriation). She, the Black Panther who in 1979 escaped from prison (for murdering a New Jersey state trooper) and fled to Cuba, which of course granted her political asylum.
Juan said he'd try to get a message to Ms. Chesimard.
Now the crown jewels: I wanted Fidel Castro to write a book (so I could suck his brain).
Mr. 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.”
We moved on 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 Ed Howard.
Juan hooted. "I have people come in here and say they want to invest $100 million 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.
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 here.”
"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 celebrated colorful characters who’d stayed at the Nacional during less austere, more convivial times, including Mafia bosses Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante.
We occupied a pair of stools at the bar: A mojito for me, orange soda for Howard.
"Mind if I smoke?" Howard produced a pack of Salem cigarettes. "Busy day," he added. "I was with Senor Deema, 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 [former KGB Chairman Vladimir] Kryuchkov and [KGB. Colonel Igor) Prelin, that the Russians like you. It didn't seem to matter. They don't care much about the Russians anymore. 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.
(Of course. But I had to hear him spell it out.)
"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 nice buffet. Surprisingly good food."
Howard was exhausted from flying Aeroflot coach overnight then jumping straight into a day long debrief, but he agreed to join me for dinner in Old Havana at El Floridita, which refused to seat us in their main restaurant, a wiggy affair, because Howard's shorts defied their dress code. Instead, 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.
Mr. Howard told me that a KGB officer first introduced him to Havana ten years earlier. Vladimir Popov, who’d spent six years in Cuba after getting booted from Washington for spying, taught Ed the lay of the land.
My sleep that night turned manic, punctuated by sudden awake-ness and odd sounds: A drumbeat at 3 am, 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.
A DAY IN HAVANA
I awakened as dawn cracked, a clear sunrise over the sea, and parked myself in the Nacional's cafeteria for complimentary breakfast, soon joined by Mr. Howard.
The coffee wasn't bad. But I stopped drinking after it stained 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, Ed Howard’s “assistant,” whom I’d first met in Moscow, had flown in with Ed and slept through the day before. This was her first time in Cuba, she said.
Mr. Howard seemed sheepish about Lena’s presence; he mumbled something about it being a “bonus” for her work.
Ed and I talked travel, always my favorite subject with him. Where had he been? Where would he go?
Mr. Howard had visited Santiago and "got Chile out of my system." He’d 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," Ed boasted. "Except the UK." (Through a Russian agent in the FBI—presumably Robert Hanssen, later convicted of espionage—Ed’s KGB crowd had a good grasp on where he could or could not travel safely.)
Next, 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. Ed knew Rolando from Moscow; they had become personal friends.
Rolando appeared at 11 am sharp. He seemed easy-going, with an edge. I sensed he had a mission, probably as simple as taking a cut for brokering a deal as I had expressed an interest (to Ed) in native art.
Gallery number one, in Old Havana, was a mishmash of overpriced, low-quality contemporary schlock and bric-a-brac masquerading as antiques.
We cruised over to "gallery" number two, a hub of middle-aged men who brokered Cuban family heirlooms to moneyed foreigners. Up and down the squalid street, private enterprise flourished: Stalls outside residential houses hawked ice cream, pizza and, in the back alleys, young women.
Next, the home of a deceased Cuban artist, allegedly of some renown. An elderly woman fixated on an ancient black-and-white TV set as her family tried to sell their few remaining possessions of value. I liked a few watercolor paintings, but begged off a decision, feeling sadness for this family, silently cursing Fidel Castro for the indignity he had forced upon his people.
Mr. Salup calmed down because I was at least considering a purchase.
Time for refreshment, the Copacabana, aside the pool, Cuban sandwiches all round.
Rolando told me that he'd spent much of his childhood around the Copacabana because his family had owned it before Castro took it away from them and turned it into housing for medical students and never paid Rolando’s family a single peso.
I asked Roland if he felt bitter about this.
"No, no." He looked both ways. It was now valued at $35 million, he whispered.
We returned to Hotel Nacional. I glanced around for Al Lewis of The Munsters. No luck.
Up in my room, the B.O. of communism seemed to have dissipated, but truth was, it had seized me and now I was part of it.
I'd barely washed my hands when Ed 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 Mr. Hernandez.
"Why you give me?" he asked.
"Because you're such a nice guy."
Juan 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 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.
As we walked back to the Nacional, Ed told me that the scotch whiskey I'd given to Mr. Hernandez represented a month's salary.
BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
At seven o'clock I planted myself at the bar of Salon de la Historie 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; 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.
The music, aye, Cuba… it was all they had left.
Next, a taxi with Ed Howard and Lena Orlova to La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway's haunt in Old Havana.
A crowd of people were queued in front.
"Damn, a line," I said.
But the maître d', recognizing Americanos, reached out and hauled us into the bar.
"What about them?" I said, motioning at the throng, now behind me.
"Them's Cuban," he replied. “These tables are reserved for foreigners. We have only few tables for Cubans."
If Mr. Cuban Restaurateur thought this situation ironic, he did not let on. Hell, at least he was making a little brazhort.
In Bodeguita's small, graffiti-bedecked bar Ed and Lena bickered. She wanted a gin-and-tonic; he made a face and snidely said they don't do that kind of thing in Cuba (Meaning: too expensive; Ed was a bit of a tightwad). She stormed out; he went after her. They returned with Rolando Salup and his "former" DGI pal Salvador Perez.
The maître’ d escorted us to a corner table upstairs, handed us menus, all priced in dollars.
"For someone who hates the United States," I commented, "Fidel sure likes their monetary system."
"He not dislike United States people," explained Rolando. "He dislike U.S. government. You like nice traditional Cuban meal?"
I deferred to Salup's judgment: pork, rice, black beans, fried bananas, and a cucumber salad.
The 33-year-old Salvador Perez made his pitch to me: You want to make money? Embargo-busting!
"We need things all the time," said Salvador 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."
Mr. Perez told me that one reason foreign investment into Cuba 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. Thus, a Cuban labor force is a waste of time because it has no incentive to be productive.
Rolando Salup nodded in agreement.
"Are you saying..." I leaned forward conspiratorially "...that socialism doesn't work?"
"No, no, no!" Both men shook their heads, mortified, eyes popping from their heads.
"So how do we commence trading?" 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, keychains) but The Bearded One’s face is nowhere to be seen?
"Ah," said Rolando. "Fidel is against cult of personality. That is why no statues. For Che it is okay because he's dead."
I had another theory but kept it to myself: Mr. 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.
Next morning, Ed 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 played along.
"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."
I bought a red star revolutionary beret from a market stall. "I'll wear this when the G-men come a-knocking," I said.
Ed 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 Mr. Howard to get cracking, screw the Russians.
(I still have his manuscript—the writing of which was another reason the Russians no longer enjoyed the pleasure of his company.)
Back at the Nacional, I settled my account with Howard. He was on my payroll, an FBI asset, if unwitting. The irony.
After settling my tab with Hotel Nacional, I killed an hour on a wicker chair in their garden, sipping one final mojito. A lone peacock strutted the grounds, occasionally piercing the serene setting with a terrifying shriek.
"Yeah, I’d feel the same way if I was stuck here" I muttered under my breath, one eye peeled for Grandpa Munster.
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 hiccup was 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 at an airport shop I finally found something with Fidel Castro's image on it: A half-ounce commemorative gold coin. It was overpriced at $375 (worth far more now) but I sprang for it, a gold medal 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.