The Painting: A Novel Based on a True Story




     In two weeks’ time Roberto met again as planned with the Mariano, at La Pescadaria, to deliver the Romanach painting he had purchased from Anabela. As promised, Mariano had successfully contacted three other collectors living in Spain and had prepared a list of artists to give Roberto, that they were particularly interested in collecting.

     During that time Alina continued to pressure Roberto about moving in together at the home of her father, Andres. Roberto’s increasing financial independence and the desire for regular female companionship, something that had been missing in his life, made the decision an easy one.

     The home of Andres was conveniently located between Marina where Mariano stayed, the home of Anabela, and Cimex, where Roberto and Alina worked. Alina had shown herself to be pleasantly uncomplicated, easy to be around, and rarely asked any questions. In addition, her father worked long hours for Colonel de la Guardia and was almost never home, so as long as he was able to keep his business with Mariano secret from her, thought Roberto, life would be good.

     Over the following months Roberto worked closely with Carmen to expand his network of contacts, not only in Havana, but all the way from San Cristobal in the west to Matanzas in the east. It seemed he couldn’t learn fast enough and spent every weekend following leads or meeting with Mariano at La Pescadaria whenever he had something he knew Mariano couldn’t live without.

     His work appraising and buying jewelry for Colonel de la Guardia at Cimex, was increasing exponentially, as worsening economic conditions resulting from the loss of financial support from the Soviet Union after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, left many Cubans desperate for cash, and willing to sell family heirloom jewelry simply to put food on the table.

     It was a Saturday morning, well before dawn, in early June of 1989, when Roberto and Alina were suddenly awakened by a loud cracking noise that had come from the front of the house and sounded to them like wood splintering. Getting up to investigate the noise, Roberto quickly dressed and began running toward the front room. Once in the hallway that led to the front of the house, he heard someone shout out a command to search the rear of the building. Thinking he needed to warn Alina, he turned to go back to the bedroom. It was too late; they had seen him.

     “Stop,” shouted one of the men. “Hands over your head and turn around.”

     Roberto, stopping immediately, turned around and held his hands above his head. Not again, he thought.

     “What is your name?” asked one of the men as he stepped in front of the others and faced Roberto.

     “Ramos. Roberto Ramos. I work for Colonel de la Guardia, at Cimex,” he replied, thinking his affiliation with the colonel would carry some weight.

     “Where is Andres?” yelled the man, who appeared to be the commanding officer.

     “He’s not here. I don’t know where he is,” answered Roberto. “What do you want?”

     “Where does he keep the money?” asked the officer.

     “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied Roberto.

     “You said you work for de la Guardia, at Cimex, right?” said the man.

     “Yes, but I have nothing to do with the money there. I appraise jewelry for the colonel. That’s it,” said Roberto.

     Just then, Alina, having dressed hurriedly, came out of the bedroom into the hallway. “What is going on?” she asked.

     “They’re looking for your father,” replied Roberto.

     “He’s not here. He is with the Colonel at the airport in Varadero,” she said.

     “Come with me,” ordered the man, pointing toward the room at the front end of the house.

     Entering the living room, Roberto counted twenty-four heavily armed military police personnel, along with the commanding officer.

     “The two of you, sit over here,” said the man, pointing to the sofa.

     “Roberto,” said one of the other men who was standing near the front door. It was a good friend from the military, and he had recognized Roberto.

     “You know him?” asked the commanding officer to the man who had addressed Roberto.

     “Yes, he is a good friend, Colonel. We served at Punto Cero together,” said the man.

     Roberto immediately recognized the man as his friend Manuel from their time together in special forces.

     “We’re looking for Andres, Roberto. This has nothing to do with you,” said Manuel.

     “What do you want with my father?” asked Alina.

     “Your father is in a lot of trouble,” said the colonel to Alina.

     Roberto could not imagine why the military police had come to the home of Andres, but he was beginning to realize it had nothing to do with him or his black market art business. Whatever the trouble was, it was extremely serious, and Roberto knew, because of his association with Colonel de la Guardia, even though he was simply an employee at Cimex, he needed to be extra careful not to reveal anything about his business dealings.

