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.
He said he kept the article about the interview tucked away for decades, most recently stashing it in the small living quarters behind the six-table restaurant he runs inside a creaking mansion in the Playa neighborhood, 15 minutes from downtown Havana.
After hearing of McCain's campaign about six months ago, Barral said, he hung the clipping in his restaurant, an archetypal Cuban paladar -- a small, privately owned restaurant sanctioned by the state -- with dining tables in the living room, arched wooden doors, wrought-iron grates and tile floors. Hardly anyone noticed the clipping until a few days ago, he said, when a reporter spotted it among the Che memorabilia.
Barral, who shuffles slightly when he walks and entertains visitors with a gruff sense of humor, said his route to the 1970 encounter with McCain winds through pre-Civil War Spain, Argentina, Hungary and Cuba.
His grandfather was a Spanish anarchist and his father was a socialist killed in the Spanish Civil War. He immigrated to Argentina with his mother when he was 11. There, he said, he befriended the young Guevara, who was the same age.
Barral was later expelled from Argentina because of his communist activism, he said. He fled to Hungary, where he studied medicine. Shortly after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, he served as interpreter for a Cuban delegation visiting Hungary.
Barral sent greetings to Guevara and soon accepted the revolutionary icon's offer of a home and job in Cuba -- a copy of the invitation is on Barral's restaurant wall. Barral -- who said he speaks Spanish, French, Hungarian and Italian, and understands English -- said that in those days "Cuba represented this fresh vision, where everything was possible."
In 1967, he won an essay contest with a piece about "The Revolutionary Attitude." He keeps the yellowed telegram announcing his victory in his archives. First prize was a 40-day trip to North Vietnam for what he called "scientific research" about the North Vietnamese and their ability to resist U.S. forces.
"In that time, North Vietnam was the tops in our eyes in Cuba," Barral said. "It was the best example of a country confronting imperialism."
The trip was delayed until 1969, he said. Once in Hanoi, he conducted field research, eventually concluding that U.S. forces were underestimating the North Vietnamese. That's when he had the idea of interviewing a U.S. POW -- to "find out," he said, "how the enemy thinks."
Cuban diplomats in North Vietnam told him to say he was a Spanish psychologist, even though he hadn't lived in Spain since he was 11. At that time he was not a Cuban citizen, though he is now, he said.
The interview lasted between 45 minutes and an hour, Barral recalled. He said the men met at the offices of Hanoi's Committee for Foreign Cultural Relations, while McCain said in his book that the interview took place in a hotel.
McCain was escorted to the interview from the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," a prison where American servicemen were tortured and lived in miserable conditions. Barral said he does not know why his North Vietnamese handlers chose the cultural center as the site for the interview. But the location did not bother Barral because he wasn't interested in the conditions of the prison, merely in finding out what "the enemy" was thinking.
Barral said he conducted a cursory medical examination and found that McCain had difficulty rotating his arms. McCain told him that he had not been subjected to "physical or moral violence," Barral noted at the time.
In his small, precise handwriting, Barral noted that cookies, candies, teacups, oranges and cigarettes were on the table. McCain, who had suffered multiple fractures after ejecting from his plane, walked in leaning on a cane, Barral said.
Quickly dispensing with the pro forma name, rank and serial number, the men talked about McCain's family, his aspirations and the shootdown of his plane, according to Barral's notes. In his book, McCain writes that Barral asked "rather innocuous questions about my life, the schools I had attended and my family."
"He was only interested in talking about himself," Barral recalled. "He had a big ego."
The son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, McCain lamented in the interview that "if I hadn't been shot down, I would have become an admiral at a younger age than my father," Barral's notes state. Barral said McCain boasted that he was the best pilot in the Navy and that he wanted to be an astronaut.
"He felt superior to the Vietnamese up there in his plane, with all his training," Barral recalled.
McCain did not ask questions about news from abroad, Barral said, but did ask the psychologist to get a message to his then-wife, Carol McCain, and provided her address in Orange Park, Fla.
"Tell her I'm well," Barral noted McCain saying. "Tell her I wish her all the best and that she shouldn't worry about me."
Though McCain says he did not discuss military matters with Barral, a U.S. commander in the prison later issued an order forbidding U.S. POWs to be interviewed by visitors, McCain wrote in his book. The decision was "a sound one, even though it deprived me of further opportunities to demonstrate 'my psychic equilibrium' to disapproving fraternal socialists, not to mention the extra cigarettes and coffee," McCain wrote.
Barral's interview with the son and grandson of U.S. admirals was considered a huge coup and "newsworthy," according to the 1970 Granma article. The communist party newspaper ran a close-up of McCain's face on its front page.
"I'm not sure if it was for propaganda purposes," Barral said recently of the 1970 interview. "But I accept it if I was an instrument for propaganda."
Barral's life since that flash of celebrity has unspooled like that of many Cubans. He retired with a tiny pension in the mid-1980s and said he barely had enough money to get by until opening his paladar in the mid-1990s.
His family, like those of almost all Cubans, is fractured. One of his sons, Ernesto Barral, became a successful doctor after fleeing the island, making the unsubstantiated claim that he windsurfed to Florida.
Barral said he follows U.S. politics in clippings sent to him from friends and relatives abroad, and has taken a shine to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) because he "represents change."
"I don't know if McCain would be a good president," Barral said. "And I don't care."