Selected writing: U.S.

Sarah Palin: the ice queen

October 26, 2008

She looked like an ordinary ‘hockey mom’ thrust into the national spotlight. But in her Alaskan homeland, there are people who know the ambition and ferocity of Sarah Palin. We learn about the woman who would be America’s vice-president

Small-town America does not come much more remote than Wasilla. Thousands of miles from Washington, DC, and close to the Arctic Circle, almost on the other side of the world, this is on one of the furthest-flung frontiers of the USA. Cabin and porch homes here ring icy lakes encircled by snow-capped peaks. By British standards, Wasilla – population 9,780 – would count as little more than a village. But here in Alaska it awards itself city status, and by the yardstick of this vast and sparsely populated state, it is. In most distant communities like this, ambitions tend to remain modest. But Sarah Palin always planned on being a winner, one of Wasilla’s big fish. It is unlikely she ever thought her journey would take her much beyond the state border. Yet in little more than 10 days from now, the self-styled “hockey mom” could find herself planning the decor of an office in the White House – a beat away from being the leader of the free world.

At the end of a garden path in Wasilla is a wilderness cabin home like many others here, with a set of antlers adorning the front porch or nailed to a tree painted with the name of the occupants. But like Palin, who spent part of her youth in this house, her parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, have gone further than most Alaskans.

To the side of their path, by the front door, stands a mountain of moose and caribou antlers that towers above visitors’ heads, built from the bleached “racks” of countless “field-dressed” wildlife. It is a reminder that the Heaths are proud and enthusiastic hunters, and a clue to how high their daughter set her sights.

The day Senator John McCain hijacked the election agenda by announcing an unknown outsider as his running mate, television crews and journalists descended on Wasilla to find out who America might be about to elect as vice-president. But as the global financial crisis bit and the election merry-go-round moved on to other pressing concerns, so did much of the media circus, leaving behind a community that had hardly broken ranks. A few talked ad nauseam, either to criticise or to praise Palin. But the quiet ones who really knew her kept their counsel, out of either loyalty or fear that she would be back in Wasilla after the election, looking for payback. Then, after weeks of quiet, doors slowly began to open. People began to speak to me about the Sarah Palin they know well – or too well.

Quite extraordinarily, Chuck Heath and his wife, Sally, take me into their home, where few but the most favourably disposed local newspapermen have recently been welcome. Seeing me shudder slightly at the stack of antlers, and concerned perhaps that the excessive display may colour my judgment, Chuck explains that he and his family did not shoot “every” animal in the pile: “Some of ’em were killed by wolves.”

Alaska is not a place for the faint-hearted. This becomes clearer when I settle at the counter of the family’s open-plan kitchen, where Palin must have listened so intently to her father’s hunting and fishing stories after she had accompanied him on his forays into the wild. Chuck perches on a stool by my side, in a baggy hooded sweatshirt, while his wife, in a girlish pink gingham blouse, busies herself making chocolate puddings, and the couple reminisce about Palin’s childhood.

“It’s a different breed of person who ends up here in Alaska,” says Chuck, a retired science teacher and sports coach who brought his young family from Idaho to “the Last Frontier” state when Sarah, the third of four children, was two months old. “People here tend to be more adventurous.” He describes how he would regularly take his children ice-fishing and hiking in temperatures of -20C to -30C in winter, and how in the summer he would take them on long runs in the early morning. The whole family would often compete in 5- or 10-kilometre races. Sarah and her father ran marathons. “Sarah got a lot of stern discipline from me and a lot of love, devotion and faith from her mom. I wasn’t mean to her, but I’d push her a lot in sport and outdoor activities. I taught her to believe she could do anything in the world she wanted to do if she put her mind to it,” he says, slapping the counter top triumphantly.

“We didn’t expect it to go this far, that’s for sure,” his wife chimes in. There is a hint of surprise and bewilderment in her voice, as if she fears her daughter’s ambition has taken her to, or beyond, her limit – an impression strengthened when she admits to being “dumbfounded, absolutely floored” on hearing that her daughter was McCain’s surprise pick as running mate.

It is a testament to the secrecy and speed with which McCain broke with expectations to pick 44-year-old Palin for the Republican ticket that not even her parents were in the loop – as they surely would have been if the process of choosing had been anything more than a last-minute gamble to wrest the headlines away from his rival, Barack Obama.

Chuck simply laughs, shrugs his shoulders good-naturedly and continues telling stories about his daughter’s childhood. For Palin, school days often began with a moose hunt, long before the bell went for first lesson. Her father would take her along before school started, “for safety reasons, because I didn’t want to go alone”. While stuffed animal heads and skins, including those of several bears, line nearly every wall of the Heath household, he claims that for his family, as for most others in the area struggling financially at the time, the purpose of hunting was to put food on the table.

He tells a story about driving Palin to school one day when he was planning to teach a lesson on animal dissection. “I handed her a pair of moose eyes and told her to hold ’em real quick. She didn’t want to, but she did it,” he says, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “She wasn’t into the killing. But she’d always help me field-dress the moose. When you shoot a 1,200lb animal, one person can’t do that alone.” Chuck patiently explains that by “field-dressing” he means “gut ’n’ cut”. I must still be looking a little confused because he expands: “Y’know, throwing the legs around, pulling it apart, skinning it and cuttin’ it up into 100lb chunks.” He then pushes home the point that while his daughter would “carry a gun and shoot a few caribou, killing wasn’t her priority”.

Maybe not. But by the time she had become a high-school student, she had clearly developed a killer instinct that would become even more apparent when she entered politics aged only 28, first as city councillor, then as two-term mayor of Wasilla. While much of the media coverage has portrayed Palin as a maverick “softball” candidate lacking the experience to deal with high office, there are people here in her home town who know her well and suggest much more worrying traits than inexperience and unpredictability. There is a high body count of people who have dared to disagree with Sarah Palin, shown a reluctance to do her bidding or, in her eyes, failed to support her wholeheartedly – among them some who say they too have been hunted, carved up and cast aside along her path to power. These people warn, as do even her closest friends and family, that in Palin’s eyes there are no grey areas, no room for doubt. There is only right or wrong, black or white, “good or evil”. Her father Chuck’s word for it is “stubborn”. One of her friends calls her “dogged”. If Palin believes something to be true, it is – no amount of evidence to the contrary will sway her, and everybody else had better believe it too.

The possibility of a person with such firm and, as I discover, sometimes extreme convictions, coupled with a fighting righteousness, coming so close to ultimate power is sobering even for some hardy Alaskan souls. To understand why, you need to wait patiently for Palin’s Wasilla to welcome you into its world.

Talk to most Alaskans and the size of their state – more than twice that of Texas – will soon crop up in conversation. Many readily reel off statistics to awe “outsiders”, as all non-Alaskans are called. Alaska, the 49th state, joined the union just 50 years ago. Its citizens pride themselves on being independent and tough. Palin’s husband, Todd, for instance, was once an Independent Alaska activist wishing to cede from the US.

Living in such a hostile environment of ferociously low temperatures and little daylight in winter – with many communities, including the capital, Juneau, only accessible by sea or air – leads to a mentality summed up for me by the pastor at the Wasilla Bible Church that Palin regularly attends. He says living in Alaska at best forces one to embrace challenge and, at worst, “fosters arrogant self-reliance”.

These days, sprawling Wasilla is less than an hour’s drive north of Anchorage on a new highway. But when Palin grew up here it was, in the words of one of her childhood friends, “a rustic, backwoods kind of place” with little more than a petrol station, a dry-goods store and a huddle of log cabins at its core. So when Palin captained her high-school basketball team, the Wasilla Warriors, to victory in the 1982 junior state championship, seeing off teams from many larger metropolitan areas – even competing with a fractured ankle – it was cause for a big community celebration. The team came home to a heroes’ welcome. The event is central to Palin’s sense of self. It was perhaps the first time she tasted the limelight and the tingle of power that comes from being the centre of attention, the leader of the pack. These days she boasts on the campaign trail that everything she needs to know about leadership – and perhaps her need for the spotlight too – she learnt on that basketball court.

One man who has known Palin since she was eight and is still among her closest mentors is Curt Menard, currently borough mayor of the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) valley in which Wasilla sits. The Menard and Palin/Heath families are firm friends, and I am greeted at Curt’s front door by the dog that he and his wife gave Palin as a puppy – since returned to them, on the grounds she now has no time to look after him. “Winning that basketball championship was huge,” says Menard, who broadcast live commentary for a local radio station that Wasilla residents called “cabin radio”. Competing teams from that time dubbed Palin “Sarah Barracuda” because of her talent for elbowing aside the opposition. The nickname stuck. “At the time, we thought it was a compliment,” says Michelle Carney, another member of the team. “It wasn’t until she started playing politics that people began using it as a negative.”

All the girls on the team went on to gain a college degree, says Carney. “That was very unusual for a small town in those days. All of us learnt to have very high expectations after that.” But while her team-mates went into fields such as teaching, accountancy and police work, Palin had her sights set on more public recognition. Her ambition was to become a sport commentator and television presenter. She had the looks. To help finance her way through college, she started entering beauty competitions in her early twenties, aiming for the Miss America title. In 1984 the Miss Wasilla sash was slipped over a red ballgown she made herself. Next came the Miss Alaska pageant. Since becoming vice-presidential candidate, she has played down this chapter of her life, saying she found parading before judges in a swimsuit degrading. “They made us line up in bathing suits and turn our backs so the male judges could look at our butts – I couldn’t believe it,” she told Vogue magazine, for which she posed last year.

But another of her childhood friends, who followed the same tiara trail, talks enthusiastically about how entering beauty contests gave them confidence. “You learnt real stage presence,” says Kristan Cole, now an estate agent and one of a small group of women with whom Palin goes target-shooting in Wasilla. “None of us were thrilled about putting on a swimsuit. But you have to understand, if you didn’t have other talents, you weren’t going to get anywhere.”

While Cole did a turn as a jazz dancer, Palin played the flute. All the girls were also required to make a speech to the judges and answer questions that Cole describes as “pretty challenging. It wasn’t like, ‘Gee, what’s your favourite colour?’ I remember, for instance, being asked who Yasser Arafat was. They expected us to know what was going on in the world”.

Palin’s father says that his daughter was an avid reader of newspapers from childhood. Cole says her friend’s favourite books were Old Yeller and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When I mention that Palin’s negligible foreign experience – she applied for her first passport last year, once elected governor of Alaska, to visit members of the Alaska National Guard stationed in Kuwait – is a concern of those who believe her underqualified for the job of vice-president, Cole bridles and says this is “laughable”. “Those competitions taught you how to handle yourself in international settings,” she says primly. “They taught you how to sit down to a formal state dinner. You know, you learnt proper protocol, like which fork to eat with.” Her reply echoes the beauty-pageant-like answer Palin gave one interviewer asking about her international expertise: she said it stemmed from the fact that Putin flew through Alaskan airspace, and that from some parts of Alaska you could see Russia in the distance. There is an edge of pride in Cole’s voice as she mentions that she won the title of Miss Alaska in 1982 – Palin was joint runner-up two years later. Cole says she thinks Palin tried for the title again the following year, before adding loyally that when she watched her friend compete in the competition the first time, “I remember thinking she was going to be really successful. She had such charisma. I am certain,” she concludes, “she will be president of the United States one day.”

When I ask Curt Menard where Palin’s drive comes from, his insight strengthens an impression I gained at the start of dozens of interviews. The first thing her father, Chuck Heath, asked me was: “So what are you famous for?” He repeated the question several times before rummaging through a drawer to show me snapshots of a recent canal-boat holiday that he and his wife took in Wales. It’s just a jocular refrain. But I wonder then if being born the third of four siblings played some part in Palin’s determination to stand out from the crowd. “When children are a way down in the pack, they often want to excel, show they can move forward and get into Dad’s favour – especially girls,” says Menard. “On reflection, I think there was some of that going on with Sarah.”

