The spy who never wanted to be one / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez
Posted on January 28, 2015
The unusual story of ‘Granma’ journalist sentenced to 14 years in prison
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Santiago de Cuba, 27 January 2015 — Just
outside the building, a ditch carries sewage down the street. Several
children jump from side to side of the stinking canal which later runs
through Micro 7, a neighborhood in the José Martí district of Santiago
de Cuba. For a few years now the neighbors have pointed to number 9 on
one rough block and said, “That’s where the Granma newspaper journalist
lives.” Today the family bears the stigma of a journalist who is in
prison, where he is serving a sentence for espionage.
The steps are rough and uneven. At the top improvised bars cover the
door to the house. I knocked for long minutes, but no one answered.
Mayda Mercedes, José Antonio “Tony” Torres’s wife, only received me
another day, with a certain tremor in her voice while looking up and
down the street. There I managed, for the first time, to see the court
ruling that twisted the fate of this man, as a bolero says, “like a weak
The official government reporter never imagined that on his 45th
birthday he would be behind bars. After graduating as a journalist in
1990, he’d known nothing but success in his career. He served as deputy
director for Tele Turquino, correspondent for the National Information
Agency, for the National News, and later for the newspaper Granma. He
was a sports commentator, secretary general of the Communist Party’s
Santiago de Cuba Correspondents unit, and his work was even praised by
Raul Castro. Everything pointed to rising to professional heights closer
to power and to better remuneration.
All this ended, however, on 8 February 2011, when they arrested him and
– after three months in State Security’s Villa Marista prison and
transfers to other prisons and exhausting interrogations – a court
sentenced him to 14 years in prison for the crime of espionage. In the
file of Case No. 2 of 2011, it says he is accused of having written a
letter to Michael Parmly, who was then the head of the United States
Interests Section in Havana (USIS). The document also states that the
accused wanted “to get a personal interview with this person to provide
him (…) sensitive information (…) that could endanger national security.”
Tony says that the idea of writing this letter was the child of spite.
His wife had been a victim of injustice at work and, according to the
journalist, he decided to get revenge on the authorities. A revenge that
consisted of pretending to have secret data that would destabilize the
Cuban government. His defense attorney said later that there was “no
real danger to State Security,” and Torres confessed that he “made
A scaffolding of lies that ended up falling on him, because the crime of
espionage in the Cuban penal code includes “anticipated completion.” The
mere suggestion to a foreign state of sensitive information carries a
From late 2005 until January 2007, he wrote a long text on a neighbor’s
computer in which he claimed to have sensitive information about “the
Elián González case (…), classified materials of a military character
(…), information about government corruption (…), scandals in the ranks
of the Communist Party (…), original documents from the five spies (…),
defaults on economic contracts with China” and much more. An explosive
list of topics, to which he added his own resume as a journalist to give
the matter greater credibility.
With a meticulousness unusual in these parts, he also devised a
complicated code of passwords and keys that included “half of a moneda
nacional one peso note,” that Michael Parmly could only complete when
the two of them were face-to-face. A postcard of the Casa de la Musica
in Miramar, also cut in half, would reaffirm the identity of each party.
On the brightly lit scrolling ticker across the top of the US Interests
Section building in Havana where headlines and news were displayed,
after the receipt of the document the US was to display the code
“Michael 2003” if the official accepted Torres’s full proposal, and
“Michael 6062” is there was only interest one a part of it.
Reading, today, about this methodical system of alert and verification,
it’s hard not to smile at this apprentice James Bond, who ended up a
victim of his own cleverness. But Tony didn’t seem to calculate the
seriousness and danger of his actions. So in early 2007 he asked his
brother to travel to Havana and put an envelope containing two diskettes
with copies of the letter along with the halves of the peso and the
postcard, in the Interests Section’s mailbox. The countdown that would
end in his disgrace had started to run, but he wouldn’t know it until
four years later.
In a cell in Boniato Prison, one of the Cuban prisons with the worst
reputation, Torres has nurtured for years now the illusion that some
journalist to whom he could tell his story would visit him. He has
refused to despair because someone will shed light on his situation. In
the middle of last year he added my name to the list of those who could
visit him in prison, to personally narrate for me his version of a story
that at times seems taken from The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, and at
others from The Joke by Milan Kundera.
So far the meeting hasn’t happened. The political police monitored the
calls and “accidentally” lost the list with my name on it to visit him
this weekend. So, after a long journey, I found myself in Santiago with
no opportunities other than to reconstruct the “Torres case” through
court documents, the testimonies of those who knew him and the letters
that he regularly sends me from prison. A jigsaw puzzle, which at times
seems more literary than credible.
Tony is punctilious when he tells his story over the telephone, his job
as a reporter shows in every detail. He has tight handwriting that fills
pages and pages that he dispatches here, there and everywhere. He soon
turned me into a recipient for his desperate writings. Phone calls
crossing the Island’s geography ring in my fourteenth floor. “Sometimes
I have to buy access to the phone with cigarettes,” he tells me.
The former official spokesperson is now clinging to independent
journalism and the opposition like the shipwrecked to a precarious life.
He has left behind the opinions expressed in an allegation that he never
read before the trial court and in which he claimed that he had
requested money for information that he would supply the United States
to make them believe he was an agent in the service of a foreign
government because “no counterrevolutionary is respected if he doesn’t
look for or use the path of that conduit of dollars.”
