Locked up for 16 months: how a British architect discovered Cuba’s dark side
2 APRIL 2017 • 7:00AM
The Cuban conundrum is that little is what it seems. The mojitos flow,
the Buena Vista tribute acts play and the tropical sun shines
magnanimously on the tourists: the pasty Canadians, Britons and now –
thanks to Barack Obama – Americans.
My mother, on her first visit to the island a few years back, remarked:
“It’s so strange, because when you think of Stalinist dictatorships you
think of grey, North Korean-style misery, and Cuba doesn’t feel like
that.” I’m going to buy her Stephen Purvis’s book.
In Close But No Cigar, Purvis, a 52-year-old London architect who moved
to Cuba in 2000, reveals a rather different side to the Castros’ fiefdom.
His shocking memoir recounts being locked up for more than a year,
initially for “spying”, then for “economic crime”, without ever being
told the details of the allegations against him. “It’s Alice in
Wonderland for sociopathic commies,” he writes.
In 2012, Purvis was seized from his home in Havana by the much-feared
“When they come for you, they mostly come either to your workplace and
march you out of the front door for maximum public humiliation, or they
grab you off the street like the Gestapo and throw you in the back of
the car so no one knows,” he writes.
“But sometimes they appear like phantoms at your house just before dawn,
politely dismember your family and dismantle your life forever.” So it
was for Purvis. In the early hours, he was bundled into an ageing Lada,
and went on to spend 16 months trapped in Cuba’s Kafka-esque justice system.
The frightening thing is just how unwittingly he had been caught in the
spider’s web. Having arrived from London with his wife and four children
aged between six months and six years, his decade in Cuba had been, on
the whole, tropical and bright: a whirl of diplomatic socialising and
business schmoozing, with weekend sorties to the beach.
He made Cuban friends, and took up painting and boxing; he was on the
board of the international school, and co-produced the Sadler’s Wells
dance show Havana Rakatan.
Things began to sour in October 2011 when his boss, overseeing ?the
$500?million construction of the Bellomonte golf course and club, was
arrested. As the web tightened around Purvis, his diplomat friends
became concerned. But Purvis, with what he now sees as naivety, believed
that even the Cubans couldn’t invent charges. After all, he said, he had
done nothing wrong. But he underestimated the danger.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Fidel Castro realised that he had to
open up the island to the outside world to survive. It was a reluctant
engagement: Castro was horrified by memories of a visit to China, and
determined that the communist grip would not slip. He and his brother
Raúl had a tiger by the tail; capitalism was ushered in, but kept on a
At times, when it served their interests, business freedom was
increased. When it got too much, it was abruptly curtailed.
“Having allowed foreign capitalism in to rescue the collapsed economy,
they now want to behead it before it becomes too powerful,” Purvis
writes. “They have watched the piggy get fat and now they want to steal
the piggy before it goes to market. It’s a Stalinist purge for the
After his arrest, Purvis endured eight months of daily interrogation in
Havana’s notorious Villa Marista prison, sharing a fetid cell no larger
than a king-size mattress with three others, the rancid roof six inches
from his nose. He was kept in that darkness apart from 15 minutes each
week, when he was ushered into a cage open to the sky. He was not
physically tortured, but felt his mind slipping away. To cope, he
relived in his mind childhood escapades to the Norfolk coast.
Then he was transferred to the dog-eat-dog world of La Condesa, 40 miles
outside the capital, a prison for foreign inmates, where he found
himself with Latin American drug traffickers, European paedophiles and
what he terms “business class passengers” – those, like him, locked up
for falling foul of some economic rule they never knew existed.
The heat was unbearable, the boredom stifling, the food inedible – and
meagre, tithed first by the deliverers, then by the guards, then by the
“My Friday supper club for business-class passengers is going well,” he
jokes. “Last night I did Chinese, although to be fair the only Chinese
thing about it was that it was cooked in a communist country.”
He spent his time playing chess with an Algerian inmate, and carved out
a niche painting fellow inmates’ wives from photos. He gave classes on
architectural design, and helped Jamaican drug smugglers draw up
business plans for boat repair shops.
One evening, he came across a group of Yardies, sobbing during a
screening of the film Mamma Mia! Prison football teams played
tournaments: São Paulo Dealers vs Juarez Rapists, Napoli Smugglers vs
Montego Bay Murderers. “It’s like being retired except without the
G&Ts,” he says.
But his humour cannot hide the horror. Purvis lost 50lbs in weight, and
his wife had to be sectioned. The ordeal of finding psychiatric care for
her in Cuba was a nightmare all of its own.
After his family left for Britain, Purvis struggled to mask despair in
his letters home – with good reason. In July 2012, the redoubtable
British ambassador Dianne Melrose was succeeded by Tim Cole, about whom
Purvis is scathing. The Foreign Office mantra that Britain cannot
interfere in another country’s judicial system – a line parroted to
journalists – still drives him to?rage.
In its tragic absurdity, Close But No Cigar reads like a Graham Greene
story, with a cast of characters to make Hemingway proud. Purvis
describes it as ?“an attempt to shine a tiny ?light into the broken
heart of Cuba”. His tale should be read ?by anyone who wants to
understand what lies beyond ?the beaches and Bacardi.
After an absurd trial, Purvis was released in 2013 with a
two-and-a-half-year custodial sentence, then driven by a cheerful guard
to the house of a friend. The driver sauntered off with the words: “I
hope you have enjoyed your stay in Cuba.”
Purvis, turning, replied: “You are all totally f—— mad.”
Close But No Cigar by Stephen Purvis
272pp, W&N, £18.99, ebook £9.99. To order this ?book from the Telegraph
for ?£16.99 plus ?£1.99 p&p, call 0844 871 1515 or visit
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