‘From now on you have no name. You are prisoner 217’: life in a Cuban jail

The Guardian
March 19, 2017

If you happened to go to a British embassy reception in Havana in the early 2000s, you would likely have met Stephen Purvis. You could not miss him. Six foot four, cropped grey hair, rum in hand, a broad smile and no shortage of good stories.

The mood among expats soured. All knew someone who had been caught up in the series of arrests

Purvis loved Cuba. Escaping what he saw as the risk of a “pre-ordained suburban middle-class life” in Wimbledon, the architect and his wife seized the opportunity to move to the island 17 years ago. He had been offered a job as development director with Coral Capital, an investment and trading company. It was one of several small foreign firms – almost all led by maverick, adventurous individuals – that were setting up in Cuba as the country sought international partners following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Purvis’s job was to look for joint venture opportunities with the Cuban government. The planned projects included the first golf course to be constructed there since the 1959 revolution, and the revamp of a formerly glamorous hotel, the Saratoga.

Speaking to me from Myanmar (more about that later) Purvis recalls his early Havana years. “It felt like another era,” he says. “No internet. No TV. No shopping.” The family adapted well to their new life. Home was a handsome 1950s villa, soon full with their four children. Saturdays would be spent by the pool at the beach club. The son of a theatrical designer, Purvis also dabbled in theatre himself, producing the Cuban dance show Havana Rakatan, which performed successfully for several years in London. No one, of course, imagined that those halcyon days would end so abruptly, with Purvis imprisoned in what he describes as a “zoo” for enemies of the state. But that is how it turned out. The title of his powerful memoir, Close but No Cigar, is his own admission of just how badly life can go wrong.

I last saw Purvis in Havana in 2011, a few weeks before his arrest, at a New Year’s Eve party (I had been the BBC’s correspondent in Cuba between 2002 and 2007). The arrival of the New Year is a big deal in Cuba, partly because it coincides with the anniversary of Fidel Castro’s revolution. Two of President Raúl Castro’s daughters were at the event.


Before the fall: Stephen Purvis with his family before his arrest

By then, the mood among the expats doing business on the island had notably soured. Many were whispering that this would likely be their last fin de año in Cuba. All knew someone who had been caught up in a mysterious but ever-widening series of arrests. Two prominent Canadians, Sarkis Yacoubian and Cy Tokmakjian, had been detained since the summer. A well-known Chilean entrepreneur, who used to boast he was a friend of Fidel Castro, had been convicted in absentia to 20 years in jail. And Purvis’s boss, Amado Fakhre, the British-Lebanese CEO of Coral Capital, had been imprisoned in October.

“The sense of an impending doom was growing day by day,” recalls Purvis. He says he’d be the first to admit he was “an idiot” not to leave the country when he still could. But he was convinced he had done nothing wrong.

The sense of impending doom was growing day by day

None of the imprisoned foreigners had at that stage been formally charged with anything, but the assumption was they were caught up in Raúl Castro’s pledge to root out corruption. The younger Castro had formally taken over from the ailing Fidel in 2008. In 2009, he established a comptroller’s office, tasked with investigating evidence of misdeeds among communist party officials, managers and state company employees. It was turning out to be a never-ending task. Cuban state salaries are all around $20 a month. To varying degrees, everyone does something technically illegal to survive. By 2010, hundreds of Cubans, including ministers and senior executives, had been detained or dismissed. The net was widening to the foreigners, who were also breaking the law by paying their employees any bonus on the side, or even buying them lunch.

Purvis, who admits paying a small pension to one ex-employee, is convinced that the mass arrests were not in fact about corruption, but instead the clumsy purge of Fidel Castro’s old guard, which was being replaced with a new (mainly ex-military) clique, allied to Raúl.


 Day of reckoning: Stephen Purvis goes to court in 2013. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

On 8 March 2012 they came for him. Shortly after dawn, a fleet of unmarked Ladas drew up outside his home. The Purvis children were hastily packed off to school, told by their mother that the commotion was because “Dad needs to answer some questions about work.”

Purvis was taken away, handcuffed, his head forced between his knees, to an anonymous art deco house close to the airport. There, he was provisionally charged with being an “enemy of the state”. He was advised not to hire a lawyer and to co-operate immediately. Agreeing to that, he was then taken to the notorious Cuban state security prison known as Villa Marista, for what was described, euphemistically, as “further instruction”.

