The following is a sample from Rick Townson’s memoir “Hotel Fidel Castro: An American’s Nine Years in the Cuban Gulag.” For the rest of this moving true story, get the book at Amazon.
Hotel Fidel Castro
An American’s Nine Years in the Cuban Gulag
BY RICK TOWNSON
Within an hour of our docking in Marina Hemingway, there must have been twenty-five policemen all over the boat. Capt. Know-It-All was trying to convince them that he needed to repair the leak at the propeller shaft so the boat wouldn’t sink overnight. They were more concerned with the hundreds of pounds of marijuana stashed on board.
Stunned at our welcome and exhausted from our struggle with a storm at sea, neither of us realized he would never see his boat again, floating or sunk, at the dock here in Havana, Cuba.
After three hours of sitting and watching the Cuban police scurry around, the handcuffs went on, and I was led off the boat to a building a hundred feet away with a half-collapsed roof and a room with no door. By then, my instincts told me to try to protect myself. I started speaking loudly to no one in particular, saying it wasn’t my boat and it wasn’t my marijuana and I wanted to see someone from the United States embassy. I didn’t believe any of the policemen in the room spoke English, and in a few minutes, a young man entered the room and sat down beside me. He started asking me questions in passable English, and I would soon learn that his name was Pedro. Pedro was to be my interrogator for the next thirty-three days.
After two hours or so of his questions and my insistence that I had to get back to the United States for Christmas, which was in three days, officers put me in a vehicle and drove me to what appeared to be a modern-looking jail. A torture chamber wouldn’t be in here, would it? After they strip-searched me and took my possessions, they led me up two flights of stairs, where there was a whole new set of jailhouse personnel. All of these young men seem to be about five feet five inches tall, a hundred pounds, wearing green uniforms with small pillbox-style caps. Six of them gathered around me, shouting in Spanish. All I could say was “no comprendo.” In my fatigued state, I had the thought that maybe these were all Fidel Castro’s sons. I started to laugh out loud. They didn’t get my sense of humor. All of them surrounded me and shouted into my face, “Americano, Americano!” They spat on the floor and yelled, “Yo Cubano, yo Cubano, el Cubano! Viva Cuba!” One of them pulled me toward a closet and issued to me a children’s size bed sheet and a children’s size mat of felt. Then one of the men took the felt from my hand and put it back in the closet and returned with a different piece, this one stained and foul-smelling.
The officers marched me down a hallway of what appeared to be many storage rooms. They forced me against the wall face-first while I waited for them to open one of the doors. I was pushed into the room but immediately ran into a sharp steel frame and saw the faces of three men. The door closed behind me. There was one small light, and I could see that the sharp steel was the bunk that would be my bed. No mattress. Just steel.
Three other steel beds hung from the walls of this five-by-ten box. On them were one fat man, one skinny man, and one well-built tough-looking guy. With only six inches between the two sets of bunks, I had to turn sideways to shuffle past them to use the bathroom, which was a hole in the floor at the back of the box. One of the guards returned to give me a towel and a cake of a rank-smelling substance that had to be Cuban soap.
The three other men were all wrapped in their sheets because it was cold — about fifty degrees and no heat whatsoever. I lit a cigarette and started smoking while these other guys watched me. How bizarre that a communist totalitarian police state with a jail obviously designed by Stalin would allow smoking, I thought. But the jailers had allowed me to keep my two packs of cigarettes, as well as my lighter.
I finished one and lit another, trying to think with a brain that had had no sleep for two days.
“Where are you from?” the skinny man asked me in English.
I told him Key West, Florida.
“You smoke too much,” he said.
“I’ll buy more.”
“Where will you buy more?”
I just shrugged and waited for the next, inevitable question: “Why are you here?”
I told him that I was on a sailboat that came into Marina Hemingway and the police found six hundred fifty pounds of marijuana on it. But I told him that it wasn’t mine, and that the captain thought they would go easy on us and let us go. He looked at me and then looked at the tough guy who was listening to our conversation.
“No, that’s not possible,” he said. “You will be in Cuba for a very long time.”
“Bienvenidos al Hotel Fidel Castro!” the tough guy said in Spanish.
Welcome to the Hotel Fidel Castro!
When I was younger, I used to laugh at myself and say that anything worth working for isn’t worth having. I had always avoided anything that was hard: long-term relationships, marriage, children, a lifelong career.
