Comrades in Miami
A Novelby Jose Latour
From an acclaimed crime writer, a riveting espionage novel that takes us inside the battle of wits between Cuba and the United States.
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Only ninety miles of open water separate Florida from Cuba. But after more than forty-five years of Communist rule, the two tropical paradises couldn’t be more different. Jos’ Latour, who has been called “a master of Cuban noir” by Martin Cruz Smith, brilliantly brings both worlds to life in Comrades in Miami. In Havana, spymaster Victoria Valiente, head of Cuban Intelligence’s vital Miami Desk, and her husband, Manuel Pardo, a computer expert, are tired of their sacrifices. They try to pull the wool over the Chief’s eyes and escape to freedom after an electronic heist, but their actions take place in a world of espionage as cutthroat as anything from the height of the Cold War. Both governments draw out all the players, including a gardener with more abilities than just a green thumb, secret foreign operatives, the FBI, and an unsuspecting former English teacher. Comrades in Miami is a tour de force, an exquisitely crafted novel of sex, politics, and espionage that bridges the gap between the neon streets of Miami and the crumbling facades of Havana.
“Latour has revisited the classic spy novel, resurrecting an anachronistic world of letter drops and code names but injecting it with a hot-blooded Latin machismo ” In crafting his sophisticated and atmospheric novel, Latour joins the ranks of fellow spymasters like Martin Cruz Smith and John Le Carre.” –Clayton Moore, Rocky Mountain News
“Victoria Valiente may well be one of the most fascinating characters to appear in a crime novel in my memory.” –Sarah Weinman, The Baltimore Sun
“Beautifully crafted from start to finish.” –Ronnie Terpening, Library Journal (starred review)
“A well-plotted compelling tale of the infrastructure of spies, politics, and ordinary people. ” Latour takes the reader on an armchair trip from Miami neighborhood to the heart of Havana, delivering a cityscape that is as multilayered as his plot.” –Oline Cogdill, The Houston Chronicle
“With a native’s sense of place, [Latour] delivers a finely textured Cuban noir.” –Sam Harrison, The Miami Herald
“Latour writes about the island with an unmatched verisimilitude.” –Booklist
“Subtle and complex chess game of a thriller, with an interesting insider’s view of contemporary Cuba.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Latour’s fascinating book remains a thing of beauty.” –Publishers Weekly
Praise for Havana World Series:
“A tale as dark, rich and satisfying as a pot of extra-meaty carne guisado . . . The intricately drawn cast of career criminals who spring from Latour’s rich imagination makes Havana so enjoyable, a sure thing for any fan of exotic noir.” –Entertainment Weekly
“An entertaining and suspenseful story . . . [Latour] has managed to capture the sights, sounds, smells and rhythms of Havana in a way that is as much nostalgic as it is descriptive.” –Kevin Baxter, The Miami Herald
One of Cuba’s well-kept secrets is that for several years the most respected individual in the General Directorate of Intelligence was Colonel Victoria Valiente, a psychologist.
Brigadier-general Edmundo Lastra (cryptonym Gabriel) was general director, Colonel Enrique Morera (Bernardo) was his deputy, but the woman who headed the Miami desk of the USA Department had won the admiration of superiors and subordinates alike with her long list of remarkable results. Under her guidance, the desk had submitted reports, issued warnings, and given forecasts judged extremely valuable by the country’s top leadership. She had achieved this by planting new, well-trained secret agents in the Greater Miami area, activating sleepers, approving the recruitment of valuable informers, opposing the enlistment of some who turned out to be FBI informers, exhaustively scanning public sources, and making educated and usually correct guesses.
Known in the island’s intelligence community by the cryptonym Micaela, Victoria was transferred to Interior’s General Directorate of Intelligence from the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces in late 1989, in the wake of the drug smuggling scandal involving corrupt Cuban intelligence and military officers.
On July 12 of that year, the world learned that four perpetrators had been executed by firing squads.
In 1983, Victoria had joined the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces’ Military Counterintelligence Directorate following graduation from the University of Havana’s faculty of psychology. At the time, she had seen such tools of the trade as telephone listening devices, minicameras, and tap detectors only in movies. She was ignorant of basic cryptology, had fired a pistol twice in her life, and abhorred judo, karate, and other forms of unarmed combat. She had never traveled abroad.