Purvis was taken to the prison known as Villa Marista for what was described as ‘further instruction’

“The villa”, as it is known by Cuban dissidents, is a former Catholic seminary on the outskirts of Havana. Since 1963 it has been an interrogation centre, using techniques perfected by the KGB. Eventually, they say, everyone “sings” at the villa. Purvis believes he and his boss (who had been transferred to a military hospital by the time his co-director arrived) are the only Englishmen ever to have been held there. For months, he became “Prisoner 217”. His life was entirely controlled by a man known as “the instructor”. He spent almost every hour of the day in a cell the size of a double mattress, with three other inmates (one of whom he believes was a government informant). The four shared an open latrine.

The appalling conditions were only alleviated by the “psychological games” of interrogation that took place day and night. Purvis says he was questioned for hours, often about the details of the lives of other foreigners on the island. The intent was to get him to inform on anyone who might have done something illegal, however minor. Purvis says he refused to do so, probably sparing other expats (some of whom still live and work in Cuba) a similar fate to his own. He does not deny the temptation was there. “You can see why in the end people just go, ‘Oh give a dog a bone. Throw them some names just to get out of there,’” he says.


Closed for business: the cordoned off offices of British Coral Capital Group in Havana. Photograph: Alamy

After months in Villa Marista, he says he felt himself “drifting away”. Sleeping only fitfully, he had constant tinnitus and was losing his vision. About once a month he says he would hear a suicide attempt nearby. The strain on his family, allowed to see him for less than half an hour every week, was enormous. His wife had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised. Purvis’s elderly mother came to Cuba to look after the children before finally the decision was taken that the family should leave.

In his book, Purvis is scathing about the lack of help the UK foreign office offered him and his family for much of the ordeal. While one British ambassador, Dianna Melrose, comes across as exceptionally kind in the early weeks of his imprisonment, the new embassy team appears to have shown scant interest in the case. No consular escort was offered to Purvis’s wife and children the day they left Cuba.

You have this warm, fuzzy feeling that HM Government will look after your back. And then you find it doesn’t

“As a British passport holder,” he tells me, “you have this sort of warm, fuzzy feeling that HM Government will look after your back. And then you find it doesn’t.” He suspects that someone within the FCO had made a decision not to “rock the boat” with the Cuban authorities, focusing instead on what was seen as the bigger prize of a potential rapprochement between all EU governments and Raúl Castro.

Finally, after the authorities gave up trying to tease information from him, the enemy of the state charges were dropped and Purvis was moved to La Condesa, a maximum security prison for foreigners. He describes his fellow inmates there as a “mixed bunch” of the innocent, as well as murderers, rapists, drug smugglers and hit men. He overlapped with multimillionaire Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian, who was earning respect for his obstreperous approach towards his jailers.

La Condesa may have been less psychologically traumatic than the villa, but it was brutal. The depravity Purvis vividly describes was in part aided by a network of corrupt prison guards, bullying prisoners while profiting from a prostitute ring, supplied from the local village. Purvis eventually formed his own gang, one made up of “complete losers”, with the sole intent of “preventing unpleasantness”.

In June 2013 a trial date was arranged, a process which would ultimately lead to Purvis’s freedom, while convincing him of the farcical nature of Cuban justice. As the trial was secret he was not shown any evidence ahead of it, so never had any chance to know what he was being accused of, or prepare a defence. Instead, in the hours before his closed court appearance, he was asked by the prosecutor to run through what he might say to the judge, as a form of dress rehearsal. Purvis was found guilty of illegal foreign currency transactions. He says all were entirely routine and had been authorised by the country’s central bank. His sentence was a two-and-a-half-year non-custodial term. He was set free.

The experience, he says, has had a “catastrophic spin-off” to every aspect of his life. All his assets in Cuba have been lost. The golf course project he worked on has been taken over by a Chinese company; construction has not begun. The Saratoga is now considered the best hotel in Cuba. Madonna celebrated her 58th birthday there last year. Coral Capital investors are still trying to recover their outlay on the property. Purvis has no desire to see it again.

After he returned to London he says he became “aggressive and volatile”. Prison habits were hard to shake. He would often ring the Condesa jail to speak to his friends there. “I needed to wean myself off the brutality,” he says. That, and the lack of alternative options, is one reason he has chosen to work abroad once more, away from his family but visiting them in London regularly. A friend helped arrange a new job for him in Myanmar, where he is overseeing a city redevelopment project.

Purvis says he is “recovered now”, and the process of writing this powerful book, which has been nominated for a Gold Dagger award, has helped that process. Gone, however, is much of his cheerful optimism. He is certain the Cuban authorities realise they made a mistake by imprisoning him. But he expects no apology. And the damage is done.

