‘From now on you have no name. You are prisoner 217’: life in a Cuban jail
A brutal high-security prison was the last place Stephen Purvis expected
to end up when he moved to Havana. Stephen Gibbs tells his story
Sunday 19 March 2017 09.00 GMT
If you happened to go to a British embassy reception in Havana in the
early 2000s, you would likely have met Stephen Purvis. You could not
miss him. Six foot four, cropped grey hair, rum in hand, a broad smile
and no shortage of good stories.
Purvis loved Cuba. Escaping what he saw as the risk of a “pre-ordained
suburban middle-class life” in Wimbledon, the architect and his wife
seized the opportunity to move to the island 17 years ago. He had been
offered a job as development director with Coral Capital, an investment
and trading company. It was one of several small foreign firms – almost
all led by maverick, adventurous individuals – that were setting up in
Cuba as the country sought international partners following the collapse
of the Soviet Union. Purvis’s job was to look for joint venture
opportunities with the Cuban government. The planned projects included
the first golf course to be constructed there since the 1959 revolution,
and the revamp of a formerly glamorous hotel, the Saratoga.
Speaking to me from Myanmar (more about that later) Purvis recalls his
early Havana years. “It felt like another era,” he says. “No internet.
No TV. No shopping.” The family adapted well to their new life. Home was
a handsome 1950s villa, soon full with their four children. Saturdays
would be spent by the pool at the beach club. The son of a theatrical
designer, Purvis also dabbled in theatre himself, producing the Cuban
dance show Havana Rakatan, which performed successfully for several
years in London. No one, of course, imagined that those halcyon days
would end so abruptly, with Purvis imprisoned in what he describes as a
“zoo” for enemies of the state. But that is how it turned out. The title
of his powerful memoir, Close but No Cigar, is his own admission of just
how badly life can go wrong.
I last saw Purvis in Havana in 2011, a few weeks before his arrest, at a
New Year’s Eve party (I had been the BBC’s correspondent in Cuba between
2002 and 2007). The arrival of the New Year is a big deal in Cuba,
partly because it coincides with the anniversary of Fidel Castro’s
revolution. Two of President Raúl Castro’s daughters were at the event.
By then, the mood among the expats doing business on the island had
notably soured. Many were whispering that this would likely be their
last fin de año in Cuba. All knew someone who had been caught up in a
mysterious but ever-widening series of arrests. Two prominent Canadians,
Sarkis Yacoubian and Cy Tokmakjian, had been detained since the summer.
A well-known Chilean entrepreneur, who used to boast he was a friend of
Fidel Castro, had been convicted in absentia to 20 years in jail. And
Purvis’s boss, Amado Fakhre, the British-Lebanese CEO of Coral Capital,
had been imprisoned in October.
“The sense of an impending doom was growing day by day,” recalls Purvis.
He says he’d be the first to admit he was “an idiot” not to leave the
country when he still could. But he was convinced he had done nothing wrong.
None of the imprisoned foreigners had at that stage been formally
charged with anything, but the assumption was they were caught up in
Raúl Castro’s pledge to root out corruption. The younger Castro had
formally taken over from the ailing Fidel in 2008. In 2009, he
established a comptroller’s office, tasked with investigating evidence
of misdeeds among communist party officials, managers and state company
employees. It was turning out to be a never-ending task. Cuban state
salaries are all around $20 a month. To varying degrees, everyone does
something technically illegal to survive. By 2010, hundreds of Cubans,
including ministers and senior executives, had been detained or
dismissed. The net was widening to the foreigners, who were also
breaking the law by paying their employees any bonus on the side, or
even buying them lunch.
Purvis, who admits paying a small pension to one ex-employee, is
convinced that the mass arrests were not in fact about corruption, but
instead the clumsy purge of Fidel Castro’s old guard, which was being
replaced with a new (mainly ex-military) clique, allied to Raúl.
On 8 March 2012 they came for him. Shortly after dawn, a fleet of
unmarked Ladas drew up outside his home. The Purvis children were
hastily packed off to school, told by their mother that the commotion
was because “Dad needs to answer some questions about work.”
Purvis was taken away, handcuffed, his head forced between his knees, to
an anonymous art deco house close to the airport. There, he was
provisionally charged with being an “enemy of the state”. He was advised
not to hire a lawyer and to co-operate immediately. Agreeing to that, he
was then taken to the notorious Cuban state security prison known as
Villa Marista, for what was described, euphemistically, as “further
“The villa”, as it is known by Cuban dissidents, is a former Catholic
seminary on the outskirts of Havana. Since 1963 it has been an
interrogation centre, using techniques perfected by the KGB. Eventually,
they say, everyone “sings” at the villa. Purvis believes he and his boss
(who had been transferred to a military hospital by the time his
co-director arrived) are the only Englishmen ever to have been held
there. For months, he became “Prisoner 217”. His life was entirely
controlled by a man known as “the instructor”. He spent almost every
hour of the day in a cell the size of a double mattress, with three
other inmates (one of whom he believes was a government informant). The
four shared an open latrine.
