by Robert Earle
They shared a melancholy abrazo, two middle-aged diplomats who ate and drank well but remained in semi-sporting form. Sometimes they played fútbol with the Bolivians on the noisy field at the end of the Reagan National runway. It was part of the job, being pals with the Bolivians. Cuba and Venezuela shared interests in La Paz.
“Jorge, I knew you’d be the first one here.”
“Losing Chávez! What a terrible thing!”
“At least Fidel still lives.”
“True, but remember what my granny says: En cada derrota hay cosa buena.”
Arturo raised his eyebrows. “Nice thing to say, but what’s the good thing in this defeat? There’s no good thing here. It’s all bad.”
Jorge clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, come on, that’s what we have find out--where’s the good thing? Lunch soon, okay?”
Jorge signed the condolence book and walked past the Cosmos Club and his personal monument to intrigue, Allen Evers’s townhouse with the stone cats mounted on each corner of its mansard roof. Such a gentlemanly idealist. No one could see him and only allowed one letter a month to his wife in another prison. Letitia was the cat with real claws, just like Jorge’s grandmother. At first he thought she wanted sex with him. “No, not that,” she snapped. “Let’s do something important.” Then he began receiving intelligence reports slipped between volumes of theology in the second hand bookstore. Important? Not really, but a moral victory, literally State secrets.
Jorge lit a cigarette, decided not to smoke it, and threw it onto the street where a car did him the honor of crushing it. He crossed the bridge with the bison statues and continued over to the university where Walker Kaczynski had invited him to meet with graduate students, presumably to discuss Cuba but now obviously Venezuela.
A fine looking young woman with silky brown hair and estimable breasts asked him who, Castro or Chávez, was more personalistic and therefore more difficult to succeed. Jorge answered that neither was personalistic; they were socialist revolutionaries; personalities didn’t enter it.
Kaczynski had an adenoidal voice, predatory profile, and cynicism perfected by his obsequious Catholicism. “Oh, Jorge, please,” he whined. “But let’s focus on what will happen in Caracas. A turn toward private sector-financed military fascism or some new iteration of socialist fantasy?”
As a fiercely anti-communist, anti-fascist émigré Pole, Kaczynski wanted to provoke Jorge. He had never thought the United States was tough enough on Cuba. With Fidel sickened into retirement, now was the moment to squeeze harder. Same thing capitalizing on Chávez’s death.
“Private sector-financed military fascism?” Jorge asked in reply. “After all Venezuela has achieved under Chávez? That will never happen.”
Kaczynski kept nipping. “Never say never.”
The fine looking young lady took Kaczynski’s side, a taunt in her voice. “What do you say to that, Mr. Castillo?”
Jorge had noticed the increasing assertiveness of females in Washington. Maybe it was the same thing that enabled Letitia Evers to fool her interrogators so long, fine motor control in the sweet rectal spot. “ I say ‘Never say never’ is fear-mongering-- ‘Watch out, here come the communists!’ Just an excuse to crush weaker states and not let them become strong.”
Kaczynski invited Jorge to lunch afterward where he expounded on the kinship between communism and fascism, his special topic. “As a Pole I know these things, so let me tell you exactly what’s going to happen. With Chávez gone there will be a rapprochement between the United States and Venezuela because Chávez was sui generis, and Cuba will lose its most important ally. No more cheap oil. No more free food.”
The beauty of Washington was that Jorge could spend a whole day talking with people who insulted him and yet justified his salary. He knew everyone in town: church types, journalists, financial schemers, Canadians, Europeans, lately the Chinese. Who would think an Interest Section that wasn’t allowed to do anything could be so busy?
Jorge ignored Kaczynski’s taunts. This was the moment of truth that came toward the end of a meal. He needed to pick up that tidbit, that nugget, that grain of justification for keeping up with Kaczynski. “Okay, give me the U.S. government’s perspective. Who do they think will follow Chávez?”
“Within six months, definitely someone the military approves. Populism’s over.”
“Who says this?”
“I can’t go into that. I’m consulting with them, but within two years you’ll be eating those white rats of yours again.”
They laughed, and Jorge let Kaczynski clap him on the back. He’d been abused but gotten the name of the fine looking young woman. He’d also been fed something other than white rats. The only thing he didn’t have was that good thing his grandmother promised always would emerged from the ashes. How could this disaster be turned to his advantage?
Outside he extended his stroll through Georgetown. He was too busy to work out except during those brutal Sunday mornings with the Bolivians making a monkey of him under the jets so he indulged in walks and lady-looking when he could. Sometimes he’d go into a boutique and pretend to be considering a present for a non-existent girlfriend. This time he described Kazycnski's pet student and shyly asked for advice, the girl being so young and he being uncertain what she would like. The middle-aged shopkeeper was handsome and a bit sniffy, more shopkeeper for hobby than money. She said she didn’t cater to Georgetown students unless they were international. Was this girl international? Jorge said no. And you? He said he was Cuban, a diplomat, and acted a little overwhelmed. All these beautiful things, he said. Where do you get them? They began flirting as the shopkeeper put on scarves and jewelry for Jorge to see how they looked. He said a particular scarf was great on her and asked her to tie it over her hair and under her chin, like Audrey Hepburn. Wow, he said. What if I bought it for you? She said she couldn’t accept it from her own store. What if I went to another store? It was her turn to be shy. Said she couldn’t answer that. Well, maybe I’ll do it and we’ll see, he said as he left.