In the years following Palin’s beauty-queen quest, “she bounced around a bit”, as Menard puts it. She attended five universities in six years before completing a journalism degree at the University of Idaho in 1987. She then worked for several months in Anchorage as a sports commentator before eloping with her high-school sweetheart, Todd, and starting a family. Four children followed in quick succession.

A son was named Track because of Palin’s love of sport. Two daughters, Bristol and Willow, were named after local creeks where the family fish. A third daughter, Piper, is named after the floatplane parked where the family now live on the shores of Lake Lucille in Wasilla. The fifth child is a son born earlier this year with Down’s syndrome, called Trig, meaning “strength” in the Yu’pik Inuit language of Todd’s family.

In the midst of raising her children, Palin was approached in 1992 to stand for the Wasilla city council by businessmen looking for someone to represent “the younger crowd”. She took to politics like a swan princess. “She developed a taste for it pretty quick,” says Nick Carney, the council member who took her from door to door introducing her to voters. “She was very good at getting people to vote for her. She would tell them anything she thought they wanted to hear.” Laura Chase, who was Palin’s mayoral campaign manager four years later, expands “She has this way of talking to you that makes you think you are the only person on the planet. She’s like a chameleon. She knows what people want her to be.” Carney, who no longer lives in Wasilla, was one of the first to fall victim to what he, Chase and others see as a pattern of betrayal of those who helped her up the ladder. “As soon as you cross her, she is vicious and writes you off as the enemy. She can’t stand dissent. She believes she is right about everything,” says Carney, who crossed swords with her early on. Chase was another casualty, followed by a series of dismissals and resignations, including those of Wasilla’s police chief, public-works director, city planner, museum director and chief librarian.

“People accuse Sarah Palin of hanging onto the coat-tails of others to get where she wants. But that’s not true,” says Chase. “She doesn’t need to hang onto their coat-tails. She will have taken the coats off their backs and walked across their bodies to get where she’s going, and once she gets there she will surround herself with yes people. She doesn’t like to have people smarter than her around.” Such stinging criticism can’t be dismissed as small-town bitterness and envy. What they say is a recurring theme among those who have worked with her over the years.

On the campaign trail, Palin touts her achievements as mayor and chief executive of Wasilla as the seedbed of her political experience. While supporters cite new businesses, roads, a sewage system and a sports hall as her local legacy, critics say that she increased the city’s debt to $22m before she left office in 2002. The sports hall was built on land the city did not have clear title to, and has been the subject of litigation ever since. “Sarah is a results person, not a process person, and that sometimes upsets people,” says another long-term friend and the one-time deputy mayor, Judith Patrick. But it was during a short stint as head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, after failing to secure a US Senate seat, that Palin really made her political mark. Noticing senior commission staff using office computers to do work for the Republican party, and granting favours to companies they were supposed to be regulating, she reported them for a violation of ethics. Her reputation as a whistleblower and political maverick willing to take on the party’s “good ol’ boys” was hatched. She then used this stab at the Establishment to campaign on a clean-government platform and become governor of Alaska in 2006.

Despite record popularity ratings, in part due to her decision to hand out bumper cheques to voters as a dividend from Alaskan oil profits, her administration was soon mired in controversy – not least because of her habit of firing those who crossed her or her family. The difficulty she has in separating the personal from the professional is highlighted by a recent investigation into allegations that she abused her office as governor to further a personal vendetta. The probe found she unlawfully pressured Alaska’s top public-safety official to sack a state trooper involved in a messy divorce with her younger sister, Molly. After refusing to bow to the pressure, the official was fired. The “Troopergate” inquiry also found that Todd Palin, Alaska’s self-styled “first dude”, involved himself in state politics to such an extent that he amounted to a “shadow governor”.

“Sarah believes she is above the law,” says the president of Alaska’s State Senate, Lyda Green, a lifelong Republican who was a friend of Palin until they fell out over the style in which Palin began to run the state. When legislators wanted to discuss state matters with the governor, the difficulty they had in tracking her down led some to wear “Sarah Is Missing” badges on their lapels.

“What is important for people to understand is that, once elected, Sarah Palin has little use for the legislature,” says Green. “If people don’t agree with her, she brands them as the enemy and does what she wants anyway. No one should underestimate her ambition.”

That this makes her a “maverick” of the sort that McCain likes to be seen as, Green and others doubt. As election day has drawn nearer, even McCain has shown signs of frustration with Palin. He has tried to distance himself from her tirades against Obama that have drawn cries of “terrorist” and “kill him” from the crowds. If McCain loses this election, he could find he is the latest in a long line of those “field-dressed” by Palin: she could use their joint run for the White House to launch her own bid for the presidency one day.

Much of what I hear about Palin, from people who have known her for years, makes more sense after I meet the man once called the “most hated liberal in the valley” by Wasilla’s newspaper The Frontiersman, after he wrote a book encouraging tolerance of homosexuality. Howard Bess is a Baptist minister who now lives in nearby Palmer. We meet in a busy diner on the road between Palmer and Wasilla, the part of the Mat-Su valley some call “Alaska’s Bible belt” because of its large number of evangelical churches. The grey-haired priest catalogues the battles he fought with Palin when she was mayor of Wasilla, not only on gay rights but on abortion – she opposes it even in cases of rape or incest – and on censorship. The row over whether Palin tried to ban a list of books from her library has surfaced repeatedly during her run for the vice-presidency. She argues that she was simply asking a hypothetical question when she inquired of the chief librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, what the procedure would be for removing “socially objectionable” books from the shelves. After Emmons stood her ground and said that such censorship would not be accepted, she was fired. She was later reinstated after a public outcry, but has since left Wasilla to work in a library several hundred miles away and, like other government employees I approach who fear that speaking out could cost them their jobs (a not-unreasonable concern given the governor’s track record), she refuses to talk about what happened.

But Howard Bess swears such a list did exist, and that his book was on it. “Sarah Palin entered politics in the middle of a fierce culture war here in the valley,” he says. At the heart of it was abortion – she is said to have picketed a hospital that carried out terminations. Gun control was an issue too: she campaigned for the right of gun-owners to carry concealed weapons. “Sarah Palin’s world is divided into the whitest of white and blackest of black. If she thinks she is right about something, she will wage all-out war, and her history shows she is always at war with someone,” says Bess. “Her mental structure is little different than that of an Islamic fundamentalist. The churches she attends are understood by some to have an apocalyptic view of the future, and believe she will be the leader of a new world order when Jesus returns.”

The Wasilla Assembly of God Pentecostal church, which Palin attended for nearly 20 years and where worshippers “speak in tongues” when overcome by the Holy Spirit, has become particularly sensitive to media scrutiny since the appearance of a three-year-old video showing Palin being blessed there against the evils of witchcraft. Its senior pastor, Ed Kalnins, tells me he has been instructed not to talk to the press until after the presidential election, and warns me not to talk to any members of the congregation about Palin. On my way out of the church, I notice a leaflet promising “Deliverance from PMS”, explaining how premenstrual problems are the work of Satan.

While happy to talk about the Alaskan psyche, pastor Larry Kroon of the Wasilla Bible Church, which Palin now attends with her family, also refused to discuss her beliefs. But some of them are a matter of record. She has campaigned for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in schools. She has also said she does not believe global warming is man-made or driven by pollution. She supports drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has sued the federal government to block a listing of polar bears as an endangered species. She also allows big-game hunters in Alaska to shoot wolves and bears from low-flying planes.

“Some people may try to demonise Sarah Palin, and that is unfair. She is a true believer.

She is on a mission,” Bess sums up in a more conciliatory tone. That, of course, is precisely why McCain picked her. As the influential conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has said, “Palin equals guns, babies, Jesus” – the holy trinity of the Republican Christian right.

From the moment Palin stepped onto the stage at the Republican convention in St Paul on September 3 and delivered her “pit bull in lipstick” speech, she electrified the presidential race. “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!” she hollered in her folksy western twang – playing up an image of herself as a future “mother of the nation” prepared to fiercely defend her brood.When she lined up four of her children behind her on stage, including her unmarried 17-year-old daughter – whose pregnancy, along with Palin’s Down’s-syndrome son, she has used to trumpet her pro-life stance – questions were asked about how protective she is of her own. Despite claims that she consulted her family before accepting McCain’s offer of the vice-presidential nomination six days earlier, it later emerged that they were only told after the decision was made, and had little time to adjust to the prospect of being thrust into the limelight.

In the weeks that followed, Palin appeared to throw the Democrats severely off-kilter.

Obama made the blunder of picking up on her convention rallying cry by sniping: “You can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” His comment spawned a rash of demonstrations in which women sported pig masks painted with lipstick to show support for his opponent’s running mate. Polls swung towards McCain.

For a while there was a cross-party, quasi-feminist celebration of Palin. Commentators fell over themselves to hail her as a breath of fresh air. Then came the series of television interviews in which she floundered. It was in one of these that she said Putin flying through Alaskan airspace counted as foreign-policy experience. The fiasco led some respected right-wing commentators and staunch Republicans to demand that she step aside for the sake of the party. One said: “She makes George W Bush sound like Cicero.”

The gibberish she spoke in interviews became instant fodder for late-night comedy shows, including a brilliant and widely broadcast satire by Tina Fey – particularly alarming for the McCain camp, as it simply repeated verbatim one of Palin’s incoherent answers on the economy. When Wall Street went into meltdown, many floating voters, especially those in the white working class with jobs, homes and retirement plans on the line, swung back to Obama. Following her mauling by the media, some rallied to defend her as a plucky outsider who had been exploited and then eaten alive by the powerhouse elite. This highlights the source of much of her appeal. At a time when disillusion with Washington and Wall Street is at a high, it is precisely because Palin is perceived as representing “Joe Six-Pack” that many will vote for her and McCain on November 4.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Tailgaters Sports Bar & Grill in Wasilla on the night that Palin’s debate in St Louis with her rival Joe Biden was broadcast on television. It was a home-town crowd, but the room fell silent every time she delivered her populist soundbites peppered with “doggone it” and “you betcha!”, slamming the “toxic mess” wrought by corporate America. Yet when Biden, a silver-tongued US senator and Washington insider for more than 30 years, gave his more measured answers, diners jeered “Blah, blah, blah” and turned to talk among themselves. It was during one of these noisy interludes that I learnt more than I really wanted to know about life in Wasilla, when a young woman leant across and gave me a tip on how to skin a willow ptarmigan – Alaska’s state bird – without a knife. Perhaps because I mentioned being taught how to fire a 20-gauge shotgun in Palin’s shooting club, I now learnt that stepping on the bird’s wings, yanking its legs backwards and twisting its head ensures “the breast falls into your hands like butter”.

Within minutes of the end of the debate, Palin was taking to another stage in St Louis to soak up the applause of the Republican faithful. Standing directly behind her on the podium were her parents, Chuck and Sally Heath. Sally could be seen beaming and chanting “USA! USA!” in unison with the crowd. Chuck, tie askew, looked more stagestruck and unsure what to do. Then his daughter turned, gave him a broad smile and he gave her the thumbs-up.

Whatever happens in next month’s presidential elections, Sarah Palin has, for the moment at least, found a new answer to her father’s catchphrase: “So what are you famous for?”.

Cindy, John McCain’s trouble and strife

March 30, 2008

Her husband is willing to take the weight of America on his shoulders. But is Cindy McCain secretly hoping he loses his bid for the White House?