     “Do you know why your father and the Colonel spend so much time in Varadero?” asked the Colonel.

     “I assume it has to do with the business with Cimex. They sell the jewelry and the diamonds internationally,” replied Alina.

     “That’s what your father told you?” asked the colonel.

     “Yes, what else would they be doing there?” replied Alina.

     “It’s none of your business,” said the officer. “Alright, let’s go,” said the colonel.

     “What about us?” asked Roberto.

     “What about you?” said the colonel.

     “We work for Colonel de la Guardia,” said Roberto.

     “I recommend you look for a new job. We’re done here,” said the Colonel, motioning to his men to leave. After the last man left the house, the Colonel turned around and looked at Alina. “One other thing. I would suggest you not try and contact your father.”

     Roberto looked over at Alina, putting his hand on her knee. “I’m certain your father has done nothing wrong. He is a dedicated Fidelista and Colonel de la Guardia has the respect of everyone in the military, none more so than Fidel. They are loyal to the revolution,” said Roberto in an attempt to comfort Alina and feign respect for Fidel. He looked again at the colonel who was still standing in the doorway.

     “Remember what I said,” warned the Colonel as he left the house.

     Alina was shaking and beginning to cry.

     “Roberto, I’m afraid. What if they send my father to jail? He’s all I have.”

     “You have me, don’t forget.”

     “I know. I didn’t mean it that way, but we have no jobs. You heard what he said. It’s impossible to find work now.”

     “He doesn’t know that.”

     “Well he sounded pretty certain to me.”

     “We’ll be okay, Alina. Trust me.”

     “What do you mean, we’ll be okay?” said Alina, still crying. “What the hell are we going to do for money. I have no family and your parents can’t take care of us. How will we eat?”

     Even though Roberto never told Alina he no longer needed the job at Cimex, he had continued working for Colonel de la Guardia, in part because on occasion it provided a way to connect with people who were looking to sell old paintings. In addition he had also developed a reputation locally as somewhat of an expert when it came to valuing precious stones, and in particular diamonds. Working on the side as part of the growing underground economy in Cuba, he was able to capitalize on his expertise, turning it into an informal but lucrative consulting business, as he liked to call it. Charging an appraisal fee for people looking to sell on the black market instead of to the government, which typically paid a fraction of the real value, especially for precious stones, Roberto was, by Cuban standards, becoming rather well off. Money was no longer an issue.

     “Alina, I need to tell you something,” began Roberto.

     “Unless it’s good news, I don’t want to hear it right now.”

     “It is good news, but you have to keep this a secret. And I mean from everyone, even your father.”

     “I’m terrified, Roberto. I may never see him again. You don’t have twenty-five armed men break into you home at five in the morning unless you’re in serious trouble. They may kill him.”

     “Alina, I have other ways of making money. Much more money than what the government pays us at Cimex.”


     “You remember I told you about the painting my brother Carlitos and I have? El Saxofonista,” asked Roberto.

     “What about it?”

     “Well, the daughter of the artist connected me with some people, and I was able to develop a business buying and selling old works of art.”

     “I don’t understand. What people? Who in Cuba has money to buy art?”

     “I buy from Cubans at a good price and then I sell to several wealthy Spaniards who are collectors. It’s a little complicated. I have a good friend at Barlovento who I work with. He delivers the paintings and we split the money.”

     “What if they catch you? You’d go back to jail.”

     “I realize that. I’m careful.”

     “What are you planning to do with this money?”

     “What do you mean?”

     “People who have money in Cuba always leave. Is that your plan?”

     “There’s no future in Cuba for me, Alina. I want to live in a place where people are rewarded for hard work. Fidel has created a mentality in Cuba of scarcity. Few people question it. They are resigned. I want to live in a place where people have a mentality of abundance and possibility.”

     “And what about me?”

     “If I make it to the U.S., you can come later.”

     “What do you mean if you make it?”

     “It’s dangerous crossing the Straits. Many people don’t make it. Besides, I don’t even have a boat yet.”