An extract from Close but No Cigar by Stephen Purvis


The prisoner: Stephen Purvis. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

I am now in a dimly lit room. The ceiling is made of tiles with a great section missing, collapsed and never replaced. There are some random fluorescent strip lights. The capacitor of one is on the blink, so it clicks on and off. The walls are covered in a dark timber-effect panelling that is coming off in places. A few derelict brown vinyl sofas are pushed against one wall and a timber bench screwed to the other. The air seems to be full of plaster or cement dust. It looks like a ransacked government building in post-invasion Baghdad. I am sitting on the bench and the guards slouch on the sofas.

There is a high desk, also in dark timber. Behind it is a big dirty glass window into some kind of control room. Banks of CCTV screens flicker in the gloom. A fat old uniform with a row of decorations waddles out from the back, chewing a cigar. He looks at me briefly and waves me over. Then he sticks his one hand out in the direction of the guys that brought me here. No love lost between them, they heave themselves upright and slap the transfer documents into his hand. He signs various papers, gives them a receipt and they unlock me. They leave saying nothing. Fatty coughs, picks his nose and then asks me to empty my pockets and hand over my watch and shoelaces. I sign a chit for them but he keeps both copies so maybe it’s the last I’ll see of my watch.

I sign a chit but the guard keeps both copies so maybe it’s the last I’ll see of my watch

Then two very young guards in olive fatigues take me off to a side room. Another boy, earnest yet nervous, is waiting at a desk. Stumbling over the words he explains that I have to fill in a form. I can feel his fear of me. They must tell them we are dangerous monsters. Another man enters and what little confidence the boy has now evaporates.

About my age, he is a handsome man who introduces himself in perfect American English. He is a major. He asks me about my family. “How do you think they are coping with the situation?” Is this a genuine question or some kind of threat? His face gives nothing away. Then he explains the rules. They are pretty simple. “From now on you have no name. You are prisoner 217.”

My lucky number.

“When you are out of the cell you walk on the left-hand side with your head facing down and hands behind your back. You never look at anyone. At each door or staircase you face the wall until told to proceed. You will obey the officials. If you do not, you will be punished. If you are ill, then call for the nurse. You will be fed in your cell three times a day. Any questions?”

“Can I call my wife?”

“No, we will arrange for her to visit.”

“When will the embassy visit?”

“These things take time.”

I feel a lump forming in my throat. I concentrate hard not to tear up. “Can I have something to read?”

‘That depends on your instructor. Your instructor decides on your conditions and safety. This depends on your conduct.”

“Do I have a lawyer?”

He laughs. “This also takes a long time. Take my advice, don’t wait.”

I am then led off to a succession of dingy rooms where I am fingerprinted, photographed and have blood taken to test for hepatitis, Aids and TB. Then I am pushed into a musty laundry and told to strip while they issue me with a second-hand uniform. It’s a washed-out slate-blue number in scratchy nylon. Very me. I get shorts, long trousers and two shirts with a stinky towel thrown in, plus two sheets and a pillow case. In a bit of a daze, all sounds scrambled and muffled, I am prodded along a tiny corridor that feels subterranean.

This place was originally meant to have been a seminary but there is no sign of any heavenly inspiration now. God has deserted the place and it is in the hands of the dark side.

This is where captured suspected CIA guys are brought, where purged officials repent and where all Cubans fear to tread. This is where American pensioner Alan Gross was interrogated for months on end to try to prove that he was a spy and not some deluded Jewish activist. This is their Lubyanka, their Gestapo headquarters. These crude, hulking green blocks are designed to extract confessions, real or fantasy, and then mentally cripple the enemies of state. It has a fearsome reputation for psychological torture.

We pop out into a broad corridor. It’s the cell block. No time to look as the rules now kick in, so head down I shuffle along as instructed. I am pushed into a side room and told to put all my things on top of a disgustingly filthy, shit-stained, one-inch foam mattress. A pillow mottled with bloodstains is chucked on the top. I stare at the blood in disbelief, a wave of despair building inside me. They cannot be serious. I am told to pick up the entire load and walk down through the gates.

I shuffle along, now almost catatonic. The guard in front has a long chain looping around him and a huge wobbly rubber baton that bangs against the wall as he marches. All is silent except for the dripping of water, the squeaking of the guards’ boots and a man sobbing in a cell. 
I count 32 doors. I am told to stop
and face the wall while Mr Rubber Baton fumbles with his key chain.

My nose is six inches from the
wall. I read the guards’ obscene graffiti, scrawled in childish pencil. And then the true significance of what has happened hits me. It isn’t going to go away and it isn’t going to get better for a long time. The gate and then the door clang open with a foul rush of stale air, revealing a tiny cave with three pale faces blinking like moles in the light. I step into my new life. My dungeon.

Close but No Cigar by Stephen Purvis is out on 23 March, priced £18.99. To order a copy for £16.14, go to bookshop.theguardian.com