Phoenix, Arizona. On the stretch of street where Cindy McCain grew up and, in the same house, raised her own family with the Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, tall, toned women in tight-fitting shorts jog along the sidewalk in the sunshine. Across the lawns of the spacious homes that trail away on either side, gardeners, mostly Mexicans, stoop low, snipping hedges and tending swimming pools.

The social lives of wives and mothers here revolve around husbands, children, pot-luck dinners and block parties. One has set up an e-mail alert system in the event of rare winter frosts in this desert-city suburb, so that neighbours can quickly pull protective covers over treasured flowers. But against this backdrop of pampered privilege, all is not necessarily what it seems. Family dramas are laundered in private, and rarely stain the manicured lives of neighbours – unless, that is, a husband decides to make a run for the White House. Then the world intrudes, poking its nose into the nooks and crannies of respectability in search of the sleepless nights endured in pursuit of such ambition.

Friends and neighbours close ranks around their own, throwing up stone walls to intrusive questions, questions that won’t go away about Cindy McCain and her life at 7110 North Central Avenue. They present an impenetrable and united front to protect the woman who may be America’s next first lady.

To flank it, and to understand the long and sometimes deeply troubled road that Cindy McCain has travelled to stand by her husband, immaculately dressed and accessorised with a pearly white smile, we need to return to a different era, to a time when America was not tarnished in the eyes of the world, to the star-spangled days of the American dream, when JFK was in the White House; a time when Cindy McCain was just a clever, beautiful girl known in the neighbourhood as Cindy Lou.

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In a society as transient as the United States, where the average family stays only five years in one home before moving on, the North Central Avenue area is unusual. For a street so close to the bustling office blocks of downtown Phoenix, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, it has a strangely suburban feel. Originally an orange grove where developers built ranch-style homes so “upper-income residents” could keep horses, it still has a gravel bridle path running the length of the street. Families who live here tend not to move on quickly. So there are some here who still remember Cindy Lou as a girl.

Behind 7110 North Central Avenue, where she grew up, one elderly couple, John and Sally Auther, have lived in the same house for 50 years. They still recall Cindy Lou. “Her folks were somewhat protective of her. She was not a real outgoing type. She didn’t mix a lot with other kids in the neighbourhood when she was young; neither did her own children,” says Sally Auther.

One point on which everyone agrees is that Cindy Lou was the apple of her father’s eye. Born in 1954, she was the only child of Jim Hensley and his wife, Marguerite, known as “Smitty”. While Smitty was strict and reserved, Jim doted on his daughter and gave her the best of the privileged lifestyle the couple had earned. Neither came from wealthy backgrounds. They met in St Louis after the second world war and moved to Phoenix, borrowing $12,500 to buy the licence for a beer-distribution company. “Selling beer in the desert was a gold mine. They did pretty well for themselves,” Auther recalls. It’s an understatement. Hensley & Company, the third largest wholesaler of Anheuser-Busch beer in the US, is now a $300m-a-year business (which Cindy McCain took over when her father died in 2000). Even when she was growing up it was a thriving business. The Hensleys kept clydesdale horses, the large Budweiser mascot breed. Jim Hensley liked to ride and, when his daughter was old enough, he took her on long treks through Arizona to California and Mexico.

At 14, Cindy Lou was crowned the local rodeo queen. At 15, she transferred to Central High School in Phoenix – its motto was “America’s high school”. The retired principal, Cindy Lou’s former teacher David Silcox, explains. “It represented all that was good about America: opportunity for all, contributing to the common good, giving something back if you’ve been given gifts by birth. All that might sound a bit hokey, apple pie and hot dogs,” he says. “But it’s what we believed, and I still do.”

By the time Cindy Lou arrived at Central High in 1969, however, storm clouds had already darkened the American dream. JFK had been assassinated; his brother Bobby too. The civil-rights movement had been devastated by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, and Richard Nixon was in the White House, sinking into the quagmire of the Vietnam war. But the only mention of that faraway conflict in the school yearbook of her freshman year is a reference to a “candy apple and chewing gum sale” held to raise money for children in South Vietnam. The book challenges students to follow the American poet Carl Sandburg’s plea “to gain recognition… have our faces noticed… [even though] such a position may not at all times be comfortable… Faces speak what words can never say”. These are poignant words now; Cindy McCain’s body language, as she stands smiling by her man on the campaign trail, sometimes suggests she is not happy at the idea of moving permanently into the limelight.

In high school, Silcox remembers Cindy Lou as “a motivated, diligent student, very involved in community-service activities like cleaning up city parks, helping the homeless and the elderly” – an altruistic streak that would thread through her life. While contemporaries recall “a pompom line girl”, a cheerleader, old school newspapers and yearbooks make no mention of this.

“Perhaps she was just a quiet kind of kid,” says Randi Turk, Central High’s dynamic English teacher, as together we leaf through the yearbook of her senior year. There she is, looking prim in a tailored trouser suit. While other students, shown fooling around in hippie hairbands and floral smocks, were voted “most congenial”, “most respected” and “most talkative”, Cindy Lou was voted “best dressed”. Contemporaries remember that while most girls bought their high-school prom dresses in the local store, her mother took her to Los Angeles to get hers.

By the time she left Central High in 1972, however, Vietnam had intruded. The yearbook is testimony to the generational turmoil the war provoked. It pictures a visiting congressman vowing that no amnesty would be granted to draft-dodgers, while a teacher is quoted as saying: “We’ve become the people that burn children.”

) ) ) ) )

For the four years that Cindy Lou was at Central High, the man who would become her husband was a prisoner of war in Hanoi. John McCain, a naval pilot, was shot down on a bombing mission over North Vietnam in 1967 and tortured so badly during the next 51/2 years in which he was held captive that he attempted suicide before being released after the 1973 Paris peace accords.

By then, Cindy Lou had gone to study education at the University of Southern California (USC), which one American reporter says McCain once quipped stood for “University for Spoiled Children”. But the path his wife chose after graduating with a master’s degree was not that of a brat. Returning to Phoenix, she followed the Central High ethos of “giving something back”, and went to work as a special-needs teacher in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city.

“All of a sudden this beautiful blondie shows up on campus and takes us all by surprise,” recalls the former principal of Agua Fria high school in Avondale, 75-year-old “Okay” Fulton. “The kids adored her. She was highly dedicated. She taught teenagers with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities. A lot of their parents were cotton farmers, some extremely poor, and she’d pay home visits to understand the kids’ problems better. She didn’t need to do that, any of it. Her dad had lots of money. But she was dynamic, dedicated, a happy young lady. She became an integral member of our staff.”

After just two years teaching at the school, however, Cindy Lou handed in her notice. On holiday in Honolulu with her parents in 1979 she met John McCain, then a navy liaison officer. Up until then, Cindy says, she had dated “very nice men from college”. But faced with a naval officer in dress whites, whom she describes as “intelligent, witty and thoughtful”, she was smitten. Having had such a strong bond with her father, she admits she wanted an older man. McCain was 18 years older – and married with three children. His first wife, Carol, had been disabled in a car accident while he was held prisoner in Vietnam. But within a year he had divorced Carol and married Cindy.

Realising his military career was never going to reach the heights of that of his father’s or grandfather’s, both naval admirals, McCain had his sights set on success in a different field: politics. With the help of Cindy Lou’s family fortune and Jim Hensley’s powerful contacts in Arizona, McCain moved to Phoenix, within a year was a congressman and, four years after that, a senator for Arizona. He soon developed a reputation as a political maverick – a trump card he is still playing in this presidential campaign with an electorate desperate for change.

But while McCain commuted back and forth to Washington, DC, Cindy refused to move with him. After suffering several miscarriages, she gave birth to three children: Meghan, 23, Jack, 21, and Jimmy, 19. The couple also adopted a daughter, Bridget, now 16. Cindy wanted her family to grow up in the same house with the same roots and values she had. “A lot of the time, what I saw with families [in Washington] was a pecking order among the kids: whose dad or mom did this, and how close they were to the president,” she once said. So instead the McCains spent $250,000 remodelling her parents’ home as a Mexican-style ranch house, which Cindy dubbed “La Bamba”. She went on to found a charity, American Voluntary Medical Team (AVMT) in 1988, to provide mobile medical units to disaster-stricken areas around the world.

It was at this point that Cindy’s life took a dramatic turn. To the outside world the McCains appeared to be a family blessed with good fortune. But behind closed doors, the immaculate Cindy McCain was falling apart.

) ) ) ) )

The reporter I meet for coffee in a quiet corner of a downtown office block in Phoenix is edgy. The McCains have a troubled history with the Phoenix press and he prefers not to be identified. As he tells it, the McCains attempted a classic manipulation of the media to contain the damage caused by the drama that unfolded in Cindy’s life. But the McCains suffered a backlash in the papers as a result, and have had an uneasy relationship with local journalists ever since.

Sympathetic stories were spoon-fed to journalists in 1994. One of them began “she was a rich man’s daughter who became a politically powerful man’s wife. She had it all, including an insidious addiction to drugs that sapped the beauty from her life like a spider on a butterfly”. Cindy McCain, the story went, had “opened a remarkably ugly wound in her life” by admitting that for four years, beginning in 1989, she was addicted to powerful prescription painkillers. The addiction began after surgery to repair four ruptured discs failed to ease the pain. Her addiction was so overwhelming that she admitted locking herself in the bathroom to secretly pop four or five times the prescribed dosage each day, medication obtained from several doctors, each of whom she failed to tell that she was getting prescriptions elsewhere. Eventually she took to stealing the drugs from AVMT. This led to an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which was tipped off by a disgruntled employee that there was a connection between the charity’s supply shortfall and Cindy McCain’s drug problem.

The addiction was exacerbated by the turmoil surrounding her husband’s involvement in a political scandal known as the Keating Five. In 1991, the US Senate investigated five senators accused of using their influence to protect the financier Charles Keating from a federal probe. Although McCain was later shown to have been among the least culpable of the five, he faced a Senate Ethics Committee investigation. As the family book-keeper, Cindy McCain became embroiled when she failed to produce personal cheques that had been used to repay Keating for the family’s use of the financier’s home in the Caribbean. “I was on the floor. I couldn’t deal with it,” she said at the time, admitting that the scandal strained her marriage.

Confronted by her parents in 1993 about the erratic behaviour that was a result of the drugs she was taking, Cindy said she went cold turkey and never touched the pills again.

A hysterectomy alleviated her back pain. She had managed to hide her addiction from her husband, she says, because he was away so often in Washington, DC. She only told him about it when the DEA came knocking with its investigation into her charity. “It was my secret. It kept building inside me until I was afraid I might burst. It was the darkest period in my life,” she said later. When McCain learnt the truth, he issued the statement: “I have no doubt that the inevitable ups and downs of my political career have been rough on her. She has my love and support and that of her entire family.” Publicly, both say the affair strengthened their marriage.

What did not emerge until after these first softball stories appeared was that the reason the McCains went public – though this was spun at the time as an attempt to help addicts in a similar situation seek treatment – was that the disgruntled former AVMT employee, after being sacked, had approached another Phoenix newspaper with the story of Cindy’s theft of drugs from the charity. That newspaper, the Phoenix New Times, was on the point of printing the story when the McCains called their own press conference to take the heat out of the scandal. The employee, Tom Gosinski, claimed he was fired because he knew too much. The McCains claimed he only went to the press after unsuccessfully trying to blackmail them in return for keeping quiet. But the damage was done: locally the press felt manipulated.

As a result of the DEA investigation, AVMT was closed down, and a doctor who worked for the charity and had filled out prescriptions for Cindy lost his licence to practise medicine, while she went into rehab for a few days and then started attending meetings of Narcotics Anonymous twice a week.