     “You don’t know anything about boats. Where would you even find a boat that is safe enough to make the trip?”

     “I know, but one way or the other, I intend to make it happen.”

     “Roberto, I need to find out what is happening with my father.”

     “I suspect we’ll find out on Monday when we go to work.”

     “What do we do now?” asked Alina.

     “I have to see a friend this afternoon down by the docks at Rio said Roberto.

     “About a boat?”

     “More or less. He’s a fisherman and he said he knows someone who might have a boat for sale. You want to go?”

     “Well, I’m not staying here alone.”

     “Alright, let’s go. We can take a taxi.”

     “Now? Isn’t it a little early?”

     “He’ll be there. He wouldn’t have gone out today anyway. It’s been blowing hard from the south for two days and he won’t go fishing again until the wind goes out. He’s probably working on his boat. If we’re lucky, maybe he can sell us some fish,” said Roberto, trying to sound cheerful.

     Maykel was below deck in the engine room when Roberto and Alina arrived at the docks just off Calle 24 along the east side of the Rio on the northwest side of Havana, where Maykel docked his boat.

     Maykel,” yelled Roberto as he hopped down from the finger pier into the cockpit by the port stern.

     “Roberto, is that you? asked Maykel.

     “No, it’s Fidel. You’re under arrest for catching more fish than me,” replied Roberto, smiling back up at Alina who was still standing on the dock.

     “Roberto, please. Under the circumstances,” said Alina, clearly not amused.

     Maykel, his hands and arms covered in grease, stuck his head out of the engine hatch and looked up at Roberto. “Good morning, Miss,” he said looking instead toward Alina. “I am Maykel.”

     gusto, I am Alina,” she said.

     “Your boyfriend here is quite the comedian,” said Maykel.

     “Sorry, Maykel, this is my girlfriend, Alina,” said Roberto.

     “It is my pleasure I’m sure,” said Maykel.

     “Engine troubles?” asked Roberto.

     “No, no—just a little maintenance. The wind is no good, blowing from the south, so I thought I’d take the time to catch up on a few things I’ve been putting off,” said Maykel.

     “How’s the fishing been?” asked Roberto.

     “Good, up until the wind went around. The big fish arrived two weeks ago. I caught five in five days once the bite was on,” said Maykel.

     “How big was the biggest one?” asked Roberto.

     “Well, one went two hundred kilos, but we had a big one on, three days ago, for nearly four hours that would have gone three hundred, easy,” said Maykel.

     asked Roberto.

     “Nothing, the hook pulled. You know what happens—the longer you fight those big fish the greater the chance the hook pulls. We hooked him right out in front. The clean water was in close by the Morro. Plenty skip jack and blackfin. Towed us all the way to Guanabo before we lost him. I could have used that meat. You know, helps with the police,” said Maykel.

     “The big ones always get away. How is your friend in Cojimar?” asked Roberto.

     “Gregorio? He’s good. You believe he’s ninety-two and still goes out,” said Maykel.

     “When you rest you rust,” said Roberto with a laugh.

     “What about you?” asked Maykel.

     “Not too good. The police came this morning at five, looking for Alina’s father.”

     “What the hell for?

     “We’re not sure. But it has something to do with de la Guardia. The Colonel has been acting strange lately. We both work at Cimex and I expect Monday we’ll be out of work.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “Well, de la Guardia runs that particular Cimex, and Andres, Alina’s father, is his assistant.”

     “What are you going to do?”

     “I’ll be okay.”

     “It’s getting pretty bad now with the economy.”

     “Maykel, you remember I asked you if you knew someone who might have a boat for sale?”

     “I remember. I spoke to a friend for you who has a good-sized boat for sale. But it isn’t cheap.”

     “What’s the price?”

     “Twenty-five thousand.”

     “Why so much?”

     “Because it comes with a fishing license.”

     “Yeah, but I don’t need a fishing license.”

     “I know, but if you have the license, the Coast Guard isn’t going to ask many questions if they stop you.”

