The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Love in the time of surveillance: FBI agents tracked Gabriel García Márquez

Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Hamilton/AP)

Newly arrived in Manhattan with his wife and infant son, 33-year-old Gabriel García Márquez plunked down $200 for a month's stay at the Hotel Webster and set about establishing himself as a professional writer.

He had no idea the FBI was watching.

The year was 1961, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI quietly opened a confidential dossier on the skinny, mustachioed Colombian. The file accumulated intelligence for the next 24 years, even as García Márquez became an intimate of world leaders and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his gritty and magical novels about Latin America.

The file’s existence has remained secret until now.

The FBI’s motivation in monitoring him is unclear, but García Márquez had just traveled to the United States to help establish a Cuban government news service; in later years, he became a high-profile leftist and friend of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The FBI at times stumbled in its foray into the literary world, originally thinking the writer’s first name was José and misfiling its classified intelligence under the name José García Márquez.

Later, when an FBI official sought to update photos in the covert dossier, agents simply copied the dust jacket of one of García Márquez’s best-selling novels and slapped the portrait into a file stamped “SECRET.”

Agents mocked García Márquez’s limited English, and the dossier is flush with profiles of the writer published in Time magazine, the New York Times and Spanish-language publications. In one 1982 Newsday article, about García Márquez’s receipt of the Nobel Prize in literature, an agent underlined a passage describing him as “a close friend of Fidel Castro.”

The bureau declassified and released 137 pages of the file at the request of The Washington Post. It withheld an additional 133 pages, making it unclear precisely what sparked the agency’s interest in the writer. But news of the dossier’s existence places García Márquez in the rarefied company of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and other acclaimed writers whom Hoover’s FBI closely tracked for its own purposes, part of a vast domestic monitoring operation often far removed from evidence of any wrongdoing. The García Márquez records give no indication that the bureau ever opened a criminal investigation of him.

García Márquez, affectionately known as “Gabo,” was a novelist, journalist, playwright, and student of political history. He became a cultural icon by creating his own rich blend of literary realism that combined grit and fantasy in a series of acclaimed novels, including “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

As his fame spread, he became a friend to international dignitaries, including French President François Mitterrand and U.S. President Bill Clinton. García Márquez visited the White House several times during the Clinton years; the president had first read “One Hundred Years” while in college and considered it perhaps his favorite novel.

García Márquez died April 17, 2014, at his home in Mexico City, at age 87. At the time, President Obama called García Márquez, “a representative and voice for the people of the Americas.”

“The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favorites from the time I was young,” Obama said. Juan Manuel Santos, president of García Márquez’s native country, joined in the praise, hailing him as “the greatest Colombian of all time.” Clinton released a statement saying, “I was honored to be his friend and to know his great heart and brilliant mind for more than 20 years.”

García Márquez’s elder son, Rodrigo García, said the family had no hint that the FBI had kept tabs on his father. But García, a film and television producer in Los Angeles, was not surprised.

“Considering the fact that this Colombian guy was in New York opening a Cuban press agency, it would be unusual if he was not spied upon,” he said.

García said his father more than once told of a time in 1960 or 1961 that he finished his workday and realized he was being followed on his walk home by two men who appeared to communicate by whistling. The natural assumption at the time would have been that they worked for a Cuban faction or the CIA , García said.

Ironically, García said his father was fired from Prensa Latina, the state news agency of Cuba, after just a few months because he was considered insufficiently radical.

“In Cuba, there was a bit of a power struggle going on,” García said. “My dad was not a card-carrying communist. In fact, he had published some articles about his travels in socialist countries, and they were mixed reviews. So he was not considered a true communist, and he lost the job.

“He never belonged to any political organization.”

Among the first entries in the FBI’s file on García Márquez was a Feb. 8, 1961, order that appears to have come straight from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, directing that “in the event he enters the U.S. for any purpose, the Bureau should be promptly advised.”

Another entry the same day highlights García Márquez’s connection to Prensa Latina, the news service that the FBI said “included a number of communists and procommunists.”

Two months later, an agent added a note to the file saying he believed García Márquez’s first name might not actually be José (it was his middle name, and he never used it, his son said). Agents found it noteworthy that García Márquez, then 33, was covering the 1961 trial of a Cuban man charged with murder, and they added a bit of snark to their report: “Garcia Marquez had extreme difficulty with the English language. As a result Garcia Marquez appeared to be in a poor position to cover the events of the trial.”

In a list aimed at helping physically identify subjects of interest, the agents described García Márquez as standing about 5 feet 6 inches and having a slight build and a thin face (years later they would change their description to “stocky”). Under the heading “Peculiarity,” the file notes tersely: “Wears mustache.”

Confidential informants disclosed that García Márquez was paying $200 a month for his hotel room, where he lived with his wife and 2-year-old son — a young Rodrigo García — and that they had had no visitors.

In April 1961, an agent sent Hoover a classified communication alerting the director that he was circulating around the agency nine copies of a memorandum on and evaluation of García Márquez, and that the New York office was opening an official file on the then-journalist. The file indicated that García Márquez was born March 6, 1928, even though current published sources indicate he was born in 1927. His son said that in this instance, the FBI was correct: A clerical error on García Márquez’s first passport publicly muddied his age for the remainder of his life.

In July 1961, a memo indicated that a team of agents had contacted at least nine confidential informants about García Márquez and his activities.

One informant told agents that García Márquez had left New York on a Greyhound bus, heading to Mexico.

A number of the memos in the file were sent directly to Hoover’s office, and at least one appears to bear Hoover’s handwritten initials. Hoover’s personal interest would not be surprising. Over a period of decades, Castro reportedly provided him with many favors, including a mansion, and set him up as director of a Cuban film institute.

The novelist, in turn, burnished the dictator’s image, describing Castro in 1990 as a “man of austere habits and insatiable dreams, with an old-fashioned formal education, careful words and fine manners.”

The bureau kept track of García Márquez’s associates, whose names are redacted in the released documents. One “secret” entry from the 1980s noted that an unidentified individual was “a very good friend with GABRIEL GARCIA DE MARQUEZ, a well-known Columbian writer who is extremely pro-CASTRO. GARCIA covered the Angola ‘invasion,’ and wrote in a pro-Cuban vein.”

As late as March 1982, a memo to the director’s office stamped “secret” shows that an informant had reported that Rice University’s Spanish department had invited the author to lecture at its Houston campus. García Márquez never responded, however, leading the bureau to conclude, “he is not coming.”

“Houston [FBI agents] will maintain contact with Rice University into the first week in April, in the event that subject does in fact decide to come to Houston,” the classified memo said.

The dossier is in keeping with a long history of surveillance by Hoover’s FBI of politicians, artists and writers.

Records previously released to The Post show Hoover's agency surveilled and kept meticulous files on the mundane aspects of the life of novelist Norman Mailer. Agents questioned his friends, scoured his passport file, thumbed through his best-selling books and circulated his photo among informants. They kept records on his appearances at conferences and talk shows, tracked who received his Christmas cards and more than once knocked on his door disguised as deliverymen.

Agents even generated their own internal reviews of his books. One 1969 critique of Mailer’s book “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” sniffed that the well-regarded book was “written in his usual obscene and bitter style.”

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