Physically, Victoria was one shade below nondescript. As a child, one of her teachers in grade school had quipped that the girl’s mother poured the baby and raised the afterbirth. What seemed strange to her parents and teachers alike was that Victoria obtained good marks in exams despite the fact that the asthmatic and astigmatic girl rarely read textbooks.
Even though her appearance improved notably during puberty, Victoria stood a meager five-foot-two, never weighed more than 112 pounds, had a rather homely face, and wore her mousy brown hair in bunches. The glasses needed to correct her astigmatism made her green eyes expressionless, and her figure was more angular than rounded where it counts. Neither dirty old men nor young virgin males ogled her when she sunbathed on the beach in a two-piece bathing suit.
Perhaps for that reason, from a sexual standpoint, Victoria’s life had been saintly. She lost her virginity at twenty-one, and by the time she got married eleven years later she had copulated with just three men. Contrary to popular myth, this most unassuming, unattractive late-bloomer frequently experienced three orgasms in half an hour and, ten years into her marriage, enticed her husband into having intercourse two or three times a week, four if he felt like it. Lacking motivation for giving birth or a feeling of suitability for motherhood, she had popped contraceptive pills for seventeen consecutive years.
Her remarkable sexual appetite was not Ms. Valiente’s most admirable quality, though. She possessed vast amounts of three others: One was brainpower.
An admirer and disciple of British psychologist Raymond B. Cattell, she had read seventeen of his forty-one books and many of his articles. Cattell was the first to postulate that the key problem in personality psychology was the prediction of behavior. He classified traits into three categories: dynamic (those that set an individual into action to accomplish a goal), ability (concerning the individual’s effectiveness to reach a goal), and temperament (aspects like dispositions, moods, and emotions). After her transfer to Interior’s General Directorate of Intelligence, Division of Personnel, Evaluation Department, Victoria developed her theory of how to perform a prospective spy’s remote psychological profiling based on Cattell’s teachings.
She studied the files of candidates submitted by field officers, rejected many, and asked for additional information about those who seemed to have latent possibilities. Then she eliminated a few more, recommended which operatives should approach each of the chosen few, and wrote scripts. With a good nose for politics, Victoria followed world events on a daily basis to choose the ones that, if reminded of a prospective or active informer, may strengthen his or her resolve to betray their government, institution, or company. She preferred the recruitment to be based on ideological affinity, but would set her scruples aside if blackmail or sex would let the cat out of the bag. In strapped Cuba, buying information was a means of last resort.
During her four years in Evaluation, Victoria profiled many possible informers: people working for MI6, the Vatican, DGSE, SISDE, FIS, the Federal Security Service, three different United Nations agencies, the European Commission, the German and Spanish Ministries of Foreign Affairs, the Mexican presidency, Amnesty International, Roche, and Aventis. All the while, she devoured books on espionage. The lieutenant in charge of Intelligence’s library was absolutely flabbergasted and eventually compiled a list: In four years Victoria read 132 books, including all the classics. She was always the first to read new titles.
Eventually her judgment was highly respected and her recommendations rarely questioned. But it had not always been like that. In the early nineties, her superior officer could not believe she was serious when she argued for taking a promising candidate to Disney World to ask him to work for Cuban Intelligence there and then. On another occasion, she suggested recruiting a pious, sixty-six-year-old priest as he listened to the handler’s confession. In both instances the officer, now retired, had asked her to convince him. She did it dispassionately, using her remote psychological profiling. She was so convincing that the two plans were approved. And they worked.
In 1993, a few weeks after she had astonished everyone by choreographing the recruitment of a top European scientist who agreed to pass on the results of his firm’s research on an AIDS vaccine, Victoria was ordered to report to a third-floor office of the State Council at 10:00 A.M., where she was asked to take the Mega Society’s IQ test.
This was quite surprising to her because, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, communist parties in power presented a rather simplistic and homogeneous official front when it came to politics, economics, sociology, and psychology. Non–Marxist-Leninist theories in the fields of social evolution and human responses were dead wrong. Dialectic materialism provided the only key that unlocked the complex behavior of individuals and societies. Having studied in the years when intelligence quotient tests were shunned as capitalist hocus-pocus, Victoria had scant knowledge about them and had never taken one.
In practice, however, having realized that this sort of prejudice rendered useless important research and knowledge, from the sixties on almost all general secretaries of communist parties had appointed a couple of their most trusted henchmen to head small, specialized units that applied techniques such as standardized tests to measure intelligence.