Six years later, when McCain made an unsuccessful bid to become the Republican party’s presidential candidate, the media revisited this story, as it has done again recently. But the 2000 election campaign for the candidacy had even more disturbing consequences for Cindy.

The South Carolina primary that year was described by one of McCain’s advisers as “the dirtiest race I’ve ever seen”. In an attempt to dissuade voters in the Deep South from voting for him, posters were anonymously distributed alleging McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. George Bush, who went on to win the candidacy and two terms in the White House, was believed by the McCain camp to have been behind the move. The couple were devastated. The posters referred to a baby from an orphanage in Bangladesh whom the McCains had cared for since she was 10 weeks old and later adopted. Personally handed to Cindy by Mother Teresa in 1991 during an AVMT mission in the country, the baby girl suffered from such a severely cleft palate that it was not believed she would survive unless she was taken out of the country for medical treatment.

“I really thought I was politically seasoned, with five or six congressional races under our belts at that point,” Cindy said afterwards. “But I did not have a clue – to involve my daughter was unconscionable. I was blown away by it.”

The prospect of her children being harmed again as a result of such dirty electioneering tactics made Cindy wary of her husband going on the campaign trail again, close friends say. Even she admits: “You can see the toe marks in the sand where I was brought on board. I was reluctant to get involved.” So just what did bring her on board McCain’s campaign?

) ) ) ) )

In a western suburb of Phoenix, I talk to one of Cindy’s closest friends, Sharon Harper, whose family has a weekend cabin adjoining the McCains’s in the red-rock country of Sedona, south of the Grand Canyon.

“Of all the things Cindy will say, No 1 is, ‘I want to be known as a great mother.’

That’s why she’s doing this,” says Harper. “She has two sons in the military now. Her youngest, Jimmy, was in Iraq until two weeks ago. She wants John to be this country’s next commander-in-chief. Not only for the sake of her own children but for every mother and father like her with sons and daughters in harm’s way.” Harper says that while the McCains’s son, a marine, was in Iraq, his mother kept a mobile phone strapped to her wrist so that she would never miss a telephone call from him. “As a mom, she was terrified when he was in Iraq,” says Harper. “She prayed every day and sent gifts.

But she kept it inside. It wasn’t until he came home that she allowed herself to cry.”

In the light of such maternal concern, it’s hard to see what comfort she might take from her husband’s talk of keeping US troops in Iraq for 100 years or more if necessary. The Iraq war is one of the hottest issues in the presidential campaign, and McCain is trading on his harrowing military experience to convince voters that he understands better than anyone what armed conflict is. While his statements on Iraq have caused alarm, as a badly tortured former PoW, his promise to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention camp immediately if he becomes president has been widely praised.

But given all the baggage of the Bush White House, he faces an uphill struggle to present himself as a man who will introduce other significant changes. Just how different his economic policies would be from those

of one of the least popular presidents since polling began, and one who has accrued one of the biggest budget deficits in US history, remains unclear. The one area where he does distance himself significantly from Bush is on environmental issues. McCain says he will make tackling climate change a priority, and that he will begin by enforcing legal limits on the emission of greenhouse gases. His children are reported to have pressured him on this when he called a family “summit” with Cindy before deciding to run for president.

Harper, a formidable businesswoman, is suddenly overcome when she contemplates the prospect of the McCains moving to Washington, DC. “To think about Senator McCain becoming president and how that affects his family, how a little girl from Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh could end up living in the White House – well, it’s just beautiful,” she sighs.

When I ask where Cindy would find the steel to deal with the pressures of living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Harper says she believes that having grown up in “early Arizona” would give her the strength of character: “She wasn’t a rancher, but was part of that Old West culture – out in the open, with big skies, riding a horse. That does something to the inside of a person.”

Just four years ago, however, Cindy suffered a stroke, losing both her speech and partial use of the left side of her body. Another friend I speak to says it was because she stopped taking blood-pressure medication. After a period of physical therapy, she is said to have fully recovered and has since taken up her son’s love of “drifting” – a kind of motor racing that involves driving cars sideways – to improve her co-ordination. Speaking of her friend’s stamina, Harper stresses that, in addition to running a multi-million-dollar company, Cindy also still regularly travels to trouble spots all over the world through involvement with charities such as the anti-landmine Halo Trust and Operation Smile, which treats children with facial deformities.

Besides, the question of physical frailty is more of an issue when it comes to John McCain, now 71. If elected, he would be the oldest man to take up the presidency. Harper gamely rises to the challenge of discussing McCain’s age by telling an anecdote about how his 96-year-old mother recently flew to Paris to celebrate her birthday at Maxim’s restaurant and how, on an earlier trip to France, after being refused a rental car because of her advanced years, she went straight out and bought a car. “With those sort of genes, John has enough energy to serve four terms,” she laughs, before, to my mind, defeating her own argument by adding: “Besides, he’d only be a year or two older on entering the White House than the greatest president to have served this country, ever – Ronald Reagan.”

) ) ) ) )

All the time I am in Arizona, I am only too aware that the most compelling drama of this election is going on elsewhere. The week I trudge the streets of Phoenix is the week Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sit elbow to elbow in Austin, Texas, for a televised debate vying for the Democratic party’s nomination as presidential candidate. The encounter is electrifying. For days afterwards the television and newspapers are full of little else. After winning a series of successive primaries, Obama was generally agreed to have held the edge that night. Hillary had only come to life right at the end, when she was asked how she coped with crisis and answered, with a wry smile, that everyone in the nation knew she had had her “challenging moments” – meaning as first lady married to a philandering president. Less than two weeks later she was being dubbed the “Duracell bunny of US politics” after retaking the momentum, winning primaries in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island, redrawing the battle lines for a protracted struggle for the nomination. Polls predict that McCain stands a better chance of winning in November if Hillary is chosen as the candidate.

But the same day as the Texas debate, The New York Times carries a report insinuating John McCain had had a romantic relationship with a female lobbyist. An ashen-faced McCain, with sombre-suited Cindy by his side, had called a hasty press conference early in the morning to deny the allegation and condemn the report as a smear campaign. Given the lack of evidence in the article, his complaint was widely held as justified. But there was an eerie echo of Hillary standing by her man as a clearly shaken Cindy stepped up to the microphone and declared: “I not only trust my husband, but know he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family but disappoint the people of America.”

A few nights later, I sit talking with two of Cindy’s contemporaries from Central High. They have generously invited me to dinner, but a steely edge enters the conversation when I bring up the subject of the New York Times report. “That’s such garbage. John and Cindy have a wonderful marriage,” one of my hosts insists, before adding: “We really have to wrap things up quickly now.” They don’t actually ask me to leave, but I get the message. As I gather my things, one of them says: “I hope you’re not going to go writing mean things about our Cindy.”

Granted, Cindy McCain is not standing for office. She has been thrust into the limelight because of her husband’s ambition. But in the event that voters decide next November that McCain’s age and experience outweigh the need for real change, she could find herself in Hillary’s shoes in the East Wing of the White House in January 2009. There she would have her own staff and undoubted influence over the next “leader of the free world”.

When I ask Harper what kind of a first lady Cindy would make, she loyally suggests her friend would combine the “elegance of Jackie Kennedy with the graciousness of Laura Bush. Cindy will be the same person she has always been. She is reserved and shy. But she is good one-on-one with people. She will reach out”.

But as I drive back along the palm-lined avenues of downtown Phoenix and try to imagine the personal wrench it would take for her to leave her lifetime home here for the scrutiny of Washington, DC, I can’t help feeling that in the depths of her soul, Cindy Lou Hensley McCain might privately hope it is a road she won’t have to travel.

Barking in Bush’s back yard

March 11, 2007

People who know him say he’s a power-crazed narcissist. He even left the head of a dead donkey at the door of a girl who spurned him. Others say he’s the rightful heir to Bolivar and Castro. So who is the real President Chavez of Venezuela, and why is he snapping at the heels of the White House? Report by Christine Toomey

Late at night, Doña Elena Frias de Chavez invites me to follow her into her bedroom in the hacienda-style governor’s mansion on the outskirts of Barinas, a remote regional capital in Venezuela’s central high savanna. Skirting round her unmade bed, past photographs hung with rosaries of her controversial son, the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, she signals to me to stop. I turn to see a makeshift altar set into an alcove crammed with candles, statues of the Virgin Mary, saints and dusty artificial flowers around a large hologram of Jesus Christ, the eyes of which appear open or closed depending on where you stand.

“This is where I pray when I fear for the life of my son,” says Doña Elena as she brings her hands together with a slight bow, then lightly touches the glass surrounding a lit votive flame. “I make sure there is always at least one candle alight here. I even get up in the night to check that it has not gone out.”

In the week that his opponents’ hatred is so intense that Chavez is depicted in the opposition press as a modern-day Hitler under headlines such as “Heil, Hugo!”, Doña Elena has cause to pray a great deal. Five years ago, when the fury of his opponents reached fever pitch, and bloody clashes on the streets of Caracas left dozens dead, Chavez was seized by soldiers and held under military arrest. That coup attempt, which many claim was backed by the CIA, was short-lived.

Less than 48 hours later, the former paratrooper, who had led a failed coup himself a decade earlier but finally came to power after being elected, emerged on a balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace clutching a crucifix and declaring that the will of the people had returned him to power. “It was the work of God that saved my son on April 11th and 12th,” says Doña Elena of those two days in 2002. “But Hugo has so many enemies I must pray long hours.”

This intense devotion when I visit her in late January is to counter renewed opposition rage, this time at her son’s announcement that he was passing a new law to enable him to rule Venezuela by decree for the next 18 months, paving the way for what he calls “maximum revolution” and “21st-century socialism”. These sweeping powers were granted him by a congress wholly loyal to him after the opposition boycotted elections over allegations of fraud and intimidation. The law gives Chavez free rein to introduce further nationalisations to those already announced; to gain greater state control of the petroleum industry in a country that is the fifth largest oil producer in the world; to further control the media after closing down the largest opposition-run TV channel; to reduce the authority of state governors, mayors and other officials; and to loosen restrictions on the re-election of the head of state – ie, himself. Opponents branded the announcement “totalitarianism lite”.

One former Chavez ally, Teodoro Petkoff, now editor of the newspaper Tal Cual, which ludicrously compared conditions in Venezuela to the early days of the Third Reich, decried the new law for “liquidating obstacles to absolute power”. “This regime is now technically an autocracy. That does not mean it is a dictatorship, but the prerequisites for dictatorship exist,” said Petkoff as he put the finishing touches to a front page depicting Chavez with a Hitler moustache.

In Latin American politics, such mudslinging is nothing new. Chavez himself is a master of the rhetorical flourish. When I come face to face with him, as he holds forth for over four hours in the presidential palace in what is loosely dubbed a press conference, Chavez delivers one of his trademark verbal sideswipes at his favourite target, George Bush. He describes him as “more dangerous than a monkey with a razor blade”.

As the assembled press wilts in the heat, a bow-tied butler discreetly delivers Chavez silver platters bearing cup after cup of espresso coffee, of which the president is reputed to drink more than two dozen a day to stay on form.

Chavez rarely grants interviews, preferring instead to deliver lectures – punctuated by the flourishing of fluorescent pens, tirades against Bush (to confirm his position as a global icon of anti-Americanism), jovial storytelling and the occasional song. Since he had just visited Cuba’s ailing president, that day’s outpourings also contained many references to his close friend Fidel Castro.

