Faded photo in Havana evokes memories of POW John McCain
Ray Sanchez | Direct from Havana
June 15, 2008
On a wall in the restaurant that Fernando Barral runs out of his home in
the Playa neighborhood hangs a strange memento of the enduring conflict
between the United States and Cuba.
There, amid signed cards and letters from the iconic Argentine
revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a faded copy of a 38-year-old
article from the Communist Party daily Granma includes a photo of the
Spanish-born Barral, then a psychiatrist in North Vietnam, interviewing
an American prisoner of war named John Sidney McCain. That encounter
with the American pilot, who decades later would become the presumptive
Republican U.S. presidential nominee, now informs Barral's preference
for the presumptive Democratic nominee from Illinois, Sen. Barack Obama.
Friends and relatives abroad, including a pediatrician son in Port St.
Lucie, help keep Barral informed about U.S. politics. An Obama
presidency, he said, would be an opportunity for improved relations with
"Unless Obama wins, the U.S. will not be ready to turn the page," the
79-year-old psychiatrist turned restaurateur said of the old
Washington-Havana impasse. "If McCain wins, nothing changes."
Cuba closed a chapter on the Cold War with the smooth transition of
power from the ailing Fidel Castro to his younger brother in February,
Barral said in an interview.
"We've entered a period of transition, though change has not arrived
yet," Barral said. "I imagine change will come with next year's
Communist Party Congress. We will then witness a generational shift in
leadership, first in the party and later in the government."
Raul Castro, 77, who was officially named president in February, has
made unsuccessful overtures across the Florida Straits.
"I've spoken so much about McCain that I see him in my soup," said
Barral, who has visited his son in Florida a handful of times. "My wife
says that if McCain wins, I probably won't be able to travel to the
Barral laughed, sipped a mojito and thumbed through his original notes
from the 1970 interview in Hanoi. The notes are written in neat, tiny
letters in a bound Vietnamese notebook, where McCain himself scrawled
the Orange Park address of then-wife Carol McCain.
"Tell her I'm well," Barral quoted McCain as saying. "Tell her I wish
her all the best and that she's shouldn't worry about me."
He didn't convey the message, Barral said, because a detailed account of
his meeting with McCain appeared in Granma a few days later, and he
thought US officials would see it and relay the message to McCain's wife.
Barral said he was living in Cuba in the late 1960s when he won an essay
contest. First prize was a 40-day trip to Hanoi.
In his notes, Barral said McCain told him he had not been subjected to
"physical or moral violence." In South Florida campaign stops, however,
McCain has said that while in Hanoi, Cubans helped torture other
prisoners. In his 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, McCain
referred to a Cuban torturer nicknamed "Fidel" by the POWs, a man who
"delighted in breaking Americans, even when the task required him to
torture his victims to death."
A McCain campaign spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment on
the meeting with Barral or the alleged torture of American POWs by
Cubans in Vietnam.