On her first attempt, Victoria Valiente gave forty-two right answers. According to Hoeflin’s fifth norming of the Mega Test, she scored 176. In common parlance this meant that out of half a million people, only one had Victoria’s high level of intelligence, emotional stability, and physical coordination.
The old man who had asked that the test be taken–simply called Chief or Commander by the members of his inner circle, Commander in Chief in public, Godfather behind his back, Comedian in Chief in Miami, and Holy Father by an abjectly submissive historian–sat back in his executive chair to ponder Victoria’s results. On one hand, it was disappointing to find out that a semi-literate carpenter and a dressmaker had presented the world with a supergenius, whereas none of his children had scored above 130. On the other, looking on the bright side of things, he found comfort in the fact that among the incompetent, groveling, mealy-mouthed bastards that surrounded him, there was an individual scientifically proven to be extremely bright.
The Chief was further seduced when he began reading her secret personnel file. Born on January 1, 1959, her parents had named her Victoria because, on that day, dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba. The revolutionaries proclaimed it Victory Day. Her father’s surname was Valiente, so her full name, both in Spanish and in English, literally meant Valiant Victory, and figuratively, Gallant Victory. Without meeting her personally, he had Victoria promoted to lieutenant colonel and transferred to the Miami desk.
In her new position, General Lastra disregarded Victoria’s objections twice. Colonel Morera overruled her on four occasions. The consequences were catastrophic. Three of those six recruits turned out to be double agents, two of whom managed to infiltrate a twelve-person network in Miami that the FBI, after a three-year stint, dismantled in 1998. On the evening he learned of the debacle from his minister of the interior, the Chief had Lastra and Morera summoned to his office.
‘did Micaela approve the recruitment of those sons of bitches?” he had yelled, apoplectic with rage, when told who the FBI agents were.
Looking at their well-polished boots, the general and the colonel had shaken their heads.
“I knew it!” the Chief growled triumphantly.
In the adjoining anteroom an overzealous aide, upon hearing his idol rant and dreading that he may suffer a stroke or a heart attack, had the physician on duty come up. After hurried whispering, the physician knocked and entered the Olympus to take Zeus’s blood pressure.
“Get out of here!” the patient had thundered, arm rigidly pointing to the door, the instant he saw the newly arrived. The doctor paled, did a quick about-face, and closed the door behind him. A pregnant, six-minute pause followed as Number One hobbled around the room. Lastra and Morera kept their gazes on the floor. Finally the Chief came to a halt in front of the officers, giving them the eye.
“Look at me!”
His face flamed; his gray beard shook with ire.
“Whatever Micaela recommends, even if it is against your better judgment, you do it. You’ve made great sacrifices for the Revolution; I don’t want to send you into early retirement. But if you overrule Micaela again, you are finished. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Commander in Chief,” the culprits had chorused.
“Okay, let’s see now what we can do for our comrades.”
Victoria never learned that she had been given carte blanche, but the subtle signs that she began picking up several days after taking the IQ test–whose results were kept from her–repeated themselves in late 1998: embarrassed smiles, lowered eyes, heightened consideration for her opinions and recommendations. Clearly remembering that she had opposed the recruitment of the two FBI informers, she guessed that a big shot, maybe the minister, maybe the Commander himself, had read her reports. Paradoxically, what was a disaster for the Directorate became a feather in her cap. It was not taxing at all to pretend that she had felt sad for the jailed comrades when in fact she was exulting over her personal triumph.
The second trait that Victoria Valiente possessed in a prodigious amount was the acting capability of a universally acclaimed theatrical performer.
Like many Cubans born, raised, and educated throughout the revolutionary era, right up into the late eighties Victoria had been a true believer. She had completed her secondary education in one of seven military schools run by the armed forces–the Camilo Cienfuegos schools–where the emphases placed on the perfection of communism and on the genius of the Chief were even greater than in civilian schools. Over the years, though, as she became privy to secret information of every nature, took English and French classes, read all sorts of magazines and newspapers, paid attention to her husband’s increasingly frequent criticisms, and, from 1998 on, devoted four hours a day on average to browsing the Internet, Victoria reached the inescapable truth that communism was doomed, in Cuba and anywhere else where it had gained a foothold.
But Victoria had witnessed how the careers of many promising young people had ended abruptly because they had made the mistake of openly expressing disagreement. From the very first day that guilt gnawed at her conscience for doubting the veracity of her juvenile ideals, Victoria knew that she ought to conceal her incertitude and pretend that with each passing day she believed more and more in the Revolution and its Commander in Chief.
