In Cuba, a Page From McCain's Past

BY MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA - The Washington Post
March 12, 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 American prisoner of war. A prisoner of war named John McCain. That a nearly four-decade-old photo of an American POW would become a restaurant prop in this seaside capital stands as testament to Havana's time-warp vibe and its enduring anti-American 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 Mr. Barral's restaurant, dated January 24, 1970, recalls one of the defining periods of Mr. 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 Mr. McCain now a 71-year-old American 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.

Mr. McCain briefly mentions his encounter with Mr. Barral in his 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," calling him "a Cuban propagandist, masquerading as a Spanish psychologist and moonlighting as a journalist." Mr. McCain wrote that Mr. Barral concluded he was "a psychopath," but Mr. 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 Mr. Barral is now 79 and retains a lispy Madrileno accent even though he has lived nearly a half-century in Cuba. Mr. Barral said that Mr. McCain was "boastful" during their interview and "without remorse" for any civilian deaths that occurred "when he bombed Hanoi." Mr. McCain has a similar recollection, writing in his book that he responded, "No, I do not," when Mr. Barral asked if he felt remorse.

Mr. 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 Mr. McCain's campaign about six months ago, Mr. 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.

Mr. Barral, who shuffles slightly when he walks and entertains visitors with a gruff sense of humor, said his route to the 1970 encounter with Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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."

March 12, 2008 Edition > Section: Foreign > Printer-Friendly Version