The appalling conditions were only alleviated by the “psychological
games” of interrogation that took place day and night. Purvis says he
was questioned for hours, often about the details of the lives of other
foreigners on the island. The intent was to get him to inform on anyone
who might have done something illegal, however minor. Purvis says he
refused to do so, probably sparing other expats (some of whom still live
and work in Cuba) a similar fate to his own. He does not deny the
temptation was there. “You can see why in the end people just go, ‘Oh
give a dog a bone. Throw them some names just to get out of there,’” he
After months in Villa Marista, he says he felt himself “drifting away”.
Sleeping only fitfully, he had constant tinnitus and was losing his
vision. About once a month he says he would hear a suicide attempt
nearby. The strain on his family, allowed to see him for less than half
an hour every week, was enormous. His wife had a breakdown and had to be
hospitalised. Purvis’s elderly mother came to Cuba to look after the
children before finally the decision was taken that the family should leave.
In his book, Purvis is scathing about the lack of help the UK foreign
office offered him and his family for much of the ordeal. While one
British ambassador, Dianna Melrose, comes across as exceptionally kind
in the early weeks of his imprisonment, the new embassy team appears to
have shown scant interest in the case. No consular escort was offered to
Purvis’s wife and children the day they left Cuba.
You have this warm, fuzzy feeling that HM Government will look after
your back. And then you find it doesn’t
“As a British passport holder,” he tells me, “you have this sort of
warm, fuzzy feeling that HM Government will look after your back. And
then you find it doesn’t.” He suspects that someone within the FCO had
made a decision not to “rock the boat” with the Cuban authorities,
focusing instead on what was seen as the bigger prize of a potential
rapprochement between all EU governments and Raúl Castro.
Finally, after the authorities gave up trying to tease information from
him, the enemy of the state charges were dropped and Purvis was moved to
La Condesa, a maximum security prison for foreigners. He describes his
fellow inmates there as a “mixed bunch” of the innocent, as well as
murderers, rapists, drug smugglers and hit men. He overlapped with
multimillionaire Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian, who was earning
respect for his obstreperous approach towards his jailers.
La Condesa may have been less psychologically traumatic than the villa,
but it was brutal. The depravity Purvis vividly describes was in part
aided by a network of corrupt prison guards, bullying prisoners while
profiting from a prostitute ring, supplied from the local village.
Purvis eventually formed his own gang, one made up of “complete losers”,
with the sole intent of “preventing unpleasantness”.
In June 2013 a trial date was arranged, a process which would ultimately
lead to Purvis’s freedom, while convincing him of the farcical nature of
Cuban justice. As the trial was secret he was not shown any evidence
ahead of it, so never had any chance to know what he was being accused
of, or prepare a defence. Instead, in the hours before his closed court
appearance, he was asked by the prosecutor to run through what he might
say to the judge, as a form of dress rehearsal. Purvis was found guilty
of illegal foreign currency transactions. He says all were entirely
routine and had been authorised by the country’s central bank. His
sentence was a two-and-a-half-year non-custodial term. He was set free.
The experience, he says, has had a “catastrophic spin-off” to every
aspect of his life. All his assets in Cuba have been lost. The golf
course project he worked on has been taken over by a Chinese company;
construction has not begun. The Saratoga is now considered the best
hotel in Cuba. Madonna celebrated her 58th birthday there last year.
Coral Capital investors are still trying to recover their outlay on the
property. Purvis has no desire to see it again.
After he returned to London he says he became “aggressive and volatile”.
Prison habits were hard to shake. He would often ring the Condesa jail
to speak to his friends there. “I needed to wean myself off the
brutality,” he says. That, and the lack of alternative options, is one
reason he has chosen to work abroad once more, away from his family but
visiting them in London regularly. A friend helped arrange a new job for
him in Myanmar, where he is overseeing a city redevelopment project.
Purvis says he is “recovered now”, and the process of writing this
powerful book, which has been nominated for a Gold Dagger award, has
helped that process. Gone, however, is much of his cheerful optimism. He
is certain the Cuban authorities realise they made a mistake by
imprisoning him. But he expects no apology. And the damage is done.