Hysterical references to Hitler aside, it is Castro with whom Chavez is most often compared. With his talk of turning his country into a socialist utopia fit for the 21st century – albeit one inspired by Venezuela’s 19th-century liberator, Simon Bolivar, with whose spirit he is claimed to commune – many refer to Chavez as Castro’s heir apparent. This prospect of another political bogeyman in their back yard has prompted US leaders to denounce Chavez as a dangerous demagogue potentially much more threatening than Castro. While the Cuban leader could once count on the support of the former Soviet Union to punch above his weight on the world stage, Chavez controls a far bigger and wealthier country than Cuba: one with the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East.

The US has virtually ignored Latin America for more than a decade. But alarm bells have been ringing since Chavez started dipping into Venezuela’s public coffers to cultivate economic and political alliances worldwide, not least among arch-foes of the US such as Iran.

Yet when I talk to Doña Elena about her son being portrayed as a future Castro, the strict former schoolteacher’s eyes flash with anger. “Just because they are good friends does not mean my son should be seen as his successor,” she says, pulling at her jacket’s hem in agitation. “My Hugo Rafael does not want to see the same old story of communism repeated here. Only someone with the head of a donkey could think he does.” It’s an unfortunate turn of phrase in the light of a story I hear later about Chavez’s youth.

“My son is an immensely religious man. Why else would he have sought the benediction of the Pope?” Doña Elena continues, as she points out several photographs showing Chavez smiling broadly beside Pope John Paul II. While looking at the photographs, I realise from his polite cough that I am obscuring her husband’s view of the TV. As I move, the amiable Don Hugo de los Reyes Chavez props his head on his hand to continue watching a baseball game.

“My son gets his tough character from me. His father has a more placid temperament,” Doña Elena says in a low voice as we leave the room. For the past six years, her husband, also a former schoolteacher, has been governor of the vast cattle-ranching and oil-rich state of Barinas in the country’s high plains, Los Llanos. Stretching from the foothills of the Andes to the Orinoco river, Los Llanos are seen as the country’s spiritual heartland, and those born here – llaneros – are fiercely independent and tough.

When Doña Elena finally says farewell on the colonnaded veranda of the governor’s mansion, close to midnight, I notice an imposing oil painting of Chavez with the outline of a llanero cowboy in the background. “Like me, my son is very generous to those he likes but very tough on those he doesn’t,” she says, pressing a tin of biscuits into my hand as a parting gift.

Until shortly before Chavez became president in 1998 – he was re-elected last December – his family lived in extremely humble circumstances. But since his rise to prominence, not only his father but four of his five brothers have assumed positions of power in Barinas. Critics claim the family are running the state as their personal fiefdom. One brother is mayor of the small town of Sabaneta, where Chavez was born, another is secretary of the state of Barinas, yet another manages key sporting events, and the fourth s in finance. His older brother Adan, a former presidential chief of staff and ambassador to Cuba, is the country’s minister of education. A cousin is director of the state oil company, PDVSA.

As I travel across the flat landscape to Sabaneta the next morning to meet Chavez’s brother Anibal, the mayor, it strikes me that growing up in a place with such far horizons might lead to a tendency to harbour large ambitions. “Certainly Hugo was the one with big plans. He was clever, a born leader. It was always clear he would go far,” says Anibal.

Before agreeing to talk, the mayor insists on an extraordinary ritual. Summoning three assistants into his office, he pulls out a Bible and they all stand waving their hands in the air in evangelical fashion while one of the three ?reads out a passage from the Old Testament: Proverbs, chapter 14, verse 3, which includes the words “Proud fools talk too much”.

“My mother wanted my brother to become a priest,” says the mayor, finally inviting me to sit. “He was an altar boy. My brother believes in God. That is why he will not become like Fidel Castro, who does not. Tell your readers they need have no fear. My brother is committed to free elections. He does not want to see Venezuela become another Cuba. He just wants to see a country more committed to people than profit, a place where spiritual values are more important.”

The first admission from the family that all is not quite as straightforward and uplifting as this comes from the president’s great-aunt Brigida, who also still lives in Sabaneta, and who directs us to the spot on the outskirts where Chavez was born in a straw-roofed, dirt-floor shack. “Hugo did a lot of things in secret because his parents were against them,” she says. “He signed up for the military aged 17 without their knowing. I was one of the first he talked to about his communist beliefs,” says the 64-year-old, who belonged to a banned socialist party in the 1970s.

In the days that follow, I talk to Chavez’s old friends and those who know him even more intimately: his former long-term mistress and his one-time psychiatrist. A more disturbing picture emerges, in which all not being what it seems with Chavez becomes a recurring theme.

Leonardo Ruiz’s wide girth heaves with laughter as he recalls how, as boys, he and Chavez used to play baseball with a ball made of rags or bottle caps. “We couldn’t afford a proper ball. But that was Hugo’s real passion – baseball. He wanted to become a professional player. He only joined the paratroopers because they had a famous pitcher coaching their baseball team.”

This is borne out by all who know Chavez. Less known is the early schooling in communist ideology that he received at the house of this childhood friend, whose father founded the Communist party in Barinas. “It was really my father and older brother Vladimir who introduced Hugo and Adan to these political ideas,” says Ruiz. “They came here to talk and read our books. But they had to hide their communist sympathies because it was dangerous.”

An aside Ruiz makes as we are parting leaves me feeling uneasy. Having read an account of a macabre incident from his youth in a bestselling book about Chavez by two Venezuelan authors, Alberto Barrera and Cristina Marcano, I ask Ruiz if he recalls it. It concerns Chavez and his friends being spurned by an attractive girl when they were teenagers. Out of revenge for the slight, Chavez is said to have cut the head off a dead donkey and placed it on the girl’s doorstep. “Oh yes, that joke,” says Ruiz, looking uncomfortable. “I admit it was in bad taste.”

Struggling to reconcile Ruiz’s account of Chavez as a secret communist with a taste in jokes verging on sadism with his mother’s description of him as a devout Christian, I later speak to a woman who once shared his bed. Herma Marksman, a history professor at a Caracas university, admits she has had no contact with Chavez since shortly after he became president. But the two were lovers for nearly 10 years while Chavez was plotting to overthrow the corrupt government of the then president, Carlos Andres Perez, who was deeply unpopular among the country’s marginalised poor.

The failed military coup against Perez in 1992 followed anti-government riots three years earlier which had left many hundreds dead. Chavez had been plotting for years to install a revolutionary junta under the command of a group he and his co-conspirators called the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement. Seizing this moment of violent social unrest, the group tried to take control of strategic locations around Venezuela, including Miraflores Palace, but Chavez was quickly surrounded and so surrendered. Before being taken into custody, he was allowed to make a short television address to persuade his fellow rebels to lay down their arms. A striking figure in his red paratrooper’s beret, he announced: “Comrades, the objectives we set for ourselves have not been possible to achieve now. But new possibilities will arise again.”

He was sentenced to long-term imprisonment, but the 32-second broadcast still made him a hero to the poor. As far as most Venezuelans were concerned, it was only a matter of time before he would attempt to seize power again.

Nine months later, Chavez’s allies staged another, even bloodier coup attempt. Miraflores Palace was bombed from the air. More than 170 people died in street battles. Within months, Perez was impeached on corruption charges. The following year, 1994, Chavez and his fellow rebels were freed from jail. Joining forces with several leftist civilian parties, he and his military allies launched a new party, the Fifth Republic Movement. Four years later, Chavez stood in presidential elections and won.

Marksman, a respected historian with links to many of Chavez’s leftist contacts, was his lover from 1984 to 1994. “We were all idealists then. Our goals were to tackle corruption and build a prosperous Venezuela based on justice for all. There was none of this idolatry of Fidel or Che [Guevara],” says Marksman, a beautiful brunette in her youth and the woman for whom Chavez reputedly wanted to leave his first wife, the mother of his eldest three children. “But we were all deceived. We’re now heading for a totalitarian regime. He [Chavez] is sacrificing the resources of future generations with money that is not his. Little Red Riding Hood has turned into the wolf. He is astute and manipulative and not religious at all. But he realises that brandishing a crucifix will bring him closer to a certain social class. It is a blasphemy.”

Such an outpouring could be dismissed as the vengeance of a scorned woman. When Chavez emerged from jail as a hero, he was surrounded by adoring women and separated from both his wife and his mistress. A second marriage, which produced a fourth child, also ended in separation. Yet Marksman is generous in her praise of him as an attentive lover. She believes the seeds of what she sees as the very destructive path on which Chavez is headed were sown in a childhood far less idyllic than that painted by his family.

“He was very marked by his upbringing. He had a terrible childhood. His mother was very severe. His family background was very humble. I believe this sowed a lot of resentment in his character,” she says, recalling Chavez telling her that he once met his mother in the street when he was growing up and, having not spoken to her for years, turned and walked in the opposite direction. For much of his youth he did not live with his parents. So straitened were the family’s circumstances that both he and his elder brother Adan were brought up by their paternal grandmother. “While other small children were out playing, the two brothers were sent out on the streets to sell sweets their grandmother made to make ends meet,” says Marksman. Chavez talks publicly about his peasant background, but Marksman says it left him with “fundamental frustrations”, a trait now playing itself out, she believes, in the unpredictability and increasingly authoritarian way in which he wields his power.

It is an interpretation borne out by another person who was close to Chavez, the man who invited him to share his home and make use of an office for several years when he was released from prison. Nedo Paniz, an urbane professor of architecture with a studio in a wealthier neighbourhood of Caracas, sympathised with Chavez’s fight against corruption. But, like Marksman, he says he has had no contact with Chavez since he assumed power: “As soon as someone is no longer of use to Chavez, he is disposed of. He moves from oasis to oasis, leaving personal and political corpses along the way.”

Pinned on the architect’s wall is a note from another former ally of Chavez who was crucial in easing the former paratrooper’s transition from failed coup-plotter to aspiring politician. Luis Miquilena, a one-time communist union leader who became Chavez’s first interior minister before they fell out, summarises the president’s character as “impulsive, temperamental, intellectually limited, surrounded by obsequious yes men, completely disorganised in every aspect of his life, ignorant of the economy, a lover of luxury, and more than anything else erratic – one of the most unpredictable men I have ever known.”

Given that the two men are now enemies, you would hardly expect a glowing reference. But again it is the more personal observations that ring true. “His background left him with feelings of social resentment, a sense of ‘I don’t have what others have,'” says Paniz, who is more worried, however, by Chavez’s obsession with Simon Bolivar, the country’s national hero: “He used to engage in spiritual sessions with the soul of Bolivar. He believed our liberator had somehow entered his being. So now he stamps everything he does with the mark of Bolivar.

“But to constantly refer back to a glorious moment in our history 200 years ago is madness. It is this combination of madness and his free access to this country’s vast wealth that is, I believe, very dangerous.”

Paniz says that during the years he and Miquilena helped groom Chavez for power, both men began to doubt his stability and suitability for public office. “Just before the election in 1998, I remember I turned to Miquilena and said to him, ‘I am very afraid we are creating a monster.'” Paniz recalls the elderly man’s reply: “I think the same, but it is all we have.”

Even those considered more objective hint at disturbing tendencies. Dr Edmundo Chirinos likes to be known as the president’s friend rather than as his personal psychiatrist, despite having been called on to counsel Chavez after the breakdown of his first marriage. “The president is a very unconventional man, very impulsive, with few restraints, which could be dangerous except that he is very intelligent,” says Chirinos, speaking in his gloomy penthouse apartment hung with portraits of Che Guevara. “His main motivation, of course, is power. Many people want power. But when you have the strong personality he has, there is no limit to the amount of power you want. He is also a narcissist, but then name me a world leader that isn’t.”

Chirinos does not believe that Chavez is a religious man, “though I think he identifies with Christ as a leader”. There are indeed messianic overtones in some of Chavez’s speeches, in which he talks of “the kingdom of God” as “a socialist kingdom” .

