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Spying for the revolution

In the Pirate's Den: My Life as a Secret Agent for Castro, Jorge Masetti, Encounter Books: 164 pp. $24.95

May 11, 2003|Ann Louise Bardach | Ann Louise Bardach is the author of "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana" and the editor of "Cuba: A Travelers Literary Companion." She writes the Global Buzz column for Newsweek International.

On March 12, 1998, sometime after midnight, a Russian-made Lada swerved out of control in the Miramar section of Havana, killing its driver. The driver and sole occupant of the vehicle, Manuel Pineiro Losada, better known as Barba Roja for his mangy carrot-red beard, had been Cuba's legendary spymaster for more than 30 years. A Castro confidante going back to their days in the Sierra Maestra, Pineiro headed up the Ministry of Interior and later its Department of Americas, the branch of Cuban intelligence charged with exporting and fomenting revolution.

Cubans have several predilections, not the least of which is a passion for conspiracy. Hence, notwithstanding perfectly coherent explanations for the crash -- Pineiro was a heavy drinker, a diabetic, not to mention a lousy driver -- rumors instantly lit up the wires from Havana to Miami to Washington that Pineiro's accident was, claro, no accident.

Taken to the grave with him, went the reasoning, were some 30 years of secrets, plots and intrigues. Or so it seemed. Now comes a memoir from Jorge Masetti, a former Barba Roja operative turned whistle-blower, engagingly titled "In the Pirate's Den: My Life as a Secret Agent for Castro." It is a slim memoir of precious little political analysis and psychological insight but one that offers tantalizing glimpses into the murky guerrilla demimonde of the 1970s and '80s, when revolutionary ideals not infrequently mingled with criminality.

Masetti comes with an unusual and dashing pedigree. His father was Jorge Ricardo Masetti, the Argentine journalist turned revolutionary who arrived in Cuba in 1958 to chronicle the barbudos in the Sierra. Later he established the news agency Prensa Latina before enlisting with Pineiro. Working under the supervision of his countryman Che Guevara, he was dispatched to the northern mountains of Argentina, where he was killed in 1964. For his namesake growing up in Havana, the cachet of being the "son of Masetti" included entree into los hijos de Papa: the Cuban Brat Pack.

In 1970, the family returned to Buenos Aires, where the teenage Masetti set about creating himself in his father's image. First, he began apprenticing at a local newspaper and then enlisting in any anti-government group that would have him. Eventually, he fell in with the ERP or the People's Revolutionary Army, an Argentine guerrilla group with close ties to Cuba, and began his career as a full-time revolutionary. By the mid-'70s, Masetti was back in Havana working under the tutelage of the wily Pineiro, who became his mentor and patron over the next decade.

Greeting Masetti at Jose Marti Airport was his father's mistress, Conchita, who also worked for the Ministry of Interior. "It amused me that they had sent her to pick me up," he writes, "when in fact we had never even met." There were other surprises: a half sister who resembled him more than his full sister.

Masetti offers a vivid account of the Cuban-run training and indoctrination programs for wannabe guerrillas. Upon graduation, he globe-trotted through Angola, Lima, Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, the Congo, Colombia, Chile -- seeking to topple "imperialist regimes" and plant the seeds for socialist paradises. But the willful and restless Masetti was forever bristling at the Cuban bureaucrats and desk jockeys who called the shots.

Masetti quickly learned that the ERP didn't hesitate to do whatever was needed to advance its cause -- be it kidnapping, counterfeiting, assassinations, bank robbery and even dabbling in ivory smuggling to generate funds for its operations and to support its agents. A natural misfit, Masetti was barely perturbed. "The kidnappings financed all this," he writes. "I understood their necessity but I was glad when instead of being given a gun and a mask, I was ordered to return to Italy and 'work with the masses'.... Whether or not we could make a revolution, we could certainly rob a bank."

Along the way, Masetti -- who inherited his father's movie-star looks -- casually fathered five children, all of whom were raised without him. One of the more disconcerting elements of Masetti and his book is his lack of consciousness or, for that matter, a conscience. There is an evasiveness and lack of detail in some sections -- perhaps seeking to protect former comrades or himself or relatives still in Cuba. But in at least two areas, "Pirate's Den" helpfully fills out the historical record: the Sandinista overthrow of Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza and its chronicle of the De la Guardia-Arnaldo Ochoa scandal that rocked Havana in 1989. The former was the apex of Masetti's career, the latter, his undoing.

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