There is a distinct class of ‘look-at-me’ men and women, and they are easily recognised.
“Look at me, I’m so cool, I live in Cuba! Look at me, I’m so cool, I take my holidays in Iran! Look at me, I work in a war zone! Look at me – I know a terrorist. Look at me I have really good friend who is a raving Jewish queen – he’s locked up in Cooma for manslaughter. Am I cool or what?”
All fun and games and tolerant and inclusive and all that, until it goes wrong.
A British architect, Stephen Purvis moved his wife and four children to Cuba to “escape” their humdrum middle-class life in London. For 15 years their escape paid off – until 2012, when Purvis, then 51, was arrested and accused of spying for the Americans.
What is below is from the book he wrote about it. The description of the prison is accurate. Nobody goes to a Cuban cell for a holiday.
But know this – when this guy finally got out, he went to Myanamar.
That despotic backward country where, as you read this, Christians are being persecuted, murdered, robbed and raped as though they were in Raqaa.
Why not? That’s what cool people do. They think life under a communist/socialist state would be much better than the UK. Now he experiencing a military dictatorship. The term idiot circulates unceasingly in my mind but I try to ignore it..My universe has shrunk to the dimensions of a king-size mattress – not much more than 6ft square.
This is a standard cell in Villa Marista, the state security interrogation centre. It’s a dungeon I will have to share with three other people for months, even years. Four people in a tiny concrete box in a country where the summer temperature is 40 degrees and the humidity 80 per cent.
The washing and toilet facilities are a 3ft-square sunken trough by the cell door. These dungeons were built to KGB technical specifications. We are reduced to animals in a zoo for enemies of the state.
When I first came to Cuba in 1997, the country was bankrupt. There was no food. The whole country felt and smelt like a pair of tramp’s trousers.
To save his wonky world, President Fidel Castro (who handed power to his brother Raul in 2008) gambled by opening his country to the Pandora’s box of tourism and allowing direct foreign investment. Which is where I came in with two left feet and our life savings to invest. My wife Sarah and I, with our four children, went to Cuba because we saw an opportunity to escape our conventional, suburban middle-class lives to have the kind of family experience you cannot buy.
It was work that first took us there. I had been introduced to a client who needed an architect – and decided to stay. For years, while I helped build multi-million- pound projects like the golf and real estate development Bellomonte in Playas del Este Havana, we lived the dream.
But then the rules changed. Foreigners could no longer rent private houses so we had to move to a posh suburb with diplomats and other big cheese foreigners. Castro’s regime began a purge on the same people who had been invited in to help build the economy. The company I worked for and my boss were caught up in something far bigger than me.
When they come for you, its mostly at your workplace or they grab you off the street like the Gestapo. It’s what happened to my boss: they came and took him away, provisionally charged with revelations of state secrets and corruption.
I should have gone to the airport and taken the first flight out, but I refused to run away. I wasn’t a crook. Five months later, they came for me.
It was a morning like any other. I’d just got up when there was some banging of car doors outside, the front door opened and a man with a red moustache walked in and introduced himself as Teniente Colonel Ivan of State Security. This was my boss’s interrogator. It had happened.
Now here I am in Castro’s private zoo. ‘From now on,’ they told me, ‘you have no name. You are prisoner 217.’
At random times a disembodied voice shouts: ‘217, prepare yourself!’ They never say why.
The interrogation room is brightly lit. It has a plastic chair bolted to the floor set back from a simple table. The air-conditioning is on full blast and the contrast with the cell is horrible. Within 30 minutes, the sweat has chilled and I am trying to control my shivering.
Ivan’s moods vary. Sometimes he is really aggressive, shouting and banging the table while making all sorts of threats. Other times he makes jokes and gives the appearance of being friendly. During one session, they show me a handful of photographs of people taken at immigration.
Ivan’s mood darkens. ‘Are these the people you pass information to?’ I try to reply calmly. ‘What information? I don’t have any.’ He says: ‘Don’t lie to me. You have no idea how serious this is.’ And so it goes on and on, day in, day out, part of the never-ending routine of jail.
At 6.30am the cell hole bangs open and the nurse passes through pills. My cellmates are all afflicted with a variety of illnesses, real and imagined.
At 7am, a 50g bread roll spread with some kind of meat paste or margarine is passed in, sometimes with a powdered soft drink that we all think has bromide in it. At 11.30 there is a metal tray with some rice or beans, a tinned sardine or a tiny bit of gristly pork with some shredded cabbage or pickled vegetable.
Even in this hell hole there are lighter moments.
In a tatty concrete hut that looks as if it was built by children from giant play blocks, 50 criminals are watching television, moist-eyed.
The Abba film Mamma Mia! is on – and huge Jamaican Yardies and evil little Colombian drug smugglers sit spellbound as Pierce Brosnan declares his love for Meryl Streep.
One lesson of the past months is that life can be strange but people, despite appearances, can be comfortingly similar.
At 5.30pm the same again. The nurse returns at 7.30pm. Sometimes we get another bread roll at about 9pm. From 10pm we drift in and out of consciousness to wake exhausted at 6am to a blast of the national anthem.
For my wife, the anxiety is just as tough. After two weeks of exhaustion-induced panic back at our apartment, she is eventually hospitalised for treatment. My mother, who took the first flight from London after my arrest, takes custody of the kids, Adam, 17, Oscar, 15, Poppy, 14, and Rosy, 12. They are so brave when they come to visit and of course I try to be brave for them. I enter with hands behind me and head down and give them my most reassuring smile. They try to hold back the tears until after I have gone, and generally they make a better job of it than their dad does.
