Newly found letters offer glimpse into life of US dancer married to
Cuban spy chief
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
She was a Connecticut-born American ballerina and the wife of the
notorious chief of Cuba’s intelligence and subversive operations —
Manuel Piñeiro Losada, better known as Barbarroja, or “Red Beard.”
And now a trove of Lorna Burdsall’s recently discovered letters are on
sale, offering a rare glimpse into the life of Cuba’s ruling elites in
the early days of the Castro revolution.
Piñeiro directed Cuba’s intelligence, security and subversion apparatus
for nearly three decades, first from the Ministry of the Interior
(MININT) and later from the Americas Department of the Central Committee
of the Cuban Communist Party. His death, in a car accident in 1998,
aroused suspicions at the time because he had just revealed that he was
writing his memoirs.
A trusted aide to the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro since their days in
the Sierra Maestra mountains, Piñeiro was best known as the architect of
Castro’s efforts to export his revolution by training and arming
guerrilla groups from virtually every Latin American country.
But in 1955 he was a student at Columbia University in New York who
married Burdsall, a ballet dancer who was studying at the prestigious
Julliard School and was member of the Communist Party of the United
States of America.
Piñeiro was the son of a Bacardí rum representative in the Cuban
province of Matanzas, so Burdsall probably had little idea of what would
happen after he joined Castro’s guerrillas and earned the rank of
comandante when they seized power on Jan. 1, 1959.
A few days later, Burdsall, who was in the United States at the time,
received two telegrams from Piñeiro telling her to return to Cuba. A
third telegram sent from Miami and signed “Fifo” told her that she was
booked to return via the Key West-Havana ferry on January 6. One of
Castro’s nicknames was “Fifo” although it is not known if the telegram
was sent on his behalf or was from someone else with the same nickname.
What is known is that Castro was in Cuba at the time.
“You will receive money this day if you want to return,” said the
telegram, which included a contact address and telephone in Miami. The
address on the telegram is the same as a three-story apartment building
in Little Havana. All the telegrams were sent to Burdsall at the home of
her sister, Nedda, known as Ned, in Lexington, Ky.
Documents from Nedda describe the hurried preparations and emotions
surrounding Burdsall’s return to Cuba, and ask about the dress she wore
to the wedding of Castro’s brother, Raúl, to Vilma Espín. Photos of the
wedding appeared in Time magazine.
Two years later, Burdsall’s mother wrote to the State Department to
report that she did not know her daughter’s whereabouts and ask that the
U.S. embassy in Havana make inquiries. The embassy replied that it had
no information on Burdsall or her son Manuel Khalil Piñeiro, born in
1957. Both had been registered at the embassy as U.S. citizens.
“Her application states that she is married to Major Manuel Piñeiro and
her address is the residence of Major Raúl Castro, Camp Liberty, Habana.
Raúl Castro is the Chief of the Cuban Armed Forces. Major Piñeiro is a
high official in the intelligent service of the Cuban Armed Forces. For
the above reasons, Mrs. Piñeiro has had little contact with the Embassy
and her present whereabouts are unknown,” the embassy replied.
The telegrams and Burdsall’s letters are part of a collection of 20
documents on sale by antiquarian Joy Shivar. Two boxes of Burdsall’s
correspondence were obtained by the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage
Collection after her death in 2010.
“This collection provides a rare glimpse into the chaotic period of the
Cuban Revolution through the eyes of an American woman who was deeply
involved and dedicated to the cause,” said Shivar. “Ostracized by her
father and possibly other family members (as exemplified by her personal
letters), her critical commitment to Cuba and her husband, Manolo, often
placed her in dangerous situations.”
Shivar discovered the documents in the hands of another antiquarian who
had bought them at an auction held by the Burdsall family in Lexington.
Family members who were contacted showed no interest in buying back the
documents, she said.
The documents offer few details about the secret work of Piñeiro in
Latin America, but do provide examples of the privileged life the
ballerina and her husband led as members of Cuba’s ruling elite.
A rally on July 26, 1964 in Santiago de Cuba — marking the anniversary
of the attack to the Moncada Barracks, considered the birth of the
Castro revolution — was preceded by a swim in a pool and later a lunch
of roast pork. One Piñeiro birthday was celebrated in Havana’s famous
Tropicana cabaret. In the 1970s, years marked by shortages and
austerity, Burdsall wrote about her husband’s preference for a fancy
sweet made with cottage cheese.
The documents also make occasional mention of Fidel Castro, his
government and policies and Cubans in general.
“Yesterday was the big day, 4 and a half hour-parade, then Fidel for 2
and a half hours — Cubans have more stamina than most people it seems.
Cuban coffee is very stimulating,” she wrote about the May 1st
celebrations in 1965. “This year’s May 1st was a very great
success—everybody was happy that we cut more cane (59,000 tons more)
than the 5,100,000 quota.”
The letters between Burdsall and her family showed that members of the
revolutionary elite were not greatly affected by the end of direct mail
services between Cuba and the United States in 1963. It’s not clear from
the stamps on the envelopes if the letters went through third countries,
but they reached their destination in two to three weeks.
Burdsall and her U.S. relatives also managed to exchange food shipments
and gifts, including some cigars “of the same kind that Fidel smokes.”
In one letter to her mother, the ballerina reported that she was
gathering goods for a shipment, some bought by her and others “gifts
from Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Korea, etc.”
Dance filled many of her letters, as she helped to found the National
School of Dance and created the Contemporary Dance group as well as the
experimental Asi Somos group — “That’s How We Are.” She became an
advisor on modern dance to the Ministry of Culture in 1977.
Burdsall appears to have been no fan of Cuba’s prima ballerina Alicia
Alonso, who gave the National Ballet of Cuba great prestige abroad but
blocked efforts to modernize its style and repertoire.
“Now that she’s not dancing, she’s turned into a choreographer,”
Burdsall wrote in 1974. “The ballet will have its big night on Wednesday
with a new version of The Sleeping Beauty — poor Petipa,” she added,
referring to the classic’s original choreographer, Marius Petipa.
Piñeiro ultimately divorced Burdsall and married Marta Harnecker, a
Marxist Chilean sociologist. Burdsall remained in Cuba, although she
traveled to the United States occasionally. A granddaughter, Gabriela
Burdsall, lives in Havana and is a ballerina in the same dance company
founded by Burdsall.
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Source: New letters illustrate life of US dancer married to Cuban spy
chief | Miami Herald –