The doctor concludes with the warning, again, that the main flaw in the president’s personality is his impulsive nature. “To stand before the United Nations in New York and say there was a strong smell of sulphur in the air because Bush had been there was an error of judgment, for instance. So was greeting Putin [an expert in martial arts] with a mock karate chop.”

His impulsiveness seems all the more alarming in the light of what I then hear from a man even Chavez refers to as an “objective investigator”. Alberto Garrido, a political scientist who has written over 16 books on Chavez, says: “From his words it is clear he does not believe in God… He is driven by the belief that it is his historic duty to complete the mission of Bolivar.”

Key to this is the vision of a politically united Latin America. Bolivar died disillusioned in 1830, convinced that South America was ungovernable. Chavez believes otherwise. To this end, he is promoting a United Bolivarian Congress of People stretching from South America to the Caribbean. So far, only smaller states such as Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador, where the populist presidents Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa have recently assumed power, are loosely signed up. Left-wing leaders of bigger nations, such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile, appear to be keeping their distance. Privately, Brazil’s president, Lula da Silva, is reported to have complained that Chavez is “flirting dangerously with authoritarianism”.

“Whether or not this utopia is realised depends on historical events,” says Garrido. “But what Chavez is doing with great ability is filling the power vacuum in the region left by a United States totally focused on the Middle East.” In his most recent book, Garrido investigates the way Chavez has himself been cultivating links in the Middle East. “He believes in using oil wealth as a strategic weapon. Part of this strategy is the campaign to convince the world’s oil trade to change from petrodollars to petro-euros.”

One concrete result of Chavez cosying up to Iran (he has visited Tehran, and President Ahmadinejad has made several visits to Venezuela) is an accord between the two countries to set up a $2 billion investment fund to help developing nations “liberate themselves from US imperialism”. Chavez, who vigorously defends Iran’s right to develop a nuclear programme, has declared the partnership a symbol of “two revolutions coming together to form a mighty current to defeat the United States”. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, has also ?been courting ties with Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia in the hope of leading an anti-US bloc in America’s back yard.

Until now, the US has been muted in its response. But high-ranking US officials and congressmen are now pressing the State Department to take a tougher line with Chavez, who they say is “a threat to the US, alongside Al-Qaeda, Iran and North Korea”.

In recent years Chavez has sought to embarrass the Bush administration on home turf by giving free oil to Indian tribal reservations and to poor neighbourhoods of New York. More recently, he has signed a deal with London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, to provide cut-price oil so that Londoners on income support can have half-price public transport, in return for technical advice on traffic management and recycling in Caracas. Such gestures are dismissed by many as publicity stunts. But there are those who warn that they have more serious intent.

“To really ensure himself the heroic place in history he craves, Chavez needs a grandiose story such as the revolutions of Nicaragua or Cuba,” says the writer Alberto Barrera. “Without that, he has too little history and too much oil money to be another Fidel.” And there’s the rub. Despite all the sabre-rattling against Bush, whom he describes as the “No 1 mass murderer and assassin on the planet” (Tony Blair is an “imperialist pawn sharing Bush’s bed”), Venezuela still pumps nearly 1.5m barrels of oil to the US every day, making it the country’s third largest supplier. It is this vast income that Chavez uses to fund his dream of revolution.

With the price of oil more than trebling since he came to power, he has been able to introduce an impressive range of social initiatives to help Venezuela’s poor. They include a network of health clinics manned by 17,000 guest Cuban doctors; literacy and adult-education programmes; nutrition centres; cost-price supermarkets; and co-operatives providing employment. As beneficial as these schemes are, financial analysts argue that they are almost totally dependent on state handouts and will have to be cut when the price of oil falls. They do little, therefore, to address the fundamental restructuring of the oil-dependent economy needed to ensure long-term change.

With Venezuela awash in oil money, analysts warn that the economy is dangerously overheating. Inflation is running at close to 17%, a consumer boom has pushed foreign imports to a record high, and public debt is nearly twice what it was when Chavez first took power. Economists talk of the president siphoning money out of foreign reserves to curry favour abroad – buying $3 billion in government bonds from Argentina to help the country restructure its debt; buying weapons and aircraft from Russia; and making oil deals with China. Yet changes to the way statistics are kept in the country make it impossible to assess the real state of the economy, they argue. In the words of one analyst, “It is fair to say this is now a country without audit.” Even with the country’s huge wealth, some predict that fiscal imprudence will soon lead to a scarcity of basic goods; on the way to the airport I hear the news announcing a shortage of sugar.

As long as the oil bonanza in this country of 25m lasts, Chavez can do no wrong in the eyes of Venezuela’s poor majority. Yet walking through the streets of one of the poorest barrios in Caracas – the 23 de Enero neighbourhood, where Chavez himself votes – in the days after the president announces he will rule by decree, I sense vague rumblings of discontent.

“We love Chavez. He has made the poor count in this country… He pays for things like this,” said Reddy Zorsano, a railway worker who is watching his daughter twirl her baton in a children’s street parade. “But we won’t accept a totalitarian regime. He is only in power because we put him there. We worry about the future of our children, their education, rising crime.” Oil wealth has fuelled record levels of crime, giving Caracas reputedly the highest murder rate per capita in the world.

But sitting just a few feet away from Chavez in the presidential palace as he delivers a shortened version of his weekly televised address to the nation, called Hello Mr President – a one-man show in which he has been known to speak nonstop for up to eight hours – I get the sense that he won’t be leaving the world stage for some time yet.

What he might lack in economic sense and, increasingly, political savvy, Chavez attempts to make up for with charisma and charm. “And in Venezuela this goes a long way,” says Alberto Barrera. “People here love him because he is getting paid for what everyone aspires to – not doing much, telling jokes and talking a lot.”

Manna from Havana

May 15, 2005

He was a wayward teenager whose father believed he was plagued by evil spirits. Now Carlos Acosta is a world-class ballet star — but he still dances like a man possessed

Carlos Acosta remembers icons, candles and other offerings to Santeria deities jostling for space in every corner of his childhood home in a poor Havana neighbourhood. His father was, and still is, a devotee of the Afro-Cuban religion. The orisha, or divinity, to whom his father prayed most often was the warrior god Ogun.

Time after time, when Carlos is asked to retrace the path that led him from the backstreets of Havana to the forefront of classical ballet — the 31-year-old is now one of the most highly acclaimed dancers of our time, and the only black dancer of such international stature — the father who fought to keep him dancing emerges as the most critical influence on his life. Acosta’s story is invariably then portrayed as a classic rags-to-riches tale. Some have described him as “the Billy Elliot of Havana”. That his trajectory far outstrips any such imagined script is clear. But the details of his life are so extraordinary that attempts to simplify them are understandable.

In short, he is the son of a humble Cuban truck driver, the youngest of 11 children, whose family was so poor Carlos remembers sometimes being given sugared water instead of a meal and chewing sticking tape instead of gum. He readily admits he resorted to stealing fruit from gardens near the family’s tiny apartment because he was so hungry.

By the time Carlos was 10, his father, Pedro, was so convinced his son was on the path to a life of crime that he started casting around for something to get the boy off the streets and occupy his spare time. He hit on the idea of ballet. Not an obvious choice, you might think. But in Cuba, where ballet, like all forms of the arts, are state-subsidised as a demonstration of the cultural superiority of Castro’s communist revolution, it made more sense. It meant ballet lessons were free. So, crucially, were all meals at the school where they were taught. Besides, a downstairs neighbour’s two children were attending the same classes, so Carlos’s father ordered him to tag along with them.

This infuriated the young Carlos. As a boy he dreamt of becoming a footballer. Ballet was for girls, not only he but the neighbourhood toughs he hung out with were convinced. They proceeded to regularly beat him up for being a sissy. This did nothing to encourage his enthusiasm for donning tights and pointe shoes.

When his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour and spent periods in hospital undergoing treatment, and then his father was sent to jail for causing a serious traffic accident, Carlos took advantage of the lack of parental control. He started missing classes; so many that he was eventually thrown out of the ballet school. In his early teens by now, he went back to a life on the street, eventually becoming a champion break dancer.

After his father came out of prison two years later, however, he took his son in hand again. If the ballet school in Havana would not have Carlos back he would find somewhere that would not only take him, but keep him. He drove him to the west coast of Cuba and enrolled him in a boarding school for the performing arts in Pinar del Rio. Carlos, though a naturally talented dancer, was still a reluctant one. On the day his class first went to see the Cuban National Ballet company perform, he admits he wanted to stay behind and watch a baseball match. But sitting in the theatre audience that day, he had an epiphany. Stunned at the sheer athleticism of the performance, he realised that if he worked at it hard enough, he too might one day be able to execute the sort of leaps and movements he found so enthralling.

The official biography provided by the Royal Ballet, where Carlos is now at the height of his career, takes up the story from there. After graduating from Cuba’s National Ballet school “with maximum qualifications and a gold medal” he went on to win gold at the highly esteemed Prix de Lausanne ballet competition at the age of 16. The next year he was invited to dance with the English National Ballet. After returning to Havana for a year to dance with the National Ballet of Cuba, in 1993 he was asked by the British-born artistic director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson, to join the company as principal dancer.
Five years later he made his debut with the Royal Ballet, and in addition to dancing at Covent Garden, he now appears regularly with the Paris Opera and American Ballet Theatre in New York. Among the numerous accolades heaped on him for his stunning leaps and sensational technique are descriptions of him as “the Harrier Jet”, “Air Acosta”, “the Parachute”, “the Black Baryshnikov” and, most significantly for him, “the New Nureyev”.

But there is something that no amount of glittering biographical detail can convey. Something never touched on in the rags-to-riches tales. Something that only surfaces as Carlos starts to talk about the importance of Santeria in his home as he was growing up. It is, perhaps, the reason there seems a hint of sadness behind his seductive eyes. It is also, on his own admission, the reason he became such a superlative dancer.

The key to its understanding lies with the deity with whom his father most identifies, Ogun. While some Afro-Caribbean religions, such as voodoo in neighbouring Haiti, have acquired a sinister reputation because of claims to tap the energies of the dead, belief in Santeria is so widespread in Cuba that the majority of the population practises it to a greater or lesser extent. The religion has its roots in the belief system of the Yoruba people, from what is today called Nigeria, and was brought to Cuba by slaves imported between the 16th and 19th centuries to work the island’s sugar plantations. Carlos’s own surname, he points out, comes from the name of the plantation where his great-grandfather once worked as a slave.

In order to be able to continue observing Yoruba tradition under the eyes of their Spanish masters, the slaves’ complex system of animistic beliefs slowly became veiled behind a thin veneer of Christianity. Each Yoruba deity was matched to a Catholic saint. Followers of the composite religion were, and still are, then allocated their own personal saint, or orisha, judged to reflect their character and personal destiny.

Unlike the Christian saints, however, the orishas are not meant to be perfect. In addition to their special powers and attributes, each is fraught with human frailties. Ogun, for instance, is not only the warrior god and the deity believed to help others realise their human potential — certainly Carlos credits his father for having the vision to force him to make something of his life — he is also the god of secrets. And one of Ogun’s characteristics is a tendency to violence.

When Carlos failed to take his ballet lessons and schoolwork seriously enough and continued hanging out on the street, his father was, he says diplomatically, “tough”. Then, nervously adjusting his beige wool cap, he goes further: “Yeah, I was scared of him. Man, he was scary. Sometimes he would arrive home in a bad mood and I would get it. I grew up afraid of him. That made me lonely. It made me very confused. There was so much going on.

“As a defence mechanism you put it away. I refuse to think about it, even now. I just get on with the present. But there are many layers,” he reflects, his voice trailing off. Suddenly we no longer seem to be in an elegant room in the Royal Opera House, but back in the Havana of his childhood, and the pain of remembering parts of that is etched across his face.

