In Havana, A Page From McCain's Past

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

HAVANA -- At first glance, the trophy wall in the Cactus on 33rd restaurant seems to follow a standard local formula.

Framed photo of heroically posed rebel. Check.

Rusty rifle. Check.

Signed postcard from Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Check.

But there, among the routine, lies a surprise: a copy of a faded, 38-year-old article from Granma, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper. On the page is a photo of Fernando Barral, a Cuban psychologist turned restaurateur, sitting at a well-appointed coffee table in Hanoi. He is interviewing a square-jawed, sandy-haired U.S. prisoner of war. A prisoner of war named John McCain.

That a nearly four-decade-old photo of a U.S. POW would become a restaurant prop in this seaside capital stands as testament to Havana's time-warp vibe and its enduring anti-U.S. sentiments. More than just a place where vintage American cars rumble and spit smoke, Havana can feel like a city that refuses to let go of the Cold War, where spies and conspiracy theories and intrigue are as much a part of daily life as rum, cigars and the rhythms of son music.

The Granma clipping in Barral's restaurant, dated Jan. 24, 1970, recalls one of the defining periods of McCain's life, his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war after his Navy jet was shot down over North Vietnam. The tale of that photo and how an obscure Cuban psychologist came to interview McCain -- now a 71-year-old U.S. senator from Arizona and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee -- rouses the echoes, curiosities and suspicions of another era.

There is no doubt that the two men met in Hanoi in January 1970. Their accounts of the basic outlines of the meeting are almost identical.

McCain briefly mentions his encounter with Barral in his 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," calling him "a Cuban propagandist, masquerading as a Spanish psychologist and moonlighting as a journalist." McCain wrote that Barral concluded he was "a psychopath," but Barral said in an interview that he never reached that conclusion. A McCain campaign spokesman did not respond to several interview requests on the subject.

The Spanish-born Barral is now 79 and retains a lispy Madrile┬┐o accent even though he has lived nearly a half-century in Cuba. Barral said McCain was "boastful" during their interview and "without remorse" for any civilian deaths that occurred "when he bombed Hanoi." McCain has a similar recollection, writing in his book that he responded, "No, I do not" when Barral asked if he felt remorse.

Barral kept his original notes from the interview in a bound Vietnamese notebook with yellow flowers on the cover.

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