That was fun, and you never knew who her brother or father or neighbor might be, perhaps someone more useful than Allen Evers. In the Interest Section they had a closet full of cigars and rum and weavings and sea shell jewelry for wooing and flattering. Even some straw dolls could be effective. Going back to that shopkeeper with a straw doll might make her the good thing, no? Basically, a babe. That was the word for it: babe.
He made his way to the Four Seasons for coffee with William Foer and Jonathan Amiss, the writer. Foer had headed the United States’ interest section in Havana a long time ago and become an actual friend. Amiss was an unlikelier candidate for friendship, but Fidel had read his books; that put Amiss in the hemispheric conversation.
“Now you’ll be alone again,” Foer warned, his vast beard and great bulk lending authority to his pronouncement. “I give it a year before you feel the pinch.”
Jorge snorted. “Exactly what Kaczynski says. We’ll go back to eating those white rats.”
Jonathan Amiss was a big, puffy, but still handsome man with all his hair and good teeth. He’d obviously been born in the right bed. But he wrote about the ghettoes in American cities. Insisted the deficit in American life wasn’t fiscal, it was moral: the unpaid debt to the primary minority, as he called African-Americans. This in turn led to the “inner empire” of federal prisons, stuffed with black men for whom the United States had no use, no understanding, no conscience. He didn’t like the rat joke and demurred. “Who can be so sure? I think Latin America will take Chávez and Fidel more to heart dead than alive.”
Jorge found unrealistic American idealism hard to take, but what could he do except play along? “Exactly. Fidel is gone but he isn’t gone. Chavismo the same.”
Foer disagreed. “No, Fidel’s out of it, and his brother’s heading for the door. What’s to hold the regime together?”
Jorge’s scripted answer was: “We have no regime. We’re a people.”
“Jorge, be serious. You know this is a potentially disastrous moment.”
Jonathan Amiss took umbrage again. More Brooks Brothers idealism. “Disasters damn the dumb, not the smart.”
“That’s what my grandmother has always said,” Jorge said.
Amiss asked about Jorge’s grandmother. Was she still alive? Had she played any role in the revolution? For a moment Jorge wondered if Amiss, of all people, was involved with American intelligence, or was this the novelist in him? In fact she’d already been portrayed in a novel because she had that romance with Gabo and she came off well. The kind of woman who knew how to smile when she cried because victory was always so bloody.
Apropos of nothing, but suddenly fed up with Americans, friendly or not, Jorge said, “You have no idea how satisfying it is to be yourself.” This struck him as a good theme so he went on: “You have no idea how wonderful it is to love other people, touch and teach and take care of them. Chávez understood this, so he reached out to Fidel. Their abrazo lingers. You won’t take Venezuela from us that easily.”
“How can you be so sure?” Foer asked.
Jorge said intemperately but with conviction, “Because it’s my job, Bill. I’m here to defend Cuba. Giving up on Venezuela isn’t the way to do it.”
“Bet you fail,” Foer said.
“If I do, something good will come out of that, too.”
Abruptly Jonathan Amiss asked, “Did you know Allen Evers?”
What kind of question was that? Jorge couldn’t stop himself from looking around the lounge. Who was listening? “Everyone knew him,” he answered. Though of course the one he missed was Letitia. Sometimes just thinking about what she could do with that bottom of hers turned him on.
Foer heaved his massive chest half onto the table, creating privacy with his sheer physical bulk. “Look, here’s the thing, Jorge: Amiss wants to write about Evers, our sweet diplomat spy. He’s trying to arrange visiting with him in prison.”
Jorge said, “I don’t know anything about that. It’s not my line.”
“But you said you knew him,” Amiss protested.
Jorge gave Foer a charmingly pissed look: Why did you set up this meeting? “It will make a great book, Mr. Amiss, I am sure.”
“For instance, Evers says he met with Fidel. Did that happen?”
Jorge didn’t answer.
“Who arranged it? Were you present? ” Amiss pressed.
“I told you: it’s not my line, Mr. Amiss.”
Amiss wouldn’t have it. Foer must have told him things he shouldn’t have told him. He said, “Frankly, I tend to see you peopleI mean the Cuban peopleas a modern-day version of slavery. I don’t like this, but it’s what I’ve concluded. You’re America’s nigger, as in, ‘Who will we whip today? Oh, why not the Cubans again?’”
“A total misconception,” Jorge snapped. “Write about Panama or the Philippines or whatever you think you are doing in the Middle East if you want to write about slaves. We are precisely the ones who are not slaves. We refused. We are free.”
“You saying that is exactly what brings on moral obloquy and oblivion.”
