“We don’t call our dear president Castro,” said Propaganda Tony, correcting me in front of the few assembled Communist party representatives. “We call him Fidel. Just like you would call a brother because Fidel is family to all Cubans. Fidel is our big brother.”
It was more of a pronouncement than a statement, I thought, for ears other than our own. Nonetheless, we played along. I recall the way I’d pictured the famed Cuban leader. Clad in fatigues, always bearded, and smoking this heater of a cigar. I wondered if we’d get a chance to meet the iconic revolutionary. Would he make us feel like we were family? Or would he look down his smokestack at us with a reserved distrust? After all, we’d already been caught bringing drugs into his country. We had been plucked of all our cash and told our credit cards were unusable and still hadn’t the foggiest how we were going to pay for our hotel, bus, driver, and interpreter.
Yes, but surely Fidel the Afficionado could hook us up with a few boxes of cigars for our studio jefe, Mike Medavoy, who’d told us not to return to Hollywood without his pirate booty.
So somewhere deep in Havana, producer Gary Foster, my wife Karen, and I sat in an ornate government anteroom in a building leftover from robust times before the revolution. There were no fans or air conditioning to cool us. I was sweating through my dress shirt, sipping hot Cuban espresso with a warm water chaser, all while politely describing to the politburo-styled panel of humorless party members my interest in their country’s rich history of lost Spanish treasure.
“They will discuss the matter,” said Propaganda Tony in his perfect English, “We will eat lunch and we will return for their decision.”
“Decision on what?” I asked.
“We will find out after lunch,” said our smiling tour guide.
We snacked on street-fare toasted ham and cheese and licked melting cones of what Tony had advertised as the finest ice cream on planet earth. Propaganda Tony might’ve been trained to sell cheap candy to the collective, but he’d clearly met neither Ben nor Jerry.
Upon our return to the government meet-up, we were introduced to Roger, the man charged by El Presidente with documenting Cuba’s unearthed treasure history that, to date, remained unsalvaged off the island’s coast.
“Roger Montagnes,” he’d introduced himself in a serviceable, yet swaggering English, “I’m Castro’s personal underwater archeologist.”
Castro? I instantly thought. What happened to “we all call him Fidel?” I caught the instant look of disapproval on Propaganda Tony’s face. But Castro’s personal underwater archeologist was undeterred, dropping four or five more “Castros” before Tony briefly asked us to excuse Roger and himself for a few moments. Minutes later, the pair returned. Tony’s Moscow-trained smile was intact while Roger’s joi de vivre had all but vanished, replaced by some Spanish that required Tony’s translation. And the rest of Roger’s presentation was littered with “Fidels” in place of “Castros.”
What kind of screws had Tony put to Roger to cause such an obvious change? I didn’t want to know. But was pleased we’d made it through the bureaucratic red tape and were on to the business at hand. Treasure diving.
The following day, Roger motored us out to an underwater site not far from Havana harbor, chucked an anchor, and guided my trio twenty-five feet down to the grave of a seventeenth century Spanish galleon. Whatever treasure went down with her was buried in fifteen feet of sand. The only markers were the ship’s massive cannons that lay on the sea floor like fallen tree trunks. We fanned at the surface sand, hoping to uncover a single golden ingot – but not to smuggle the treasure out of Cuba. My plan was to use a found trinket to trade for cigars and/or to cover our soon-to-be-unpaid hotel and transportation bills. Alas, we only uncovered timber slivers and handfuls of lead musket shot.
All the while, keeping a watchful eye from the boat was Propaganda Tony with his white linen shirt, sunglasses and porkpie hat. Between dives, he and I would talk of Cuban/American relations, history, and the march of communism in the Caribbean. His chest would puff out when defending his country’s post-revolution history on human rights. He easily blamed America for all Cuba’s ills – or what ills he’d concede to. Still, Propaganda Tony showed a sense of humor when ribbing me for my use of slang or errors in my own poor grammar.
“English is such a beautiful language,” Tony would say with Armande Assante cool. “I don’t understand why Americans choose to torture it so.” This from a man who’d never stepped in foot in the U.S. or any other English-speaking country. Everything he’d learned was at the behest of the Cuban Communist Party and their older cousins, the Soviets.
Oh, Propaganda Tony. There was nothing about the man that appeared as if he’d crack. I wonder if it was my arrogance as an American or the playful-but-impenetrable nature to all his defenses that invited my continued anti-collectivist shots. As if this was going to help us pay our hotel bill or get us an audience with his beloved Fidel.
It turned out we were in Cuba for Revolution Week, aka Carnival.
While most of the Latin American countries put on their Carnival celebrations during winter, Cuba parties in late July to commemorate the Fidel-led rebel assault on Santiago. For seven straight eves, the winding boulevard that hugs the walls of Havana Harbor ignites with music and dancing and wildly colorful Caribbean costumes. A million people gathered nightly to guzzle cheap cerveza from cardboard cups and rub sweaty body parts with their neighbors, not to mention we three Hollywood Americanos.
The beer must’ve gone to Propaganda Tony’s head. Because at some point he started to pretend he was one of us. An American. His perfect English so fooled his drunken countryman that he began telling whoever would listen that he was part of the Hollywood film crew. Yes! That he lived in Los Angeles and learned his Spanish in American schools. This act drew more people to us. And the more Cubans that joined our entourage the bigger Tony’s tales would become.
My producing partner, Gary Foster, was clearly concerned. Not that Tony was three-quarters tanked. But that our official propaganda officer was going to play his Hollywood American act on the wrong reveler. A government party member, perhaps.
“He’s gonna get arrested,” said Gary, pulling me off to the side. “Then what happens to us?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they give us another propaganda officer.”
“Maybe they blame us for corrupting him?” said Gary.
Okay. Gary was drunk, too. And for that matter, so was I. Before I could come up with an audible answer, Tony broke in.
“I have an idea,” said Tony. “For getting cigars for your studio boss.”
Oh, that. So far we’d failed in procuring a single cigar. We had no cash and it appeared that no merchant in Cuba was willing to touch our credit cards.
“I’m told there are hotels on Varadero Beach,” said Propaganda Tony. “New hotels owned by Italians. They will sell you cigars and take your credit cards. Even give you cash for your hotel. I’m sure of it!”
“When?” I asked.
“On Sunday,” said Tony. “All your money problems will be solved.”
Next week, the final chapter of RUM, GUNS AND CIGARS.
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.