I think part of it is because they don’t want to give the guard, who sits in the corner chipping in with stupid comments and enjoying his power over us, the pleasure of seeing the family in such distress. And they treat him with a fierce and cold politeness. I decide that when school breaks up they will all return home to London and start a new life without me. I have explained that it could be two weeks, two months, two years or 20 years until I am free.
In Villa Marista, there is on average one proper suicide attempt a month. Two out of three inmates go mad. Regularly I would hear someone start screaming and raving, followed by the guards’ boots clattering past and then the sounds of some poor soul being dragged off to the doctor for sedation. I lose more than 3st in weight in a few months – that’s 18 per cent of my normal body mass.
My mum is an absolute marvel. She is orchestrating what passes for a defence in Cuba with my lawyer, and most importantly she is making my interrogator Ivan curse the day he ever decided to arrest me on these ridiculous charges.
In Villa Marista, there is on average one proper suicide attempt a month
‘Now listen here Ivana, it just isn’t good enough,’ she says, blithely ignoring that she has not only corrupted his name but feminised it, a serious insult in a macho culture. ‘My son needs proper food. I insist that he has a home-cooked meal once a week and that you let him have dried fruit and the basics to keep his health.’
Ivan replies stiffly: ‘We have our regulations but I will see what can be done. We all eat from the same kitchen, you know.’
Mum says: ‘I don’t care about that nonsense. And you don’t seem to be losing weight,’ pointedly looking at the food stains on his taut tunic.
She is such a contrast to the staff from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What a bunch of supine, wishy-washy paper tigers they are turning out to be. They don’t want to do anything to rock the fragile boat of diplomacy. The only person to show spine is the British Ambassador herself. Despite being told by London not to visit me ‘as it is against protocol’, she bullies her way in, using a barrage of diplomatic notes fired off every two weeks.
She even brings me a plate of fillet steak from her kitchen. Ivan drools.
After eight months, I am moved to La Condesa, a stalag for foreign criminals, where no Englishman had been held in eight years. My companions are for the most part convicted murderers, drug traffickers, people smugglers, paedophiles, rapists and gangsters. Oh, and four other people like me – foreign businessmen held without formal charge pending trial.
This being Cuba, there exists a system whereby certain prisoners get a monthly visit from women from the village who bring vegetables – and sleep with prisoners for cash.
The families of the prisoner wire money to the tart and the prison guards get a kickback.
A much-thumbed school exercise book circulates with photographs and telephone numbers of ‘vegetable ladies’. It seems that half the guards are pimping out their relations and the entire economy of the local town is dependent on stuff pinched from the jail or extorted from prisoners.
I am allowed a conjugal visit from my wife. At six in the evening, I am led out with a bag containing a spare blanket (I hear it is cold), some soft drinks and my wash things. I meet Sarah under the floodlights by the visitors’ centre and we are taken to a small room with a rickety bed and a little primitive bathroom. There is a rose in a yogurt pot on the bedside table.
I lose three stone, nearly a fifth of my weight, in a few months
The guard locks us in and reminds us that my wife has to leave at 5.45am. Sarah has bought a simple supper and we eat, nervously chatting away as if the past nine months had never happened. ‘What an adventure, a night in prison,’ she says.
Later, in the dark, she asks me about what it was really like back in ‘the dungeon’. I can’t bring myself to talk about it. I ask her what it was like for her, in the hospital and then the long recovery. But she can’t bring herself to talk about it either.
‘I’m much better now, sweetheart,’ she says. ‘That’s all that matters.’ We lie side by side on the ancient bed, trying to get comfortable under the scratchy blanket. Despite the physical intimacy, a gulf of solitude separates us.
As the weeks go by, it becomes horribly clear that the reason I have spent all this time in prison is because I had been falsely denounced by a work colleague. Cuba is that sort of place. He is definitely off my Christmas card list.
After 16 months and what passes for a trial in Cuba, I am sentenced to two-and-a-half years for ‘illegal activities’. The prosecutor argues for a reduction. With any luck I have already served my full sentence.
Then, 17 days after the trial, a shout goes out for me. I am led into the prison’s front office. Sitting on a collapsed black vinyl sofa is a tremendously fat, sweaty woman in civvies who introduces herself as an official from the court.
The ‘colonel’ – prison staff have military sounding ranks – blurts out through grinding teeth: ‘This woman is an official from the justice office. You are free.’
I look at her in wonder. ‘You’re joking! What kind of freedom? English freedom or Cuban freedom?’ I ask.
[Sure, that’s what cool people do, they make sardonic one-liners to guards that can beat the hell out of them. I actually believe he said this, but I can well understand that I am alone in my belief.]
The woman smiles and then, after a deep breath, starts a very serious two-minute sentence that begins ‘Under Section X of the penal code of the Republic of Cuba…’ and ends: ‘Sign here and you are free.’
I am not listening. I am staring at the piece of paper in disbelief. It is here in grey and yellow. As of today I am free. The colonel waves the guard over to unlock my handcuffs and I am dismissed.
A car takes me to Havana. When we draw up outside my friend’s house, the driver carries my suitcase to the front door. My driver gives me a jolly handshake and says: ‘Well, I hope you have enjoyed your stay in Cuba. Goodbye.’
I reply in English: ‘You are all totally ****ing mad.’ He shrugs his shoulders and drives away.
Cool to the end.
The book is Close But No Cigar: A True Story Of Prison Life In Castro’s Cuba, by Stephen Purvis,
So he thought life under a communist/socialist state would be much better than the UK. Now his appears to be experiencing a military dictatorship.
In fact it looks more like “I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here” episode.