Jorge held onto his anger by softening his voice. “We may suffer obloquy but not oblivion.” Mischievously, he extended his arm and invited Amiss to touch him to see that he was real. Amiss was offended. Jorge made things worse. “Frankly, I could see someone like your old friend Norman Mailer getting into these waters without drowning, but is this really your cup of tea, Mr. Amiss?”
“Jorge,” Foer cautioned.
“Okay, I’m sorry. No intention to offend. Please accept my apologies,” Jorge said, wondering if he’d pay for insulting Fidel’s favorite American writer. In fact, the only time he had met Fidel (whom his grandmother knew well) was during that encounter with Allen and Letitia Evers. No doubt Fidel would enjoy having Amiss write about Evers; in truth, Jorge should have encouraged it. Well, he’d fucked up, and the meeting ended with hypocritical handshakes and promises to get together again, which would never happen. Today’s good thing, whatever it was, wasn’t this.
Back at the Interest Section he was tasked with assessing American intentions toward Venezuela. Would the United States send anyone to Chávez’s funeral? Jorge wrote he doubted it, but the U.S. certainly would be looking into improvements with whomever consolidated power. Then he turned to his next task: What would the Interest Section propose by way of obstructing improved U.S. relations with Venezuela?
He had a shabby office with a single goosenecked desk lamp, a tattered carpet, the obligatory photos of Fidel and Raúl, the Canadian phone set adapted to secure discussions, and a set of windows he kept shuttered. He could write that the Chávez had only died sixteen hours ago and the Interest Section didn’t have a plan yet, or he could calm down, forget Amiss and Foer, and come up with something. Like what? Where was the fucking good thing in all this?
Impulsively, he called Arturo at the Venezuelan embassy and asked if instead of lunch sometime, they could meet tonight for dinner. Arturo said that would be difficult under the circumstances but suggested a drink. They met at the bar in the Mayflower because it always was crowded and noisy.
Arturo said he already had been sent to the State Department to tell the United States not to interfere at this delicate moment in Venezuela’s mourning.
“Only that?” Jorge asked.
“What else can we say? But of course they’re already interfering.”
“Who do they favor?”
“They seem to accept Maduro as inevitable, but you read the Post, didn’t you? They say Henrique Capriles is the answer.”
“Henrique Capriles? He’s the anti-answer.”
“Welcome to Washington, my friend. But let’s be realistic: there can’t be another guy at the top as idiosyncratic as Chávez, so we can expect the United States will find its balance and work hard to separate us, you and me, Cuba and Venezuela.”
Jorge scanned the room. Saw two guys at the bar watching them backwards in the mirror. Okay, fine. He looked down at the little table where he and Arturo sat so the guys at the bar couldn’t read his lips
“What did the people at State say other than that they never interfere?”
Arturo laughed at this. “Oh, they offered condolences, so sad, you know their shit. So I asked why didn’t they come sign the condolence book. They said it wasn’t time yet. I asked when would it be time. They said soon enough.”
“Who said this? Foer’s successor ...Greene?”
“Yes, Arnie Greene.”
Jorge said it didn’t matter, of course. Whoever at State said something was just saying what he’d been told to say.
Arturo disagreed. “No, I could have been received by the office director and they bumped me up to the deputy assistant secretary. Greene’s rank was the real message: If we don’t bite when they kiss us eventually, they’ll be our friends.”
“Oh, crap. Who’s got the big teeth in his smooch?”
Jorge swished, almost gargled, the scotch in his mouth. He listened as Arturo described his day, beginning to end, as a vortex sucking him in. Got up, stood on the beach, all was well, then a wave hit him, and he got pulled under and the water drove into his chest and he didn’t know what was up and what was down.
“Shit,” Arturo said. “The whole fucking day was shit.”
Jorge ordered them another round of drinks, just quick ones before each had to make their dinners. He said they could show up a little drunk and pass it off as sadness, which it was. Chávez was dead, but long live Fidel. They touched glasses. And at that moment the good thing hit him right between the eyes. Jesús Cristo. Of course.
“So become friends,” he said.
“Who, you and me? We are friends,” Arturo said.
“No, compañero, become friends with them, the Yanquis. Go ahead, do it.” He gestured around at the Americans crowded into the dark, high-ceilinged bar, pausing almost imperceptibly as he passed over the two men watching them in the mirror.
Arturo rocked back on his chair. “Are you out of your mind? We can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can. Not in public, of course, but in private. It’s essential. Tell them what they want to hear and then tell me what they tell you--everything they propose and what you get for instructions on how to respond. I need to know it all so I can send it home and help Havana figure things out and slow them down, mess them up. Arturo, we’re almost alone now. All we have is what, Bolivia? Help us, man. Be the good thing in this defeat.”
Arturo suppressed his smile completely. He smacked his hands together as though he were angry with Jorge. Very angry. Then he heaved himself up and pushed out of the Mayflower Bar right past the men looking in the mirror, and Jorge asked for the bill as if he were angry, too. What a terrible loss he’d suffered; what a terrible wonderful loss.