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6 November 2000

Always alone with a British passport

In the novels of Graham Greene, Britons in trouble abroad could rely on Foreign Office help. Now, as

By Stephen Smith

In Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a British spying caper goes disastrously wrong. But not as wrong for the Britons involved, it has to be said, as for the other nationals in the story: while most of them wind up incarcerated, or worse, Greene’s secret agent, Wormold the vacuum-cleaner salesman, enjoys the fine prospect of marrying his secretary, who has been obligingly provided by the Foreign Office.

However, the days when a passport in the name of Her Britannic Majesty was a get-out-of-jail-free card are well and truly over. Just look at the very different cases of the seven Britons arrested in Cuba on suspicion of espionage; James Mawdsley, the human rights campaigner who was detained by the Burmese; and the 40 British travellers, some of them pilgrims, taken hostage on a flight home from Saudi Arabia last month.

As our man in Cuba, Wormold could reasonably expect help from certain corners of Whitehall, whereas only the most outlandish conspiracy theorist would link the languishing Britons or Mawdsley (now happily released) or the pilgrims on their way back from Mecca (also free) with the shadowy recesses of the state. A colleague of the six men and one woman held in Havana has claimed that the men, all private detectives from London, were retained to snoop on a Lebanese-Panamanian businessman on behalf of his wife. Mike Nahmad is described as the head of Genpower, the only private venture in Cuba wholly owned by foreign interests, and a personal friend of Fidel Castro. His wife, based in Panama City, apparently suspected the tycoon of maintaining a mistress and a child in Havana, and was contemplating filing for divorce.

But the British gumshoes appear to have been just about as adept at the intelligence racket as Wormold, who invented all his well-placed contacts, and whose sketches of missile silos bore an uncanny resemblance to domestic appliances. The seven were detained on 8 October. Their techniques have been questioned by their peers in British sleuthing circles. At the West End premises of Spymaster, a kind of quartermaster’s store to the cloak-and-dagger brigade, it was felt that six were a lot of people to put on the payroll to keep tabs on a solitary businessman (or even a not-so-solitary one).

Amid the transmitters disguised as fountain pens and the cameras camouflaged as 20 Dunhill, it emerged that a fee of £35 per hour per head would be the going rate for a surveillance job of that kind in Cuba. With expenses, the bill presented by the six would put a dent in even the most generous alimony cheque. It is perhaps not surprising that the Cubans, famously easygoing in matters of the flesh, have had a problem believing that a wife would retain a small army of spooks for the purpose of eavesdropping on her spouse.

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There is only one Mike Nahmad listed in the Panama City phone book. A woman who answered the call told me: “I am married to Mr Nahmad, but I don’t know anything about what you’re telling me.” She confirmed that her husband worked in Cuba, but said she knew nothing about any British private eyes.

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It is reported that the female Briton, the girlfriend of one of the men, was simply going along for the ride. Cuba is becoming a popular holiday destination for the British. Could it be that several of the private dicks were, in fact, tagging along on the job of a lifetime, a nice change from vetting CVs on behalf of employers and shaking down debtors who have fallen behind with the payments?

The Cubans thought they had rumbled something more sinister. In Our Man in Havana, Wormold’s fanciful drawings were taken seriously by bona fide spies; and in Castro’s Cuba, the Brits could hardly expect to fool around with bugs and hidden cameras without someone putting a dark complexion on it. This is a country, after all, where the CIA has tried to terminate the head of state with a poisoned stogie. It will surely gladden Greene’s shade that a central conceit of his novel – a scarcely credible spy story that uncannily assumes a life of its own – has been realised in modern-day Havana.

Sources in Havana believe that it was Nahmad’s business affairs that aroused the interest of the Britons, rather than his romantic ones. Energy is a sector that corporations have been eyeing hungrily, with a view to a post-Castro Cuba.

James Mawdsley’s father, David, was full of praise for the efforts of the British government in his son’s cause. But most observers think that the release of Mawdsley Jr was not unconnected with a UN motion criticising the Burmese junta.

In the case of the planeload of travellers hijacked as they returned from the Gulf, the role of intermediary was filled not by a good egg with a diplomatic pouch, but by the unlikely figure of Saddam Hussein. The passengers were set free almost before they knew they had been kidnapped. By happy chance, they picked Iraqi Tourism Week in which to be liberated. In the banqueting room of the hotel where they recuperated from their experiences was a giant poster of Saddam, skiing.

Although the spy Wormold comes out all right from Greene’s Cuban entertainment, it is not thanks to the hopelessly out-of-touch officials on the other end of his string in London. The real Foreign Office has been accused of being slow to respond after the British detectives found themselves in a Cuban prison. The seven, who could in theory face trial for spying, have since received a consular visit. They were said to be fit and well by their man in Havana.

Stephen Smith is a reporter for Channel 4 News. His book on Cuba, The Land of Miracles, is published by Abacus (£7.99)