As Carlos continued to refuse to bow to his father’s will, Pedro Acosta became convinced that the boy was possessed by evil spirits. He took his son to a babalow, or Santeria priestess, who performed a divination and exorcism ceremony and designated Carlos his own orisha. She chose the deity Elegua, a man-child god of mischief, but also the god of destiny called on at the start of every Santeria ceremony to open the path of opportunity.

The significance of this meeting is reflected in the central part a similar encounter plays in the semi-autobiographical dance production Tocororo, devised and choreographed by Carlos and in which he starred when it premiered in Havana before Fidel Castro two years ago. The show opened in this country at Sadler’s Wells, then went on a UK tour. Some critics complained it was too long. They suggested one scene be cut — the one where the Santeria priestess tells the hero he has to make a choice between two paths in life. But the scene clearly has deep significance for Carlos. “That woman I saw when I was younger was amazing, very wise. Some things began to make sense to me after I met her. Elegua is very naughty, always tricking people. But he is also the one who opens the way forward.

I love this. It is so rich and spiritual. It makes me think now how much is predestined. I think nothing is accidental.
“Everything in our lives affects other people. Even someone’s death can be a shock, but it can help another person. Everything is entwined. Many things have happened to make me think this way. In my life there has always been someone there to help. I think this was fate and you need that. You need opportunity. Talent is not enough.”

As he exhausts this philosophical train of thought, Carlos returns to reflecting on his father. “He is 87 now and has mellowed a bit. He is funny, charismatic, wise, impulsive. He is, I think, the real brain of the family,” he says of the man he clearly adores. “I can’t judge my parents. They didn’t have an easy life and now I understand my own life more.

“I grew up with many questions. But this is what helped me. I understood finally that ballet was all I had, and probably would ever have, that I could trust and rely on. That is why I became so good. Now I am the main man, the father of the family. I look after them. Sometimes I feel they could give me advice, not think I know it all. Sometimes I feel like being, for once, their son.”

But then, seeming suddenly self-conscious that we have waded into deep water, the dancer leaps up from the sofa on which we are sitting. With a broad smile he starts to mimic the stumbling gait of the Santeria worshippers who flock each year to the shrine of San Lazaro at El Rincon on the outskirts of Havana. This is not meant as mockery. El Rincon is Cuba’s Lourdes. Every year tens of thousands of devotees walk barefoot or crawl there on their knees seeking miracles or the alleviation of pain and illness.

Any time he calls his father in Cuba, which he says he does about twice a week, and mentions he has an ache or pain — most often in his feet — his father will make some sort of offering to San Lazaro. “It doesn’t matter how often I explain to him that it is quite normal for a dancer to be in pain. I know he will make some sort of sacrifice or offering to the gods to try and make it better. I don’t ask him what he does. That is secret. Some people promise the gods they will grow their hair or sacrifice a chicken,” Carlos says, rolling his eyes, then collapsing back on the sofa with laughter.

Every time there is a suggestion that Carlos is in any way troubled, he seems to react in a similar manner — quickly making light of it. When the documentary maker Lucy Blakstad showed his melancholy side as she returned with him to the Havana street where he grew up for the BBC Imagine series, he was at great pains to point out subsequently that he was not unhappy. “I want to tell you emphatically, I am a very happy guy — you don’t need to worry about me, folks,” he told one interviewer. “If I’m not a happy man with all I’ve got, who is?”

When he laughs, which he does often, and claps his hands together as he speaks, his laid-back Caribbean style convinces you this is true. Yet as he talks about his family and his past, it is clear how deeply he still misses Cuba.

“I have adapted to life in London. I am used to the weather here now,” he says, a little unconvincingly. The cooler climate means he spends much of his spare time indoors at his Islington flat, writing his autobiography. “But one day
I will return to Cuba for good. It is everything to me. I will die there for sure.”

Some speculate that he may eventually take over from the legendary Alicia Alonso, now 83 and half-blind, who, together with her former husband, Fernando, founded Cuba’s spectacularly successful Russian-influenced National Ballet. The company has a network of feeder academies spread out across the island nurturing raw talent, and several of its dancers are now dancing abroad to great acclaim. After cigars, ballet dancers have long been one of Cuba’s most prized exports. But while many Cuban dancers — like many of the island’s most prominent writers, musicians and sportsmen — have defected in recent years, Carlos is in a much more fortunate position.

He left the island legally on an authorised work visa after being offered contracts to dance in Houston and London. This means, unlike the defectors, he is able to travel freely to and from Cuba, and his family is able occasionally to travel to watch him perform. So it is likely to be some time before he contemplates returning to live permanently in Cuba. He is ambitious, and in such demand that his work schedule is punishing. Juggling commitments, including those with the Paris Opera and American Ballet Theatre, means he is unable to take up some intriguing opportunities. One role he recently had to turn down because of his heavy workload was that of Jimi Hendrix.

He was due to play the rock legend in a series of dance sequences inspired by his music; it was choreographed by Christopher Bruce and performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House earlier this month.

Carlos confesses to knowing little about Hendrix’s short life or his music — except, maybe unsurprisingly, for the classic Voodoo Child, which he says is “amazing”. But he believes such innovative projects are vital to the future of his chosen art form. “We really need to widen the appeal of ballet. It doesn’t always have to be about a prince or swans. You need a variety of material to reflect the world we live in. We should never stop trying to give ballet an angle.”

Although he does not say it, another reason for turning down the part of Hendrix might be that from the moment he started dancing for the English National Ballet, and later the Royal Ballet, he made it clear he did not want to be typecast or relegated to “exotic” roles because of his dark looks. That has not happened. Colour-blind casting has seen him dance — among many other roles — Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Albrecht in Giselle, and Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. He is aware he is breaking race barriers. While black dancers have long been at the forefront of modern dance, ballet has remained predominantly white. Some complain that companies are reluctant to spoil their uniform rows of white swans. Carlos sees it as more a problem of lack of economic opportunity, with many families unable to afford the cost of ballet classes in countries where they are not state-funded as they are in Cuba. He also believes there is a tendency for parents from ethnic minorities not to encourage their children to take up ballet because they see it as elitist. It is this stereotype he hopes he challenges. “I am a rare animal indeed. But I believe I am sending out the right message,” he says.

His personal ambitions again bring the conversation back to Cuba. First he plans to bring a company of Cuban dancers to perform at Sadler’s Wells. Then he will take Tocororo on tour again. He is also working on a private, longer-term project, a musical he says he will probably need to employ a team to help write and choreograph.

Like Tocororo, it will be set in his homeland, but this time it will be based loosely not on his own life, but that
of a vagrant, known mysteriously as “the Gentleman from Paris”, who became a folk legend in Havana and who is immortalised by a bronze statue in the heart of the city’s historic quarter. Even now, habaneros place fresh flowers in the statue’s outstretched hand early every day.

This “Gentleman from Paris” was Jose Maria Lopez Lledin, who left Galicia in Spain for Cuba in the early 20th century in search of work. After being wrongfully imprisoned he took to living on the streets of Havana, where his improvised speeches and eccentric habit of wearing a long black musketeer-style cloak endeared him to the city’s residents, some of whom became convinced he was touched by God.

Lledin died in 1985 at the age of 86; he spent the last 12 years of his life in a psychiatric hospital. The idea behind the musical, Carlos explains, is to structure it in the form of a series of interviews, questions posed by a journalist to the old man as he languishes on a psychiatric ward. As he talks about the project, it is tempting to feel there is, once again, a biographical element to its theme.

The scenario he paints reminds me of an earlier comment — that he grew up with many questions. Maybe they plague him still. As Carlos swings his rucksack over his shoulder and prepares to leave, he smiles ruefully. “Maybe in madness,” he concludes, “lie some answers to life.”

Ailing and isolated

April 10, 2005

Castro cracks down as Cuba cries freedom

They once had a dream of an equal society, free education and health care in exchange for loyalty to the state. Now, 46 years on, Cuba’s communist regime lies in tatters amid increasing poverty and corruption. One day Castro will be gone — but the future could be even more frightening

Jostled in the back of an antiquated car on a tortuous ride through the Cuban countryside to avoid police checkpoints, Laura Pollan recalls the words of a song. Tapping her fingers on the worn leather seat, she begins to sing in a low voice: “We are the vanguard of the revolution, our books held high, bringing all Cuba literacy! Through valleys and mountains we carry the means to give light to truth!”

Translated roughly from Spanish, the words to this “Hymn to Literacy” lose much of their verve. But as she sings, Pollan, 56, flourishes her hands and smiles. She remains animated as she recalls how, as a 12-year-old girl, she had volunteered to join the ranks of nearly a million Cuban schoolchildren sent out into the countryside in the spring of 1961 to live with illiterate peasant families and teach them how to read and write.

The year before, Fidel Castro had vowed to the United Nations that one of the first aims of the Cuban revolution would be to make sure that every Cuban — an estimated 40% of whom were illiterate — could read and write within a year. It was something never before believed achievable in the developing world.

But less than 12 months later, tens of thousands of teenagers were marching through the streets of Havana carrying giant mock pencils to celebrate the accomplishment of this goal.

It was an achievement that caught the world’s imagination and helped define the romantic image of the revolution that had ousted the country’s military ruler, Fulgencio Batista, a dictator so brutal that he resorted, among other atrocities, to the public castration of opponents.

Pollan remembers her uniform, the lamp she carried for night-time study, thousands of which were donated by China’s communist regime, and the reading glasses the brigadistas were given to distribute to those who needed them — a donation by another communist ally, Bulgaria.

“I have great memories of that time,” says Pollan, who went on to become a teacher. “There was so much enthusiasm. The revolution was still young. It had not yet shown its true face.”

We are travelling to Havana from the central province of Villa Clara, where Pollan had been trying to visit her husband in prison. She had been refused. It was Christmas Eve and she was allowed to leave him a bag of apples and a letter. But prisoners such as her husband are permitted visitors only once every three months, if that.

To the Cuban government, her husband, Hector Maseda, is an enemy of the state. His crimes include founding Cuba’s opposition Liberal party — all opposition parties are banned — and writing articles about the explosion of sex tourism in Cuba and the history of the country’s opposition movement. These were published in magazines and websites in Europe and the US; all Cuban media is state-controlled, freedom of expression being an alien concept.

As the world’s attention was focused on the imminent invasion of Iraq in mid-March 2003, Maseda was among 75 government critics — mostly journalists, poets, independent librarians and political activists — arrested by the Cuban authorities, subjected to summary trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In Maseda’s case, that was 20 years on charges amounting to sedition. It was the most severe crackdown on Cuba’s dissident movement since Castro led his guerrilla forces to victory in 1959.

Pollan stood by helpless that night as her husband was bundled out of their modest home in central Havana. Together with his typewriter and a fax machine, books were also confiscated. Among them were the works of Vaclav Havel, the playwright and former Czech president who led his country’s opposition movement until the fall of its communist regime. As he was led away, Maseda took his wife’s hand and told her: “Laura, do not feel ashamed. I am not a murderer or a thief. I have done nothing but defend my ideas.”

The rot of the Cuban revolution lies in the contrast between these two very different scenes painted by Pollan. The first: her recollection of a time of optimism, altruism and cataclysmic social change. The second: an act rooted in paranoia, stifling control and absolute determination by Castro to hold onto power at any cost.

