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Reflections - By Terry Hayes

Reflections on the past

My 2.5 year posting to Beirut ended in the summer of 74 with a promotion and an assignment to Technical Security.

Sue was pregnant with our 4th child when we came home from Beirut and the birth was predicted for mid Oct so I was not looking forward to an early assignment but one came a month or so after the birth of Stephanie. My first assignmentwith this section was to accompany George Smith to Havana for an inspection of our embassy.

A lengthy assignment at this time was not something I wanted but being new to the section I didnít want to appear uncooperative butbecause Stephanie had undiagnosed heath issues and needed frequent visits to the doctor I was uneasy about accepting this trip. Fortunately Sueís family were prepared to help during my absence.

George proved to be an amiable traveling companion but his well-known problems with alcohol led to some difficulties. We traveled to Havana via Toronto and Mexico City where we were to spend the weekend waiting for a connecting flight to Havana. By the time we deplaned in Mexico City Georgeís speech was slurred and soon after check-in at the hotel he disappeared and was not heard from during the weekend until hotel management called and requested I get him out of the hotel. Apparently he was reported for bothering a chambermaid. I quelled this problem by assuring themanager we were checking out the following morning.

We boarded our early flight and arrived in Havana the next morning; we briefly visited the embassy before checking into our hotel. I donít recall the name of our hotel but in its days of glory it must have been a high class casino and hotel because it had all the trapping of a once luxurious hotel; Iím sure, in its days of glory,movie stars and famousentertainers performed there. Unfortunately those days were long gone and the hotel exterior was shoddy and badly in need of repairs. To see the hotel so shabby was a reminder of the sad appearance of our embassy in Moscow.

The hotel clerk asked for our passports and informed us they wouldnít be returned until we checked out. This was something unexpected but our embassy escort assured us this was standard practice in Cuba.

The elevator was old fashioned, with shutter doors and operator run, reminiscent of the days our off ice was in the East Block. At the hotel there was no visiting other floors, you showed your room key to the operator and let off at that floor; no visiting with colleagues. There were very few guests staying in the hotel.

My room was nice enough but poorly lit because lights and lamps were missing bulbs and there was a dead cockroach on the floor. I wondered how long it would take to clean the room and remove the cockroach, so I left it on the floor. The cockroach stayed on the carpet for the duration of my stay.The condition of the hotel was a sign of things to come!

Our embassyís appearance was quaint and reminiscent of an old mansion; the front grounds were large and well maintained; the inside of the embassy appearance was appropriateenough but hardly embassy like. It was when we started to do our inspection that we noticed the shoddy physical condition of many things and I wondered how our physical security people had overlooked physical security problems. It wasnít our job to report on these shortfalls but we noted them just the same.

Our first night at the hotel was uneventful. We visited the huge dining and entertainment area for our first dinner and looked over a very extensive menu. This very large room was essentially unoccupied; a few waiters and a couple of other diners didnít come close to filling the cavernous space.

It was hard to choose from the menu proudly presented by our waiter but we made our choices only to find they were unavailable. After selecting alternative choices we were told they were also unavailable so we asked what the waiter recommended and choose from a short list, dined and went off to our rooms where, almost immediately, I began to suffer cramps and stomach problems. The next day we shopped at the diplomatic store and prepared our own meals at the embassy.

We had  a couple of pleasant evenings out while in Havana, one night at our colleague Valliersí (Val) place, an invitation to dinner witha secretary place, who also took us to a distant, almost unused and pristine beach on a weekend. We also received an invite to the Ambassadorís for his staff Christmas party.

Val had his party at home with tables placed around an empty pool; there was dancing in the pool (a novel use for an empty pool). Val couldnít get parts to fix the pump, so it remained empty for the duration of our visit.

It was soon after this party that George had a heart attack and was rushed off to hospital.The head guard at the embassy setup a shift schedule so staff would be with George at the hospital 24-7. I did my share of shifts while also continuing on with the inspection.

During this inspection I discovered several compromised locks that would make it easy to access the confidential and secure areas of the embassy, including the communicatorís office. I never did learn what steps were taken by the department to find out how or who compromised the locks. With the compromised locks it was possible to access the confidential area from the loading dock,avoiding the reception area; the little used stairs from the loading dock led to the second floor. I used a stiff piece of plastic to open these locks. Similar lockswere installed elsewhere.

During my last week in Havana I received a telegram from Ottawa saying my daughter Stephanie was hospitalized in critical condition and not expected to live. Unfortunately it was impossible to get a flight out of Havana; empty and returning charter flights were not allowed to pick up passengers. I had no choice but to wait for a scheduled flight. It took three trips to the airport and 3 days to get a flight home. By that time Stephanie was out of hospital and doing reasonably well.

Ken and Lee Boor were our saviours; they stepped in  and helped Sue and Stephanie, taking them and staying with them at the hospital; they also brought Sue and Stephanie home when she was stable.


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© OFARTS Canada 2006-2007 Old Foreign Affairs Retired Technicians, Canada The opinions expressed here are those of the contributors. Accuracy of facts has not been verified in all cases.