The rigors of prison later lead him to seek the support of the Patriotic
Union of Cuba and its leader, Jose Daniel Ferrer. His disappointment in
the system of which he was a part has also been felt in his writings. In
the middle of last year, in one of his letters, he described the Cuban
people as “wounded by the disappointment, with their patience exhausted,
sick and tired of scarcities, badly fed, with a ton of postponed
demands, crammed into the eternal limbo of unkept promises.
Last week, his despair led him to write a letter to Barack Obama and
another to Pope Francis, asking them for help
Last week, his despair led him to write a letter to Barack Obama and
another to Pope Francis, asking them for help. The letters have already
begun their journeys to their destinations, but this time they do not
carry keys nor currency cut in half. The prisoner hopes, at least, to
see his name on the list of political prisoners of conscience, which
several groups among the Cuban dissidence have drawn up. However, his
case “is difficult to defend,” say several human rights activists, while
others reproach him for his long official past.
On the morning when they began the release of the activists derived from
the secret talks between Washington and Havana, my phone rang early. “Do
you know about the releases,” inquired the pompous voice of a television
announcer. I took a deep breath, and provoked him, “They are going to
release a spy who served the United States for years, but it’s not you…
it will be Rolando Sarraff Trujillo.” His scathing laugh barely let me
finish the sentence.
Ironically, when José Antonio Torres demands to be considered innocent
and not to be classified as an American intelligence agent, he is also
distancing himself from the possibility of being included in a spy swap.
His main argument in defending himself, and with which he demands
justice, could also be the greatest challenge to achieving his release
in the near term.
While I was knocking and waiting for Mayda Mercedes to open the door, a
neighbor climbed the stairs carrying a bucket of water. She walked
carefully and slowly, as if she was carrying a newborn in her hands. In
July 2010, Torres had written an extensive report for the newspaper
Granma where he denounced the irregularities, the “negligence” and the
“bad job” being done on the repair work of Santiago de Cuba’s aqueduct.
The city was full of holes and broken streets, but the delivery of water
still hadn’t stabilized after months of work.
A tagline from Raul Castro was published along with the painstaking
report, in which the general affirmed that he “disagreed with some of
the focus,” but did “recognize the Santiaguan journalist for his
persistence in following the work.” In government journalism circles it
is still rumored that it was that article, and not Torres’s masquerade
as a spy, that marked the severity of the subsequent conviction against him.
While the world read the article as if it were a signal of information
glasnost in Cuba, State Security already had surveillance on the
journalist’s house from four different angles. By then, Torres was
repenting of his absurd action and believed he would never be
discovered. Everything indicates that it was in that moment that the act
of revenge conceived by the writer of that missive in the past ran smack
into the vengeance of others. The journalist would have no chance to
walk out with an acquittal.
A couple of years later, from prison, Torres would analyze the official
press with the self-criticism that has been part of an artifice for a
long time. “In this country (…) the press doesn’t know, nor do its duty.
The gagging is so strict that we have converted a force of pressure into
innocuous prisoners of repetition and compromise,” he wrote in a letter
that managed to make it out of Boniato, when his hopes for release were
at their lowest.
The arrest occurred on a February morning. His youngest daughter was
crying while they conducted a thorough search of the house. They took
video cassettes, notepads filled with his precise handwriting, eight
sheets detailing the work on the Santiago de Cuba aqueduct, a work
notebook on the balance of the public health sector, weather reports,
documents with ideas delivered to the military sectors during Bastion
2004, photocopies of letters from the spy Antonio Guerrero to his son,
two letters from Torres to Raul Castro, among other materials.
His belongings didn’t exceed what any journalist would have in his
files. None of the data collected by the court points to his possessing
“State secrets.” According to what was shown, he didn’t even have the
letter where he offered his services as an informant. It’s not clear how
the letter “appeared” in a garbage can outside USIS and not in the
mailbox where Torres’s brother had supposedly placed it. A prosecution
witness, an agent from the Specialized System of Protection S.A.
(SEPSA), said that he found the envelope there with the diskettes.
Torres tried to base his defense on the inviolability of diplomatic
correspondence, but the court focused the accusation on the “sensitive
information of interest to the enemy.” Even today, the journalist
appeals that his act was only an attempt that would never have
transpired if the USIS mailbox was not “under observation by the Cuban
intelligence services.” His self-defense does not claim innocence, but
poor procedures in obtaining evidence. But the appeal to reassess the
sentence was declared “without merit” in late 2012. A bucket of cold
water fell on his hopes of seeing a reduced sentence.
In Section 4 of the Boniato prison they call him “The Thermometer.” The
prisoners have given him this nickname because he “is always hot”
because of the fights between the inmates and the violence that prevails
in the place. In the midst of this, a man who talks like a TV anchorman
now spends his days. Once, long ago, he narrated the socialist paradise
– and the stains that should be eradicated to perfect it – with his
voice and his writings.
At night, when the guards turn off the light and call for silence, he
places under his mattress the sheets filled with tight handwriting that
will later be put in improvised envelopes. On this passion for writing
letters from prison, he now hangs all his hopes of being set free.
Source: The spy who never wanted to be one / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez |
Translating Cuba –