So when I heard about a boat run from Jamaica to Key West that could net me a hundred thousand dollars, my initial objections eroded all too easily.
Key West was always the place to take it easy. It was a place I came to multiple times as I bounced between businesses.
I worked eight years for Hyatt Hotels as a bell captain in Dallas and New York before my first entrepreneurial stint. It grew out of a vacation a buddy and I planned to take in Germany, where we were going to buy German sport motorcycles and ride them there. The bikes weren’t ready in time, so instead, we loaded our own Honda motorcycles on a plane out of Toronto and took a two-month road trip around Europe. I’d never been able to find riding leathers to fit my thin frame nicely, but in Germany, there was a company that made custom-fit leathers at a price so economical, I decided I would buy some not just for myself — I would import them to America. After another trip to Germany to set up the deal, I started my business. I loved it, and I had hundreds of requests for brochures a day. But I had issues. Sometimes I liked partying more than I liked working, and the dollar was falling. As the cost of the suits tripled, I abandoned the enterprise.
I spent time in the Florida Keys, then got into real estate in Naples, Florida. Despite the weak market, I delivered pizzas so I could get by until I got the business going, and soon, I was pulling in decent commissions. I loved real estate, too, but it wasn’t enough to keep me satisfied.
I decided to go back to school and spent three years at a community college in Gainesville, trying to finish a year and a half’s worth of classes. It didn’t work out. I went back to Key West, then on to Fort Lauderdale, where my girlfriend at the time was a chef. The restaurants there had a labor shortage, and I’d met some people in Key West who knew how to get the cheap immigrant labor they needed. I facilitated their hire until I realized the company’s paperwork wasn’t legitimate, and I bailed again. I went to California with my girlfriend, we broke up, and I came back to Florida, eventually setting up a weight-loss business in multiple locations with a former girlfriend.
Working in the vicinity of North Palm Beach, Florida, I handled all the business aspects of the operation while my partner, Maureen, handled all the front-of-the-clinic aspects. Two years after the startup, I was bored. So I showed my partner how to do my responsibilities, signed over to her all my interest in the business, and left with my girlfriend on my sailboat, bound for Key West. It was the fall of 2000, and this would be my third time living there, after year-and-a-half stints in the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. On both previous occasions, I got cabin fever, felt the need to be productive and left Key West, only to return, vowing never to leave again.
Living in Key West on the sailboat meant we didn’t have to pay the island’s high-priced rents. My girlfriend worked as a nurse and I as a taxi driver. Eighty percent of our income was spent entertaining ourselves, and that we did quite well. With more than a hundred boats in the anchorage north of Key West, we were fortunate to have only three other boats anchored within a hundred yards of us. Jerry owned one of them.
Jerry also entertained himself quite well when he was in town. Jerry would leave about every six months and was absent about two months at a time. When he was in town, we would often go out drinking together and invite each other over to dinner. It was at one of these dinners that Jerry finally told us he was a marijuana smuggler. Living in Key West, as I had three different times, I had met smugglers before and listened to their tales of adventure and easy cash. But I had never been interested in that business before, and I wasn’t interested now. For me, sufficient cash was OK, and keeping my freedom was paramount. I’d always had the freedom to change my life when I got bored. Playing cops and robbers with federal agents was not my kind of excitement. But my girlfriend liked the sound of it. She complained she had only forty thousand dollars in her retirement account, and she wasn’t adding anything to it living in Key West. I told her to forget it.
During a dinner with Jerry in the summer of 2002, he brought up the subject again. He told us he’d made five trips to Jamaica, and now he’d made all the money he needed, with most of it buried around Florida. But he seemed to feel sorry for us, two fun-seeking, life-loving people with no money stashed away.
“I don’t smuggle anything harder than marijuana,” he said, “and the feds are chasing cocaine smugglers. You’d have to be extremely unlucky to get caught.”
“No, no, no,” I said, between bites of chicken and swallows of wine.
“You both could make a hundred thousand dollars each for a three-week sailboat trip to Jamaica and back,” Jerry said.
Carmen, my girlfriend, went nuts. “A hundred thousand is just what I need for my retirement account!” she said.
“No, no, no,” I repeated. “You’re a nurse who can make sixty thousand dollars a year, anywhere you want, but never again if you get busted smuggling marijuana.”
For two days I listened to Carmen plead. She echoed Jerry: “We’d have to be extremely unlucky to get caught.” One night, with enough alcohol in me, I agreed that it would be a great adventure to sail to Jamaica and back.