An extract from Close but No Cigar by Stephen Purvis
I am now in a dimly lit room. The ceiling is made of tiles with a great
section missing, collapsed and never replaced. There are some random
fluorescent strip lights. The capacitor of one is on the blink, so it
clicks on and off. The walls are covered in a dark timber-effect
panelling that is coming off in places. A few derelict brown vinyl sofas
are pushed against one wall and a timber bench screwed to the other. The
air seems to be full of plaster or cement dust. It looks like a
ransacked government building in post-invasion Baghdad. I am sitting on
the bench and the guards slouch on the sofas.
There is a high desk, also in dark timber. Behind it is a big dirty
glass window into some kind of control room. Banks of CCTV screens
flicker in the gloom. A fat old uniform with a row of decorations
waddles out from the back, chewing a cigar. He looks at me briefly and
waves me over. Then he sticks his one hand out in the direction of the
guys that brought me here. No love lost between them, they heave
themselves upright and slap the transfer documents into his hand. He
signs various papers, gives them a receipt and they unlock me. They
leave saying nothing. Fatty coughs, picks his nose and then asks me to
empty my pockets and hand over my watch and shoelaces. I sign a chit for
them but he keeps both copies so maybe it’s the last I’ll see of my watch.
Then two very young guards in olive fatigues take me off to a side room.
Another boy, earnest yet nervous, is waiting at a desk. Stumbling over
the words he explains that I have to fill in a form. I can feel his fear
of me. They must tell them we are dangerous monsters. Another man enters
and what little confidence the boy has now evaporates.
About my age, he is a handsome man who introduces himself in perfect
American English. He is a major. He asks me about my family. “How do you
think they are coping with the situation?” Is this a genuine question or
some kind of threat? His face gives nothing away. Then he explains the
rules. They are pretty simple. “From now on you have no name. You are
My lucky number.
“When you are out of the cell you walk on the left-hand side with your
head facing down and hands behind your back. You never look at anyone.
At each door or staircase you face the wall until told to proceed. You
will obey the officials. If you do not, you will be punished. If you are
ill, then call for the nurse. You will be fed in your cell three times a
day. Any questions?”
“Can I call my wife?”
“No, we will arrange for her to visit.”
“When will the embassy visit?”
“These things take time.”
I feel a lump forming in my throat. I concentrate hard not to tear up.
“Can I have something to read?”
‘That depends on your instructor. Your instructor decides on your
conditions and safety. This depends on your conduct.”
“Do I have a lawyer?”
He laughs. “This also takes a long time. Take my advice, don’t wait.”
I am then led off to a succession of dingy rooms where I am
fingerprinted, photographed and have blood taken to test for hepatitis,
Aids and TB. Then I am pushed into a musty laundry and told to strip
while they issue me with a second-hand uniform. It’s a washed-out
slate-blue number in scratchy nylon. Very me. I get shorts, long
trousers and two shirts with a stinky towel thrown in, plus two sheets
and a pillow case. In a bit of a daze, all sounds scrambled and muffled,
I am prodded along a tiny corridor that feels subterranean.
This place was originally meant to have been a seminary but there is no
sign of any heavenly inspiration now. God has deserted the place and it
is in the hands of the dark side.
This is where captured suspected CIA guys are brought, where purged
officials repent and where all Cubans fear to tread. This is where
American pensioner Alan Gross was interrogated for months on end to try
to prove that he was a spy and not some deluded Jewish activist. This is
their Lubyanka, their Gestapo headquarters. These crude, hulking green
blocks are designed to extract confessions, real or fantasy, and then
mentally cripple the enemies of state. It has a fearsome reputation for
We pop out into a broad corridor. It’s the cell block. No time to look
as the rules now kick in, so head down I shuffle along as instructed. I
am pushed into a side room and told to put all my things on top of a
disgustingly filthy, shit-stained, one-inch foam mattress. A pillow
mottled with bloodstains is chucked on the top. I stare at the blood in
disbelief, a wave of despair building inside me. They cannot be serious.
I am told to pick up the entire load and walk down through the gates.
I shuffle along, now almost catatonic. The guard in front has a long
chain looping around him and a huge wobbly rubber baton that bangs
against the wall as he marches. All is silent except for the dripping of
water, the squeaking of the guards’ boots and a man sobbing in a cell.
I count 32 doors. I am told to stop
and face the wall while Mr Rubber Baton fumbles with his key chain.
My nose is six inches from the
wall. I read the guards’ obscene graffiti, scrawled in childish pencil.
And then the true significance of what has happened hits me. It isn’t
going to go away and it isn’t going to get better for a long time. The
gate and then the door clang open with a foul rush of stale air,
revealing a tiny cave with three pale faces blinking like moles in the
light. I step into my new life. My dungeon.
Close but No Cigar by Stephen Purvis is out on 23 March, priced £18.99.
To order a copy for £16.14, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
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