     Maykel looked up at Alina who had said nothing and was still standing on the dock by the stern, listening to the conversation.

     “It’s okay, Maykel. She knows about the boat. What good is the license if I buy the boat? The license is not in my name,” said Roberto.

     “Because the guy who owns the boat wants to go with you.”

     “What? Who is this guy?”

     “His name is Pedro. He keeps the boat in Cojimar. I told him I might have a buyer. Look at it this way, Roberto. He’s an experienced captain. He knows the boat inside and out.”

     “When can we go see him?”

     “We can go now if you want.”

     “Alina, you want to go to Cojimar this afternoon?” asked Roberto.

     “I suppose. It will keep my mind off things.”

     “We can go in the boat if you’d like,” said Maykel.

     said Roberto.

     “Let me close the hatch and get cleaned up,” said Maykel.

     “Isn’t it a little rough to go by boat?” asked Alina.

     “With the wind in the south, we can stay close to shore, in the lee. It will be smooth,” said Maykel.

     By the time Maykel rounded the point of land where the Rio Cojimar meets the sea and motored past the Castillo de Alina had reached her limit of tolerance with the ocean and couldn’t wait to be back on land.

     “It’s not far now, Alina,” said Maykel, realizing now they should have come by car.

     “I’m fine. This is only the second time I have been on the ocean and I’m not used to the motion,” she said.

     The fishing docks in Cojimar were situated to the east of town on a narrow stretch of river, that was protected by an area of mangroves and higher ground to the north from the ocean swells and the occasional storm surge that pushes into the river when there is a hurricane.

     “There is a small lagoon ahead on the starboard. He keeps his boat in there,” said Maykel.

     “What’s the name of his boat?” asked Roberto.

     “La same as your mother and sister, Roberto. It’s white, with barber pole outriggers,” said Maykel. “He won’t be out today in this wind. He lives nearby, so we should be able to find him if he’s not at the dock.”

     “I see her,” said Roberto, as they idled into the small lagoon. “She looks small, Maykel.”

     “She’s about seven and a half meters,” said Maykel. “I believe I see Pedro also. Yeah, he’s here. He’s sitting in the cabana. I see my friend Gregorio also.”

     Maykel pulled up to the bow of the La threw out the stern anchor from his boat, and had Roberto hop onto the La Rosita and tie off to her bow cleat.

     I’ll introduce you to Pedro,” said Maykel.

     Roberto pulled the slack from the bow line on Maykel’s boat, making it easier for Alina to step onto the bow of the La and then onto the finger pier leading to the dock.

     Pedrito!” said Maykel loudly, as he approached the group of fishermen in the cabana.

     Maykel! Que bola?” said Pedro cheerfully.

     “Maykel, I know Pedro!” said Roberto excitedly, as they came closer to the cabana.

     “How do you know Pedro?” asked Maykel.

     “We were in prison together at DTI,” answered Roberto, as they continued walking up the dock. Pedrito, acere que

     Not waiting for them to walk the full length of the dock, Pedro met his visitors half-way down the narrow wooden dock, warmly embracing Maykel and Roberto before being introduced to Alina.

     “To what do I owe the pleasure?” asked Pedro.

     “This is the guy I told you about who wants to buy your boat. Apparently, you already know each other,” said Maykel, smiling.

     “Pedrito is my brother, Maykel. I can tell you, we suffered a lot together,” said Roberto.

     “More than a little I assure you,” said Pedro. “Come on, let me show her to you.”

     Pedro jumped down from the finger pier into the cock pit of the La Rosita and then turned to help Alina come aboard.

     “What year is she?” asked Roberto as he peered into the forward cabin.

     “She was built in fifty-six,” answered Pedro.

     “What about the engine?” asked Roberto.

     “It’s a four-cylinder, runs well, but honestly, I think she’s a little under powered,” said Pedro.

     “What would it cost to repower?” asked Roberto.

     “Maybe five thousand. The best you could hope for though is a rebuilt engine, with low hours. That’s it,” said Pedro.

     “Maykel tells me you want to leave Cuba as well,” said Roberto.

