How I became Castro's sacrificial lamb
Monday 2 January 2017
I have to say, I’m puzzled when I read of correspondents who enjoyed assignments in Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s, and even apparently the heroic “mystique” of Fidel Castro and his revolution.
Honestly, after my first stimulating and exciting Reuters assignment as a junior reporter in Franco’s Spain, I found Havana miserable and oppressive. I lasted seven or eight months before Castro kicked me out because he didn’t like my reporting, but the way he did it was contemptible.
He had the cheek to call me a CIA agent in a televised speech. Whenever I recall that cowardly slander, I think of the time he made similar accusations against the Spanish embassy on television and of the ambassador who promptly jumped into his car, marched into the TV studio while Castro was still speechifying, and called him a liar in front of the cameras.
Bravo, senor! Eso si, es pundonor!
Maybe I was wet behind the ears, but the situation was nasty and tense when I arrived in Cuba in September 1969. If I remember rightly the last “temporary” Reuters correspondent had recently been expelled and every other foreign correspondent had been kicked off the island, except for two.
One of these soon tried rather tediously, or I should say disgracefully, to convince me to be “a friend of the revolution”. He was said to be in the grip of the Interior Ministry. The other was a frightened Latin American who was unable to report freely for political reasons.
Neither made for good company.
My more regular companion was Mrs Arostegui, a rather nervous, middle-aged, middle-class lady who bustled about as part-time office assistant while spitting at Castro and all his works and waiting endlessly for an out to Florida.
Then there were the British diplomats. My entry to the embassy was through the political officer, who in his dismissive way left me in no doubt that HMG’s reps found the presence in Havana of a British reporter an inconvenience.
There were other “contacts” on offer. Every now and then there would be a knock on the door and a pretty young woman would flounce into the office/apartment. I vividly remember one of them closing the door, standing in the passageway and lifting her skirt. “Do you like my new knickers?” she asked.
Quite an intro!
There was a steady succession of them, and if I remember rightly, all or most claimed to have been good friends of the laughing cavalier, a former Reuters man of curly hair and considerable charm. Who knows if the ladies were telling the truth? What is certainly true in my experience is that Cuba, or its Interior Ministry, was more blatant in such matters than other communist paradises.
I fell into a rather less exotic trap with the correspondent of PAP, the Polish state news agency, whose company I enjoyed, in my naiveté, as a fellow Pole. However, he introduced me to a Polish “diplomat,” who eventually invited us both for a friendly vodka with a fearsomely cheerful Soviet “diplomat”.
I didn’t drink much, but I woke up hours later back at the office/apartment wondering how I got there and realised they’d drugged me. I never understood why.
Twenty years later I met the PAP man again in Warsaw where I was bureau chief during the fall of communism (now that was a pleasure!), and the “diplomat” also turned up, this time as a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, offering me interviews and telling me the People’s Republic of Poland, or at least he and his fellow party members, enjoyed more effective democracy than we deluded millions in the West.
But my most interesting experience in Havana was a visit from a young German who said he had come from Bonn to research Cuban foreign policy in Latin America. That, of course, was a way of saying he was investigating Cuba’s endless efforts to stir up revolution in the continent, a dangerously sensitive topic.
But what the heck, there was no harm in talking, and we spent several pleasant hours together. Then he left the apartment, and vanished. I expected him back for more chats, but he never came. He disappeared off the face of the earth.
It eventually appeared that the Cubans had arrested him. In dribs and drabs I got hold of some evidence, and began filing stories on his disappearance. Why not? It was a story, right? It was human rights and I was a reporter. Diplomatic efforts were made to find the man, but weeks went by and nothing.
Not a trace of him was found until he reappeared after my expulsion in April 1970. He wrote to me, explaining that he was arrested after leaving the apartment and imprisoned for months in an underground cell where he was repeatedly interrogated and several times taken out for fake executions.
It turned out that he was released on the day I was expelled. And most intriguingly, he wrote that his interrogators knew every word we had said in the apartment.
I learned eventually how this came about. The office/apartment was on the top floor of a building, and since power cuts were frequent, I often had to walk up. Once or twice, as I reached the top, I came across a man coming down through a trapdoor from the roof.
He was carrying tin cases, but I thought nothing of it until I got the German’s letter and put two and two together: the man was carrying tapes used to eavesdrop on the apartment. I also heard there was a camera in a nearby building trained on the bedroom window.
It was like that in Havana. The rotting cars and dilapidated buildings, each with a committee for the defence of the revolution that spied on everyone, the power cuts, the empty shops, some goods and services available only for US dollars, the queues to buy tickets for the right to queue for a half-decent restaurant, and rum with water the only drink available on official nights out. Ugh!
There was nothing picturesque about it all. Every communist country I ever went to was covered with the same grimy patina of poverty, neglect and misery. Castro’s Cuba was no exception.
Reporting in Cuba was often tiresome but had its moments. It included reporting on the sugar harvest which, Castro had vowed, was to exceed 10 million tons for the first time in history as proof of the triumph of the revolution.
It was tedious detailing the tonnage of cane cut each week and its average sugar content. But it was crucial, because it slowly became clear that despite the huge effort the regime was making, the harvest was falling well behind Castro’s prediction, and this would be a major political defeat.
It just so happened as the harvest failure loomed that anti-Castro insurgents launched an ill-fated campaign in the mountains, and then more were reported nearby, ready for another assault.
At this, Castro worked up a great frothy head of steam “in defence of the revolution,” and tens of thousands of Cubans spontaneously abandoned the cane fields and massed outside the former US embassy in a gigantic protest against the tiny bands of “contras” that I think went on for several days.
Tensions were high as I wrote reports mentioning both the gigantic demonstration and the sugar harvest’s dwindling prospects, to which Castro did not take kindly. What? Him try to distract Cubans from the failure of his absurd project? Never!
The question in my mind today is not whether I should have reported in this way, but how could I, how could Reuters, not have done so. Anyway, that’s how Castro got his sacrificial lamb.
In two speeches laced with lies and threats aimed at me - he called me “the Reuters” - he said CIA-backed emigré radio stations in Florida were reporting on the situation in Cuba and I was picking up their message and repeating it; I was doing the work of the CIA and I should leave the country, go now or face the consequences.
Two things happened after that. I rang the British political officer to ask what I should do, and he told me airily to ignore Castro, who was just a little Caribbean dictator anyway (his words, not mine) and to stay put. I pointed out that when the leader of a country tells you to go, the obvious thing is to leave unless you want more trouble. He was unmoved.
Next came a nasty telephone call. An extremely hostile man said that if I didn’t leave, he would come over and deal with me. Well, I wasn’t having that. I reckoned that if I hung up, he and others would keep on ringing.
So I asked his name, and when he refused I called him a coward and a fraud and said he would never dare come over. Come on, I said, I’m waiting for you. Let’s see what sort of a man you are, you maricon, hijo de la gran puta, etc. And bring your puta madre with you and see what I do to her, and your sister, too.
He hung up and I never got another call. Boy, was I nasty!
Maybe a day or two later, I took the British embassy’s weekly supply plane to the Bahamas and from there flew to Mexico. Reuters invented a story that I was being withdrawn to help the World Cup coverage. I helped report all the Brazilian matches except the final, and got a photo with Pele!
Then back to London where a senior editor was itching to fire me but friends in the newsroom were standing up for me. I was told to re-make my reputation on the editing desk.
It was a joke, really, because three or four months later someone tapped me on the shoulder in the newsroom and said: "Ah, Tarnowski, you speak Spanish, don’t you? We need someone for the Rome bureau. Can you leave in 10 days?"
And that’s it. All’s well that ends well. ■