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When Fernando Barral met John McCain

HAVANA

Dining out in Cuba is always an adventure.

Nowhere more so than at the Los Cactus de 33, one of Cuba's handful of private restaurants that are allowed to operate independently from the state-controlled economy.

The first things that strike customers when they enter are the photos on the walls of Argentine guerrilla icon, Ernesto "Che'' Guevara, one hanging under a mounted rifle.

Then there's the framed 1970 interview of John McCain, conducted by the restaurant's owner during the American pilot's days as a POW in Vietnam. What it is doing there is just a taste of the remarkable life of the Los Cactus' elderly owner, Fernando Barral, a Spanish-born psychiatrist and political refugee who came to Cuba in 1961 at Guevara's invitation.

Barral, 79, dug out a copy of the interview published in Cuba's Communist Party daily a few months ago when McCain's spluttering presidential election campaign began to revive.

More than 38 years have passed since the interview, but Barral remembers it well. He even has the small hardback Vietnamese notebook in which he recorded the 45-minute meeting. Back in those days, Barral was a committed young communist working for Cuba's Ministry of Interior, the dreaded state security service that has over the years been accused of torture and repression of political dissidents.

Barral was born in Madrid. His father died fighting for the communist cause in Spain's civil war. At age 11 Barral fled with his mother to Morocco and joined a refugee ship bound for Argentina. There he met the young Guevara, who was part of a group of school friends. "He was totally apolitical in those days," said Barral. "We used to get together at weekends. He was just one of the group."

The political one was Barral, who soon began to get in trouble with the police for his left-wing activities. He ended up in jail and was lucky to get out alive at a time when the Argentine military was "disappearing" young leftists. He was shipped off to a new asylum, this time in Hungary.

Exiled twice by age 22, Barral decided it was time to settle down. He graduated in medicine, got married and started a family. Meanwhile, his old friend Guevara had gone to fight in Cuba alongside a fiery student leader, Fidel Castro.

A couple of years after Castro's rebel army swept to power, an official Cuban delegation was visiting Budapest. Word of Guevara's old school friend got back to him in Cuba. Before Barral knew it, he was off to join the revolution.

In Cuba he was asked if he would help create a psychiatric unit at the Ministry of Interior. Barral stresses it was for only ministry employees, and he had no part in treating political prisoners.

"I was Spanish, and I wasn't entirely trusted. So I wasn't asked to do that kind of work," he said.

In the late 1960s he was banished to the east of the country after a dispute with his boss. Hearing about an essay writing contest sponsored by the Cuban Cultural Council, he decided one evening to give it a shot. The theme: Attitudes of the Revolutionary Intellectual. First prize was a 40-day trip to Hanoi, North Vietnam, at the time under heavy U.S. aerial bombardment.

Barral wasn't the slightest bit deterred by the risks, and was thrilled when he learned he had won. "For a young communist like me, Vietnam was it. It was the model of bravery and resistance," he said.

In late 1969 he left for Hanoi, by way of Moscow and Peking. He decided he would focus his time on examining North Vietnam's political and social organization to see how it had managed to resist such a powerful enemy.

After one visit to a bomb site, Barral found himself asking how American pilots could inflict such carnage on civilians.

"When I saw the morale of the Vietnamese under bombardment, I wanted to see how the other side felt."

Barral was surprised when his North Vietnamese handlers offered to arrange for him to interview a captured pilot. Two days later he was taken to the office of the Committee for Foreign Cultural Relations in Hanoi.

The future Republican presidential nominee walked in unchained, Barral said, wearing an overall and a towel around his neck. The two men sat down over coffee and oranges with a translator. McCain "seemed very sure of himself and happy to talk," said Barral, who identified himself only as a Spanish psychiatrist, not mentioning that he worked for the Cuban state security services.

McCain described how surprised he had been when he was shot down over Hanoi in October 1967 and landed in the middle of a lake in the city. He was injured when he ejected, breaking several limbs, and was dumped into a cell with no medical treatment for several days. He also described his career in the military, mentioned that his father was an admiral and head of U.S. forces in the Pacific, and said his wife was a model.

He was in better condition by the time Barral saw him, but he didn't earn much sympathy from the Spaniard. Barral described him in the article as "an insensitive individual without human depth," who showed no remorse for his bombing of civilians. "I believe that he has bombed densely populated places for sport," he added.

McCain recalled the interview years later in his memoirs, Faith of My Fathers, describing Barral as "a Cuban propagandist masquerading as a psychiatrist and moonlighting as a journalist."

McCain and other POWs have alleged that several Cuban agents were involved in the torture of American prisoners, but none has ever been positively identified. The allegation was vehemently denied by Fidel Castro in a recent newspaper column that called it "completely unethical."

Cuba was a firm ally of North Vietnam and maintained an embassy in Hanoi. But though Cuban troops and military advisers famously participated in conflicts in Africa, none was ever sent to fight in the Vietnam War.

Barral says he was not sent there by the Cuban government with any propaganda purpose in mind. "It was my own initiative, and it was never my plan to interview a prisoner," he said.

Although he didn't give away any secrets, McCain recognizes that he violated the military's Code of Conduct in agreeing to be interviewed. The code advises American prisoners of war to give only name, rank, service number and date of birth. Under interrogation captured military personnel should "evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability."

When McCain refused to meet a peace delegation a month later, he says he was punished, forced to sit on a stool for three days and nights.

Barral retired in 1989 after rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Since then his faith in communism has been sorely tested.

After tentative private enterprise reforms were introduced in 1993, one of his sons persuaded him to open a restaurant at their home in the residential Playa district of Havana. His other son, Ernesto, named for Che Guevara, abandoned Cuba the previous year during a huge exodus of Cuban "rafters," making the journey on a windsurfing board in 19 hours, navigating by the stars at night. A qualified doctor, his son now practices in the Palm Beach area.

Barral was opposed to the private restaurant concept at first. "It went completely against my Marxist principles," he said.

But his wife and other son took to it immediately. They named it after a large cactus that stands outside.

He has grown used to it over the years, recognizing that the world has changed since his revolutionary youth.

The cooking also gets good reviews, especially the pork. He continues to follow the U.S. election campaign and professes to be an admirer of Barack Obama.

Whoever wins, he says, will always be welcome at Los Cactus.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

When Fernando Barral met John McCain 03/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 7, 2008 11:10am]

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