The third strength that Victoria Valiente had in portentous magnitude was ambition.
She had mapped out her progression. Director general and brigadier general first, minister of interior and division general three or four years later, member of the Central Committee, member of the Politburo, member of the Council of State, the sky was the limit. Victoria realized she was resigning herself to side with the losers, but all things considered, she had no choice. She was well aware that she had passed the point of no return years ago. For having a finger in every pie, she would never be allowed to travel abroad. On the positive side, sudden death notwithstanding, the Chief might be able to hold the country together for eight or ten more years. What she had to do, Victoria reasoned, was to become indispensable, steer clear of internal rivalries, never question the Chief’s orders, and, after his death, avoid siding with a faction. Everyone should see in her a top-class specialist willing to serve those in charge, not the overly ambitious woman she in fact was. These guiding principles never left the innermost recesses of her brain.
Nonetheless, as time went on, Victoria’s concerns increased substantially. Whenever the Chief ranted on television for hours on end, he made serious mistakes. He insulted any Latin American president who asked him to respect the human rights of dissenters, made rather barbed comments concerning European politicians who said that such a benevolent step would be most welcome, and termed traitors the Western European leftists who disagreed with his strategy and tactics.
Many of his half million viewers watched in dismay as he foamed at the mouth, wet his fingers in saliva to turn pages, then went on with the old litany.
He would proclaim over and over again that most Latin American governments were lackeys of U.S. imperialism, Cuba was the finest democracy the world had ever known, the Revolution had the best human rights record on the planet. Victoria and many other well-informed government officials, civil servants, and party bureaucrats watching him from their homes closed their eyes and slapped their foreheads in desperation. Had the man taken leave of his senses? Who was he trying to fool?
Around this same time, the Chief’s closest associates began to perceive, with mounting preoccupation, his gradual slide down the road of senescence. With complete disregard for the diversity of the nation’s opinions, he set forth his weirdest propositions and most extreme views with the expressions “Cuba believes,” “Cuba considers,” and “Cuba thinks.”
Knowing how grave her country’s financial difficulties were, how weak the economy was after many years of colossal mismanagement, Victoria couldn’t believe her ears whenever the Commander criticized the policies being pursued in other Third World countries. He would recite statistics on their high levels of unemployment, on the number of people living below the poverty line, and on the large external debt of these nations without ever referring to similar data for his country.
For Cuba, he invariably prophesied a golden future. The island was a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. In three or four years, watching the educational TV channel he had ordered built in record time, his people would become the most cultured on the planet. Cuban athletes, physicians, teachers, scientists, and musicians were the best, its soldiers the bravest, its workers and farmers the most patriotic. All were willing to die before returning to capitalism, the man always proclaimed at the end of his tirade. Including the several million whom you know want to emigrate, Commander in Chief? Victoria addressed the silent question to the screen of the set, turned it off, and started surfing the Internet for senescence, senility, and Alzheimer’s.
She gave it up after a few hours. This was a whole body of knowledge that would have taken years to master, and what was the use? The Chief had worrying symptoms: irritability, believing in a reality that did not exist, a tendency to recount younger years. On the other hand, his memory loss was negligible, he frequently joked and had fun, and never appeared disoriented. The most capable specialists cared for him and had unlimited access, from anywhere in the world with no expense spared, to cutting-edge medications for retarding the aging process. The man delivered three-hour-long speeches standing at a podium, pausing just to take a sip of water. Being a formidable actress herself, she wondered if the Chief realized that he had failed miserably on all counts and was just putting on an act for the many millions of misinformed compatriots. Admitting failure was out of the question; it would imply relinquishing power, and everybody knew that the Commander would rather die than take the backseat.
In February 1996, after the Cuban air force shot down two U.S. civilian planes, Victoria drove her neurons mercilessly before reaching four conclusions. First: The system was falling to pieces in slow mo. Second: Considering his genetic background and the medical care he got, the Chief had probably ten or more years to live and would most likely die of natural causes. Third: He would remain in power until the last day because those who could end his rule overnight would not move a finger. They feared (a) losing their privileges and (b) retaliation for having executed or sent anticommunists to prison. Fourth: Her husband was 100 percent right. Therefore, Ms. Victoria Valiente decided to have one more heart-to-heart talk with him that evening, and then suck him cross-eyed.
Excerpt Comrades in Miami
©2005 by José Latour.