Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Néstor Baguer 1921-2004

Several remarkable careers ended with the death in Havana of the Cuban writer Néstor Baguer, aged 83.
First, there was the lifelong journalist and intellectual, who published his first articles at the age of 14 and went on to work for the country’s major newspapers and radio stations, a founder of the journalists’ union and, in recognition of his articles and books on the correct use of Spanish, a distinguished member of the Cuban Academy of the Language.
Next came the outspoken dissident agitator, using Miami-based news agencies and websites to campaign for over a decade against Fidel Castro and expose the miseries of everyday life under the dictatorship. Fêted by the anti-communist lobby in exile as the doyen of domestic resistance, he was an honoured guest and protegé in the United States Interest Section at the Swiss Embassy in Havana. Reviled by his former colleagues in the Cuban media, he was expelled from the Academy and his press credentials were withdrawn.
Last year, Baguer revealed his third personality. Since shortly after Castro’s 1959 revolution, he was the priceless “agent Octavio” for the Cuban secret service, infiltrating dissident circles and filing meticulous reports on their activities and funding. His espionage only came to light when he gave crucial testimony against 75 activists jailed last April for “conspiracy with the USA to undermine Cuba’s national sovereignty”. His cover blown, public honours were restored and he was acclaimed as a hero of the revolution.
Néstor Baguer Sánchez-Galarraga was born in 1921. With fellow-students at the Instituto de La Habana, he founded the magazine Siboney, writing extensively on cultural themes. He went on to study journalism and business administration in the United States, later spending eight years in Peru where he first came into contact with communist groups.
On his return to Havana in 1958, Baguer joined the opposition to the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, welcoming Castro’s guerrilla victory the following year. He became active in revolutionary politics alongside his journalistic work – for the foreign trade ministry, the national airline, the newspapers Trabajadores, Juventud Rebelde and Granma Internacional, and radio stations including Cadena Habana, Radio Metropolitana and Radio Habana Cuba. As an enthusiast for the Spanish language, he wrote several books and a popular newspaper column promoting correct usage and analysing Cuba’s creole hybrid with its African and North American influences. This earned him membership of the Academy, which elected him honorary treasurer, and invitations to conferences around the Spanish-speaking world.
His relationship with Seguridad del Estado, Cuba’s secret police, dated from the 1960s. His articles on the export potential of Cuban honey led indirectly to a trade mission to London, where he struck an advantageous deal for Cuba’s government on a purchase of dredging vessels. There, he was approached by a CIA agent whose offers of reward to help sustain the trade blockade on Cuba were politely declined and duly reported to the Seguridad.
By the time of his formal retirement, Baguer was one of Cuba’s most respected journalists. So it was extremely gratifying for the dissident groups to find him beginning, in his old age, to grumble about the hardships of life in Cuba, setting up as a freelance and filing copy to the US-funded Radio Martí and websites, like Cubanet and Cuba Press, hostile to the Castro regime. In 1993, he joined the Independent Press Association, APIC, which billed itself as Cuba’s first independent news agency, and provided an outlet for stories about human rights violations and routine privations under communist rule. His florid prose became that of an ardent counter-revolutionary. Thus, in 1997, he wrote: “Those who suffer are those of us who live here, within the monster, fighting for democracy and freedom using civilised and peaceful means”.
In reality, Baguer was one of a team – seven men and five women – assigned to infiltrate the opposition and gather intelligence on its links with foreign diplomats as well as exile circles in Florida and Spain. Some of them reached the very highest levels in the small organisations they joined: one chaired the Human Rights Party, another was Baguer’s number two in his press agency, and none of them blew their cover until last year. Baguer had renewed his ties with the secret service in the early 1990s, determined to use his journalistic skills in the service of the beleaguered revolution, even if it cost him close personal friendships.
Known among his fellow spies as “El Profe” (the schoolteacher), the elderly agent Octavio spent 11 years ostracised by his fellow professionals in the state-run media. They ridiculed him as a stooge of Washington and Miami, and when cycling to work in Havana, they hated to see him whisked past in a diplomatic limousine. He was a sell-out, a turncoat, a senile old fool seduced by the lure of the dollar. Expulsion from the Academy of the Language and the journalists’ union followed.
Baguer was warmly welcomed at the US Interests Section, where many of the dissident publications were produced – and where, he claimed, they were often drafted or corrected. He later exclaimed: “The more gross a false news story was, the more they’d pay for it. I saw these guys handing their articles in to the Interests Section to be sent on to Miami. What kind of journalist would have his copy revised by a foreign government that’s attacking his own?”
To keep up his cover, Baguer would plausibly report, for instance, that residents of Havana had taken to chopping up park benches for firewood. He collected evidence that the US National Endowment for Democracy was a major channel of funds to dissident groups, which also had backers in Miami and Madrid, and that activists were constantly quarrelling among themselves about which of their leaders was trousering the money. To the dissidents, he invariably came across as a friendly, hospitable, avuncular figure always willing to lend a few dollars or help place an article in the Miami Herald.
In March 2003, Baguer convened the National Workshop on Journalistic Ethics, a meeting of 34 dissidents in the official residence of James Cason, Washington’s most senior diplomat in Cuba. Days later, the Interior Ministry rounded up 75 people in the biggest crackdown on dissidents for many years. They were put on trial for treason, with sentences of between six and 20 years imposed. Baguer testified against Raúl Rivero, lately a cause célèbre for the pressure group Reporters Without Borders, whom he admitted admiring as a poet and writer but dismissed as a “moral ruin”.
In his last years Baguer returned to the payroll of the national news agency, AIN, and was still writing columns and preparing an autobiography – to be entitled Octavio – when he entered hospital four months ago. His loyalty to the Comandante en Jefe was rewarded with several medals and the Dignity Prize of the journalists’ union. Fidel himself, nursing a broken knee, was unable to attend the funeral where Baguer’s flag-draped coffin was escorted by uniformed Interior Ministry troops, but sent a personal wreath. Baguer is survived by his ex-wife, Nora Lamboley.
  • Néstor Baguer Sánchez-Galarraga, journalist; born 22 August 1921; died 25 October 2004

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