The first phone call came a few days after Jim Bartleman arrived in Havana. Canada’s new ambassador to Cold War Cuba was still too green to know not to answer.
A woman purred through the line. She told him she had seen him that day, and that he was so handsome. Wouldn’t he love to meet her? His wife would never know, she said, in a voice Bartleman recalls years later as “sultry.”
He hung up on her.
The next night, the phone rang again. It was a man this time, and he said he had a lot of gold. Bartleman could get a good chunk of it, too, if he were willing to use his diplomatic privileges to help smuggle it out of the country.
Bartleman slammed down the phone.
It rang a third time the following night. A man’s voice on the line. “Oh, señor, you’re so handsome. Why don’t we meet? Your wife will never know.”
It was a curious introduction to diplomacy in Fidel Castro’s Cuba: a trio of blackmail attempts, Bartleman suspected.
“I thought it was very funny,” Bartleman, now 78, says of the early days of his ambassadorship in 1981. “They tried everything on you. These tactics worked on a lot of people, I guess … There were always dirty tricks going on — on both sides.”
At a time of renewed diplomatic mystery in the communist island nation, with mysterious symptoms affecting Canadian and U.S. diplomats in Havana, the former ambassador’s reminiscences are a reminder that, when it comes to Canadian consular affairs in Cuba, intrigue is nothing new.
The cause of the strange health problems afflicting diplomats in Cuba remains an open question, with some speculation of an “energy attack.” Just this week, a federal official told journalists in Ottawa that some foreign officers and their families may have suffered brain injuries and that the government has decided to recall the families of consular staff from Cuba so that Canada’s mission there joins the embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq as “unaccompanied posts.”
The mystery complicates the political web at a time of renewed antagonism between the West and Russia, when the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba — Cold War nemeses who took the world to the brink of nuclear way in 1963 — under former president Barack Obama is under question by Donald Trump’s White House. Cuba, meanwhile, named a new president on Thursday: 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, the third leader since the revolution in 1959, and the first who isn’t a member of the Castro family.
No evidence has been made public to implicate the Cuban authorities in whatever caused the diplomats’ health problems.
“Nobody can figure this out,” says Mark Entwistle, a Cuba expert and consultant who was Canada’s ambassador in Havana from 1993 to 1997, referring to the diplomats’ health symptoms.
“I say this with great conviction: the Cubans are very diligent … with the protection of diplomats,” he says. “Which makes this current mystery, or whatever it is … very uncharacteristic, just totally out of sync.”
Of course, Entwistle adds, the situation during the Cold War was different. “Everybody was up to shenanigans,” he says.
For Bartleman, the phone calls with the strange offers weren’t surprising. He says he was trained in how to handle attempts by the other side to gain leverage on him. The Cuban interior ministry was trained by Soviet and East German secret police, he says. They were considered extremely effective. “It was part of the East-West relations, and the Cubans were heavy, strong players in all of that,” he says.
Fidel Castro was Cuba’s president and strongman at the time, and Bartleman notes that the revolutionary leader had a warm relationship with Canada’s prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. “I think he romanticized Castro. You know, the man with the cigar, fighting in the mountains,” Bartleman says.
Because of this dynamic, Bartleman says, Castro gave the Canadian embassy more attention than most. The Cuban leader would come to the residence about once a month for dinner with Bartleman so he “could maintain a link with Trudeau’s buddy, Jim,” the former ambassador says. Soldiers would encircle the home so no one could leave or enter, and a food taster would try everything before dinner, he says. Then Castro would sit at the table and pontificate for several hours — often till 6, 7, 8 in the morning, Bartleman says — about the quality of milk from the cows raised by the socialist system, the political situation in Latin America, and the intricacies of Lenin’s thinking on imperialism.
“He could talk about anything,” Bartleman says. “I must say that he had me under his spell at the beginning.”
Bartleman says that beneath the show of closeness, there were complications. Cuba outwardly treated Canada as “not a really nasty capitalist country.” But, under the surface, the truth that Ottawa was closely aligned with Washington and the NATO alliance meant there was a level of tension in the diplomatic relationship.
One time, Bartleman says, he arrived at the embassy front door to find a “friendly cat,” hanging around. He took a liking to it and brought it inside only to discover a “shrill whistling sound” emanating loudly from its ears. Suspicious of some sort of listening device, he promptly set the cat back out on the street.
“I always laughed about it, saying this cat was a Cuban secret agent,” he says.
Cats would paw onto the embassy compound, clear converts to Cuban espionage, Bartleman says, because of the buzzing of the recording devices that had been planted in their ears.
Canada, on its end, housed diplomats in Cuba who also worked for the CIA. One of them, John Graham, was posted in Cuba after the missile crisis — when the Soviet Union and the U.S. almost came into direct conflict over Russian missile installations on the Caribbean island.
“The level of trust was, of course, not high,” Graham, now 83, says, describing how he was trained in the U.S. to drive out to Cuban military camps in the countryside and sketch the equipment and machinery he observed. “It was a fascinating time, and if you’re sort of young and foolish, it was an incredible period.”
Bartleman’s enchantment with Castro soured in a sudden shock one night. It was a year into his posting, and he woke to find that his dog, a German shepherd named Zaka, was deadly sick. They rushed her to a veterinarian in Havana to have her stomach pumped. He soon learned that his deputy’s dog was also sick that morning, and had died. He later learned that the dogs were poisoned. Zaka died six months later.
There was also a wave of hateful, anonymous phone calls to various Canadians staffers, and “a rat was nailed to the door” of Canada’s trade officer, he says.
“The Cubans carried on as if nothing had happened at all,” he says. To this day, he still doesn’t know what happened.
After that, he was excited to leave, and jumped at the opportunity to return to Ottawa in 1985 for a promotion in the Canadian foreign affairs department.
He returned to Cuba many times, mostly in the 1990s when he was Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s foreign affairs adviser. At his final official meeting with Castro, the Cuban president was frail, “like a grandfather,” Bartleman recalls. But he boiled with anger, too, after Chrétien gave him a list that Bartleman provided of political prisoners that Canada wanted him to set free. On the way out of the room, Chrétien walked out first, and Castro grabbed Bartleman as he was going out the door, he says.
“He grabbed me, two hands around my neck, and squeezed and shook,” Bartleman says. “He was so mad at me.”
Asked if he was frightened, Bartleman laughs it off. “I was delighted. How many people can go down in history as being throttled by the president of Cuba, and can walk out the door and have lunch with him later?”
With stories like that in his past, Bartleman says he isn’t surprised by the current speculation about the diplomatic health problems. If it did involve the Cubans somehow, he says, “what’s new?”