“It’s too risky for you to go,” I told Carmen. “I’ll go and have Jerry get another man for the trip. If the voyage goes well, you can go next time.” I didn’t want her to lose her nursing license after going to jail. Misplaced chivalry.
Jerry had someone in mind. His name was Kevin, and Jerry told me the story of meeting him in Havana.
There, American yachtsmen can spend a few months at the dock and partake of the Cuban women who are desperate to earn more than the ten to fifteen dollars a month that Cuban life provides. Kevin fell in love with one of those beautiful young women, Jerry said. She was desperate to leave Cuba, so Kevin sailed back to Florida, raised nine thousand dollars and paid to have her smuggled out of the country. When she arrived in Florida, she spent three days with him, then bolted to Miami, gone for good.
Now, that sure sounded like bad luck to me, but if I had been thinking clearly at the time, I should have recognized the incident as the result of bad instincts and poor judgment. Jerry, a successful smuggler, should have recognized the potential for disaster as well or, allowing superstition, shouldn’t have put a man with bad luck on a dope-smuggling boat. But Jerry was being kind, helping both Carmen, who needed more money in her retirement account, and Kevin, who needed to overcome a heartbreak.
No one likes to think of himself as a loser in life. And sharing vast knowledge on many subjects, real or imagined knowledge, can distract people from that fact. So when Kevin proceeded to tell Jerry that Jerry was a known smuggler, Jerry was shocked, to say the least. Years later, we learned the only thing Kevin knew about Jerry smuggling was that Jerry had taken VCRs to Cuba.
After talking us into it, Jerry didn’t want to risk himself or his sailboat in a smuggling operation if he was a known smuggler as Kevin had proclaimed. He felt bad, but Kevin felt good and had his own sailboat. Kevin and I could go to Jamaica and back aboard his thirty-five-foot full-keel Chris-Craft, a very capable boat that could handle any rough seas on the voyage. Having only two people aboard would make for shorthanded watches, but we were both relatively young and strong, and I had no fear.
In the tiny box at Havana’s Villa Marista prison, I asked how long my cellmates had been here. The tough guy said two weeks, the fat man five days, and the skinny English-speaking man, three days. His name was Michael, and he had learned English in school. I asked Michael why he was here. He told me his job was burgling houses, and after many successful years of stealing, he got caught. I asked if he had any type of real job, to which he replied that as a trained bricklayer, he didn’t have to go to work, he just went by to pick up his paycheck of eight dollars a month. He made over a hundred dollars a month selling the stolen goods from the houses that he robbed. That was his real job.
The fat man was a hotel bellman. He also made over a hundred dollars a month and was in this box because he’d been busted obtaining an under-aged prostitute for an American tourist from California. He had a lawyer who promised him that his case wouldn’t be a problem because he didn’t know the girl was underage.
The tough-looking man was charged with assault for beating another man in a dispute over a woman. The other man was in the hospital in a coma, and if he lived, the tough guy would get sentenced to about two months; if he died, five years.
It was very cold that first night. The weather front that had caused the stormy conditions for us offshore brought high pressure behind it and temperatures in the fifties. I had only a sheet, no blanket, and a thin piece of felt between me and the steel bunk. I have never been so cold in my life. I got very little sleep, because I spent most of my time shivering. The smell of the sewer was overpowering while I thought of how to overcome my catastrophic error in judgment.
The next morning, we were served a breakfast of a stale piece of bread shaped like a hamburger bun and a cup of liquid that they called milk. The jailers pushed it through a hatch in the steel door that was the size of a mail slot. It tasted like sugar water and left residue at the bottom of the cup that looked like ground-up bone. Bone juice. I wondered whose bones they were. I was six-foot-four and a hundred and seventy-five pounds, but I saw I wouldn’t weigh that for long. Now I was on the Hotel Fidel Castro diet.
I had not showered in seven days, and when I asked Michael, I was told that water came out of the pipe in the wall twice a day for fifteen minutes. All four of us had to shower within that time, but it wasn’t a problem. The air temperature was still cold, and the water was not heated. Three minutes was all I could take.
