‘From now on you have no name. You are prisoner 217′: life in a Cuban jail

guardianIf you happened to go to a British embassy reception in Havana in the early 2000s, you would likely have met Stephen Purvis. You could not miss him. Six foot four, cropped grey hair, rum in hand, a broad smile and no shortage of good stories.

Purvis loved Cuba. Escaping what he saw as the risk of a “pre-ordained suburban middle-class life” in Wimbledon, the architect and his wife seized the opportunity to move to the island 17 years ago. He had been offered a job as development director with Coral Capital, an investment and trading company. It was one of several small foreign firms – almost all led by maverick, adventurous individuals – that were setting up in Cuba as the country sought international partners following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Purvis’s job was to look for joint venture opportunities with the Cuban government. The planned projects included the first golf course to be constructed there since the 1959 revolution, and the revamp of a formerly glamorous hotel, the Saratoga.

Speaking to me from Myanmar (more about that later) Purvis recalls his early Havana years. “It felt like another era,” he says. “No internet. No TV. No shopping.” The family adapted well to their new life. Home was a handsome 1950s villa, soon full with their four children. Saturdays would be spent by the pool at the beach club. The son of a theatrical designer, Purvis also dabbled in theatre himself, producing the Cuban dance show Havana Rakatan, which performed successfully for several years in London. No one, of course, imagined that those halcyon days would end so abruptly, with Purvis imprisoned in what he describes as a “zoo” for enemies of the state. But that is how it turned out. The title of his powerful memoir, Close but No Cigar, is his own admission of just how badly life can go wrong. …

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During the last several decades, the United States has invested billions of dollars in trying to help the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean deliver better lives for their citizens. This has meant helping them increase internal security by combating the illicit growing and trafficking in narcotics and the activities of terrorist groups, as well as helping them to shore up their democratic and free market institutions.

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