     “That’s right,” replied Pedro.

     “Then why am I paying you for the boat?” asked Roberto. “Why can’t I just hitch a ride with you?”

     “Look at it this way. I have a boat and you don’t. I’m a captain and I have a fishing license, which means the Coast Guard doesn’t hassle me. I can make any repairs that might be needed and I know the waters. At least the first fifteen or twenty kilometers anyway,” said Pedro.

     “So basically you’re charging me a fee to take me to the U.S., with no guarantees,” said Roberto.

     “No guarantees. But remember, I’m motivated to get out of the country just as much as you are,” said Pedro.

     “Understood. How long would it take to find a new motor and install it?” asked Roberto.

     “Maybe a few weeks if we’re lucky,” said Pedro.

     “What about the cabin? Does it leak?” asked Roberto.

     “That’s a strange question. Why?” asked Pedro.

     “Just curious. Pedro, I think we have a deal,” said Roberto.

     “What if we replace the motor. Can you pay me for that as well?” asked Pedro.

     “I’ll pay you for the boat, then you can look for a motor. When you have that installed, I’ll pay you for the motor and the work.” said Roberto.

     “It’s a deal,” said Pedro.

     Roberto shook hands with Pedro and then looked at Alina who was looking down at the deck.

     “I think we’ll take a taxi back home, Maykel, if you don’t mind,” said Roberto.

     “I was going to suggest you do that,” replied Maykel.

     “Pedrito, I’ll see you next Sunday. You’ll be here?” asked Roberto.

     “I’ll be here all day. You can meet me by the cabana,” said Pedro.

     On the ride back home, neither Roberto nor Alina had much to say to each other. Roberto’s plan to leave frightened Alina and she knew, even if he was successful in his attempt to make it to the U.S., there was little chance she would ever leave Cuba.

     As the cab came to a stop in front of Andres’ home, they could see Andres’ red Chevrolet Deluxe parked in the narrow driveway beside the house.

     “It’s Father, he’s home!” said Alina loudly.

     The cab driver turned around, looked at Roberto and held out his hand. “Four pesos, he said.

     Roberto paid the driver, then quickly hopped out the passenger side of the cab and held the door open for Alina, who wasted no time running up the walk and into the house.

     said Roberto, as he shut the car door, tapping twice on the roof before the cab drove off.

     In a hurry to find her father, Alina, upon entering, had left the front door open. It was hanging from a single hinge, having been damaged by the police break-in earlier that morning.

     “Alina,” yelled Roberto, as he entered the house.

     “I’m here, in the kitchen,” said Alina.

     Roberto secured the door to the front of the house as best he could and made his way to the kitchen. Andres, looking disheveled, was seated at the kitchen table, staring motionless at a glass of rum he was holding in his right hand. A half empty bottle sat on the table in front of him.

     “What happened?” asked Roberto.

     “They took Tony away,” said Andres.

     “What for?” asked Roberto.

     “They arrested him because he followed orders,” replied Andres. He looked up at Roberto who was now seated next to Alina across the table from her father.

     “Andres, you need to tell us what is going on,” said Roberto.

     what did they do to you?” asked Alina.

     “Nothing Alina. I’m fine. I’ve not been involved in any of this, but I know what’s going on. Tony told me a couple weeks ago he expected to be arrested,” said Andres.

     “That’s why he has been acting so strange lately,” said Roberto. “What is he being charged with?”

     “Treason, basically. From what I’ve heard, more than a dozen people were arrested. General Ochoa, Tony, Captain Martinez, Major Padron, many high-level people,” said Andres.

     “Treason? That’s impossible,” said Roberto.

     “That’s just what they call it. They were smuggling,” said Andres.

     “Smuggling what?” asked Roberto.

     “Diamonds, ivory, sugar, even rare wood, anything of high value. But mostly, it was cocaine, and the quantities were not small,” said Andres.

     “What the fuck, Andres,” said Roberto. “From where?”

     “From Colombia, where else? From Colombia it went to Panama, then here by plane and then to the U.S. by boat. Tons of it. They also received money from the Colombians for the use of Cuba as a staging ground for the shipments to the U.S.,” said Andres.

