The spy who never wanted to be one

The unusual story of ‘Granma’ journalist sentenced to 14 years in prison

José Antonio Torres.
The journalist Jose Antonio Torres.

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 tin rod.”

The official government reporter never imagined that on his 45 th 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 everything up.”

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 sentence.

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.

“The gagging is so strict that we have converted a force of pressure into innocuous prisoners of repetition and compromise”

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.

Diploma de periodista de Antonio Torres
Diploma de periodista de Antonio Torres

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.

He didn’t even have the letter where he offered his services as an informant

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.

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