Two hours later, the steel door of the box opened, and I was yanked out into the hallway and pressed face-first against the wall while they re-closed the door of the box. I was taken downstairs, put in a police car and driven to the docks where we had been arrested. There was Capt. Know-It-All sitting on the boat. The sun was shining, the skies were blue, and there was no wind at all. What a beautiful day it would have been to arrive in Key West, I thought. Also on the boat were Pedro, the policeman who spoke English, and a man with a video camera. Pedro started giving Capt. Know-It-All direction, and it became clear that they were going to videotape a reenactment of yesterday’s glorious drug bust. I just sat there, not saying a word, while Capt. Know-It-All proceeded to give his best performance in hopes of pleasing Pedro. He pointed to all the different hiding places of the marijuana almost as if he were a policeman and had just discovered them. After they were finished, I was led to a car to be driven back to my box, but not before I was able to shout to Pedro once again that I had to be home for Christmas in three days. After all, I was an American, and they should respect our biggest holiday, shouldn’t they? Maybe this was a form of denial, too, but that’s what I was thinking: Let me go; keep Capt.-Know-It-All.
Although I had no fear when I lived in Key West, as we planned our voyage in the autumn of 2002, in time for Jamaica’s fall harvest, I felt a sense of foreboding. Alarm bells went off in my head, and my instincts told me, No, don’t go. My worries started during preparations, as I saw the decisions Kevin, the boat captain, thought were priorities. He bought the material to reseal the propeller shaft as it goes through the boat hull to prevent excessive leaking of water into the boat, but he decided not to install it. Getting only one new battery, and an inferior battery at that, seemed shortsighted to me. His proclamations that room-temperature drinking water was the only beverage needed on a sailboat voyage and not allowing me to bring ice in a cooler on board seemed kooky. More alarm bells went off, but I could drink room-temperature water for three weeks. Not a problem. After Jerry listened to Kevin for a week, his only conclusion was that Kevin was a pseudo-intellectual.
We departed Key West with me waving to Carmen as if I were off on a three-hour tour, though I anticipated a three-week adventure to Jamaica and back. On our second day, we started to cross the Gulf Stream, and I wanted to do a set-and-drift calculation. It would allow us to know the proper sailing magnetic course to arrive at our destination in the Bahamas. Kevin, whom I had already started thinking of as Capt. Know-It-All, declared a calculation unnecessary. He would make mental adjustments on the fly to counteract the current of the Gulf Stream. Capt. Know-It-All’s navigational skill took us sixty nautical miles north of our Bahamas destination. When we finally got on the Bahamas bank at North Bimini, he crawled into his bunk and slept for five hours. The man liked to sleep.
We arrived in Nassau, and the weather turned bad and windy out of the southeast, so we were stuck at the dock for four days. Again, I asked Capt. Know-It-All if he would like to repack the stuffing box on the propeller shaft. He said no. The bilge pump ceased to work, so off we went to the marine store to get a new one. He had not investigated why the old one failed, but I concluded it died because it was inexpensive. We had plenty of expense money and could get more if we needed it, so I wanted to get a high-quality, more costly bilge pump.
“No,” he said. “The cheapest model will be fine.”
“Let’s get two of them,” I said, “so we’ll have a backup.”
“No, one will do,” said the captain.
We sailed south down the Exumas chain of islands. After anchoring one night, our departure the next morning required exiting a small channel that the cruising guides declared dangerous.
“Let’s check on the VHF radio for local knowledge of the tides,” I suggested.
“No need,” Capt. Know-It-All said, dismissing my concern. “There’s deep water on the other side of the channel. The tides won’t be a factor.”
It was very windy. The whole Bahamas trip should have taken three days, but the weather was always on the nose of our sailboat, forcing us to tack back and forth. Sometimes, we’d wait for the wind to change so the sailing would be better.
That morning, the wind was blowing out of the east, the same direction we needed to sail. We would be using the small motor to get out of the channel, but it wasn’t designed to push heavy wind and waves as a powerboat motor was. At eighteen knots, the wind was a formidable obstacle.
Moving from the shallow water into the deep water, against the wind, with the tide coming in, we faced five-foot waves. In the ocean, five-foot seas are nothing. The period between the tops of waves can allow you to ride them smoothly. But with tidal water rushing into the channel, the waves became steep, like five-foot rapids, small mountains to scale over and over again.
We inched along. Capt. Know-It-All hung onto the wheel. I held on at the cabin bulkhead, feeling each jarring impact of the boat on the water as it crested each wave. Were we even going forward, or were we being pushed back? There was no way to go but through. If the bow of the boat were to push slightly one way or another, we could have rolled. With the diesel engine running at full throttle, we were barely able to crawl through the current. …