     “There’s no way in hell Fidel was not running that operation,” said Roberto.

     “Of course he was. Nothing happens in this country without the permission of Fidel. Tony told me every time he was in Fidel’s office the last few months for a meeting, Fidel would have Sanchez turn the recorder off. Everything that was said in that office since 1960, Fidel would record. I mean everything, except this. I’m telling you, Tony is a dead man,” said Andres, as he poured himself another shot of rum.

     “But General Ochoa and Tony are war heroes. You honestly believe they’d give them the death penalty?” asked Roberto.

     “No one is safe from Fidel, except his family. Don’t forget, Fidel had Cienfuegos murdered, and after that he threw Huber Matos in jail for twenty years. Che and Raul wanted to send Matos before the firing squad. Then, years later, Fidel abandoned Che, who ended up being killed by the Bolivians,” said Andres.

     “Why did they come here if they weren’t going to arrest you?” asked Alina.

     “They were looking for money and probably thought Tony was hiding it here,” replied Andres.

     “What about our jobs?” asked Roberto.

     “I don’t know, but if I were you I wouldn’t show up on Monday. The police will be there,” said Andres.

     “What about you, Andres. Are you going in to work?” asked Roberto.

     “I have to. It’s all I have. And besides, I’ve done nothing wrong,” he replied.

     The situation with Colonel de la Guardia was much worse than Roberto had imagined, and he didn’t want to show his concern in front of Alina. She was younger than Roberto and hadn’t lived or suffered as much as he had. He saw her happy-go-lucky manner more as a denial of the reality of everyday life in Cuba, where most people didn’t expect much and were content simply to live day by day, sharing their misery in ways only the oppressed know how to do. He felt terrible about the situation and was worried about his friend Colonel de la Guardia, but there was nothing he could do. Now more than ever his vision for the future was clear.

     The next morning Roberto was awake and in the kitchen making coffee when Alina came down from the bedroom to join him.

     “You have any plans for today now that we are out of work?” she asked.

     “I need to see a friend of mine,” replied Roberto.

     “What about?” she asked.

     “About a painting,” answered Roberto.

     “You know, eventually the government is going to find out what you’re doing Roberto,” warned Alina.

     “Have a colada, Alina. I think you worry too much. Besides, I’ll be leaving Cuba soon with Pedrito.”

     “Well, it makes me nervous. What if the government finds out and they arrest you? I could be arrested as well.”

     Roberto could see that Alina was more than a little agitated and could feel the conversation becoming increasingly tense.

     “That’s ridiculous, they wouldn’t arrest you. What am I supposed to do? I don’t have any options, Alina. It’s only for a few more months,” said Roberto. He was beginning to lose his patience.

     “It’s not ridiculous,” said Alina, raising her voice. “I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t care how much money you make.”

     “What are you saying?”

     “I’m saying I thought about it and I don’t want to be a part of it,” said Alina. She looked directly at Roberto, unblinking.

     “Well I’m not throwing my future away because you’re nervous. Nothing has happened,” he said.

     “That’s my decision,” she said. Alina refused now to look at Roberto. She sat with her arms folded and stared down at the cup of coffee on the table in front of her.

     “You’re sure? Because I’m not turning back.”

     “I’m sure,” she said.

     “What the hell, Alina? You want me to leave now?”

     Alina didn’t answer him and continued staring at the table.

     “Okay then, I’ll leave,” he said.

     With Alina refusing to say anything, Roberto knew it was useless to continue the conversation. Their relationship was over. In the last twenty-four hours he had lost his job; his boss, Colonel Antonio de la Guardia had been arrested; he committed to buying a boat; his girlfriend had broken up with him; and now he needed to find somewhere to live. Life in Cuba was anything but predictable, he thought.

     After gathering a few items of clothing, he awkwardly attempted to say a last goodbye to Alina, who was still sitting at the kitchen table. The day was not going as expected and with few options and not knowing what else to do, Roberto decided to stick with his plan to visit Carmen.