For 46 years after Fidel Castro, the world’s longest-ruling leader, stood before the United Nations promising to transform his country into a tropical utopia, this island nation of 11m has been driven to exhaustion, and millions of them to despair, by the implacable will of its “maximum leader”. Even now, after the vow by the revolution’s ideologue Ernesto “Che” Guevara that future generations of Cubans would be “more perfect”, schoolchildren start their day with a salute and the solemn vow “Seremos como Che!” — “We will be like Che!” But what, really, has become of this generation of Che’s children and grandchildren? (Had he lived, he would now be 76.) And what is likely to become of them when his former comrade-in-arms, 77-year-old Castro, no longer holds Cuba’s reins of power?

For more than 40 years, all administrations in the US, which once occupied Cuba militarily and then dominated it as a debauched mafia playground, have tried to topple Castro. First through the bungled CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, then in a series of bizarre assassination plots, including one to plant toxic powder in Castro’s clothing. Throughout, the US has held the island in the stranglehold of an economic embargo. Despite all this, Castro has seen off nine American presidents and is determined to increase that count.

Yet in George W Bush he appears to see a more formidable foe. One reason for the roundup of political opponents such as Maseda is believed to have been speculation that countries other than Iraq accused by the state department of being “state sponsors of terrorism” could become US military targets. The threat of US invasion was portrayed as so great by the Castro regime that three weeks before Christmas, more than 1m Cuban soldiers, reservists and support teams were mobilised in a military exercise dubbed Bastion 2004. So extensive was the coverage of the simulated invasion on all state TV channels, and so pervasive the sound of military alarm sirens, that some older Cubans thought they were genuinely under attack.

For most Cubans, however, there is only one way that Castro will ever relinquish his hold on power. This is by means of what they refer to obliquely as “biology” — his death. Ever astute about his own image, the maximum leader makes light of his age, and jokes about his immortality regularly make the rounds. Like the one about the baby turtle expected to live to 100 years, which he refused as a pet on the grounds that it would “make me sad when it passed away”.

But a brief glimpse of what is likely to happen if, as seems almost certain, Castro dies while still in power came just six months ago, when he stumbled and fell after delivering a speech in the capital of Villa Clara province, Santa Clara.

Santa Clara is the holy grail of idealistic fervour for many foreign tourists piling into this dusty provincial town. It is here that Che Guevara’s remains were brought from Bolivia, where he was killed in 1967 after attempting to foment revolution in the rest of Latin America and Africa. His vast, white marble mausoleum lies on the edge of town, and it was here that Castro tripped and fell last October. The fall was the latest in a series of health scares. Although he is still capable of delivering interminable speeches, his voice has become increasingly tremulous in recent years and his hands sometimes shake, leading to speculation that he is suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Several years ago he collapsed owing to heat exhaustion during a speech. When he finished his speech in a TV studio later that evening, he joked that he’d been “pretending to be dead to see what my burial would look like”.

But while film footage of the aftermath of his most recent fall last October was broadcast around the world, Cubans say the moment their leader began to stumble to the ground, the image on the country’s state-run television station became blurry. It was then quickly replaced by cartoons of Popeye and Bugs Bunny.

What his countrymen did not apparently see was Castro being helped into a chair as doctors danced attendance (he had fractured bones in an arm and a leg), nor the rehearsed response of Communist-party functionaries who were present raising their fists and chanting “Viva Raul!” as Castro’s brother and heir apparent, Raul Castro, was hailed. Had the fall proven fatal, he would have been anointed immediately.

Less than a mile from the mausoleum, Guillermo Farinas eases his wheelchair into the small, enclosed porch of his mother’s home and hands over a photograph of himself taken shortly after his most recent release from jail. In it he is emaciated. The scars where tubes were inserted into his stomach for force-feeding are still raw. Farinas, 42, has staged numerous hunger strikes over the past six years during prison terms meted out for opposing the government. He repeatedly yanked feeding tubes out of his stomach, vowing he’d die for his ideals. He was eventually released from jail and placed under a form of house arrest. But malnutrition has left him so weakened, he is not yet able to walk.

Farinas — like Pollan and all others identified here — realises speaking out could bring further reprisals. But all are determined that the reality behind the image carefully crafted for tourist consumption of Cuba as a sultry Caribbean isle offering sun, salsa, cigars — and, though the state denies it, cheap sex — should be widely known.

“Nobody here discounts the possibility that Castro, or Bush, could provoke hostilities between Cuba and the US,” says Farinas. “And in many ways this would suit Castro: if he dies fighting, he remains a myth. But the real danger is the apocalyptic language this regime has used for so long, planting the idea of violence in people’s minds for after he dies.”

Aside from street placards proclaiming “Socialism or death!”, Castro’s communist regime has fostered deep hatred and resentment, not least that orchestrated by the state against, and felt by, the more than 2m Cubans now living in exile. The idea that there will be a big welcome to a returning flood of exiles when Castro goes is scoffed at by most Cubans. While many older ones who remember the brutal Batista regime revere Castro — though 70% of the population was born after the revolution — most are genuinely afraid of what will come after his demise. With good reason.

Some predict if the baton is passed, as planned, from Castro to his 73-year-old brother, an even more authoritarian regime could be imposed. As head of the armed forces, which now enjoy great privilege as they control the most profitable two-thirds of the country’s struggling economy, the vested interest of Raul and his military cohorts in maintaining the status quo would be intense. Yet little of the legitimacy Fidel Castro has as the revolution’s figurehead is expected to pass to his brother. The hunched, elfin-like Raul, whose drinking is said to have left him with serious liver problems, is widely disliked — particularly among the young, who see him as a grey apparatchik.

But if Raul Castro fails to stamp his authority quickly, or dies before his brother or shortly afterwards, infighting among the Communist-party elite could lead the armed forces to step in and form the sort of military government led by General Jaruzelski in Poland in the 1980s. Says one European who is based in Havana: “The perception in Europe that there will be the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall here is not how the situation is viewed by Cubans. For some, Cuba’s civil war is ongoing and they don’t rule out a second round of hostilities.”

Anachronistic as it seems, no visitor to Cuba can fail to sense that this is an island stuck in a past era. The many lumbering 1950s American Chevrolets and puttering Soviet Ladas still on the roads are one trivial sign. More potent is the sight of dozens of workers standing to attention along Havana’s vast curved corniche, the Malecon, swearing allegiance to the revolution and holding aloft documents marking them out as especially fervent party loyalists.

But the fundamental difference between Cuba and former eastern-bloc countries such as Poland, which threw off communism’s shackles 15 years ago, is not only that Cuba’s revolution was home-grown, but that it has virtually no civil society. Internal opposition, in contrast to the often-bellicose exile community, is both painfully weak and disorganised. To follow Farinas’s story and those of other government opponents is to understand not only why, but also how, this makes an eastern-European-style “velvet revolution” post-Castro highly unlikely.

Like many of those interviewed, Farinas was initially the epitome of Che Guevara’s “new man”. Raised in a revolutionary household — his father fought Batista’s forces and then served in the Belgian Congo with Guevara — he spent his youth training as a military cadet before going to Africa in 1981 to help defend Angola’s Marxist regime. There he won two distinguished-service medals and was sent on to the Soviet Union for further military training. After returning to Cuba he was discharged on medical grounds. “I believed in the revolution until my ideals were crushed blow by blow,” says Farinas.

One of the first blows was the 1980 Mariel boat lift, during which 125,000 Cubans left for Miami after Castro announced Cuba would be well rid of all those who wanted to leave. Party members were ordered to stone the houses of those leaving and denounce them as gusanos, or worms. When Hector Maseda, who was an engineer in a prestigious scientific-research facility, argued that he had better things to do, he was expelled from the party and lost his job.

The corruption Farinas says he witnessed, both while in the Soviet Union and when he started work in a Havana hospital on his return, further eroded his faith in the system. After witnessing a senior party official pilfering sheets and powdered milk donated for sick children, Farinas was sent to prison for making false accusations. He had already been kicked out of the party for speaking out publicly about an act that also appalled many of his countrymen: the 1989 execution of Arnaldo Ochoa, a popular general convicted of drug smuggling, and three other senior army officers.

It is said to have been Raul Castro, who has held the post of defence minister longer than any counterpart in history, who orchestrated the executions of four of his own senior officers because of Ochoa’s political ambitions as a rival to his brother. The act reinforced Raul’s reputation as a hardliner and consolidated his own power. He is also the second secretary of the Communist party and effectively controls the interior ministry and all state-run media.

Increasingly disillusioned, Farinas started meeting other government opponents. But each group he associated with was broken by a wave of arrests. Most recently, this included a network of small independent lending libraries set up after Castro pronounced there were no prohibited books in Cuba — even though works by most Cuban exiles, Camus, Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell and many others are banned. Some of those who ran such libraries were among the 75 arrested in the most recent crackdown. Farinas slips out of his wheelchair and drags himself upstairs on his hands and knees, to show what remains of his own small library after a similar raid; the tatty collection of Spanish cultural magazines and scientific journals do not look like a threat to state security.

Then he and others started collecting signatures in support of a referendum on changes to Cuba’s communist system. The Varela Project has been trying to exploit a clause in the Cuban constitution that allows for discussion of new laws if at least 10,000 citizens request it. So far, more than 25,000 signatures in support of the project have been collected and presented to parliament. But the request has been ignored. Dozens of the project’s organisers were among those arrested in March 2003; many were convicted on the testimony of state security agents who infiltrated the dissident movement.

This is the history of political opposition in Cuba: groups are formed, infiltrated, members arrested and accused of conspiring with the US to bring down the government, which is enough to ensure the group is discredited to many Cubans. The level of infiltration makes even those within the groups mistrustful of each other.

In recent months, a dozen of the 75 arrested, whose health was failing, have been released — partly in response, it is believed, to overtures by the left-wing Spanish government. The EU has traditionally believed more was to be gained from a more moderate policy towards Cuba than the zealousness of the US, which Castro turns to his own advantage by painting himself as a plucky David to America’s Goliath. Following the arrest of the 75 dissidents, however, relations with most EU countries, including the UK, sank so low that all diplomatic ties were severed and are only now being slowly repaired.

Among those released was Marta Beatriz Roque, a long-term opposition figure who is calling for all of the island’s diverse dissident groups to attend a “grand assembly” in Havana in May. Few believe this will be allowed to go ahead. Another of those released was Manuel Vasquez, a journalist, prizewinning poet and former editor of a Communist-party youth magazine, who believes that another reason Cuba’s opposition is so fragmented is that “everyone wants to be a leader, not a soldier”. “There is no democratic tradition here,” says Vasquez, who was held in solitary confinement for 14 months and was only released because he was found to have a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism. “People here just don’t know how to defend their rights. This dictatorship is based on control of all means of communication.

“People, especially those in Europe with a more romantic idea of Cuba, need to realise we are in danger of passing from a communist to a military dictatorship,” says Vasquez, 53, sitting outside his dingy high-rise flat. Several days later, I learn the government has issued him an exit permit to leave Cuba. He looks certain to use it. But this also underlines another problem.

Half an hour’s drive north of Santa Clara is the downtrodden town of Placetas. The sign on the door of Berta Antunez’s wooden shack marks her out as a government opponent: a crude black-and-white painting of a prisoner behind bars. Antunez’s brother Jorge Luis Garcia has been in jail for the past 14 years for, initially, criticising Cuban foreign policy. Scribbled notes to his sister smuggled out of prison and since published abroad have highlighted the appalling conditions and brutality to which prisoners of conscience are regularly subjected in Cuba.

Antunez sums up one of the main problems she sees facing Cuba as “geographical fatalism”. She says: “We are so close to freedom across the Florida Straits, many people would rather leave the island than stay and fight for a better future here. If all those who put their energy into constructing small rafts to escape put it into trying to change things here, we might have had a change of government long ago.”

Turning a blind eye to the waves of balseros, or boat people, who risk death by attempting to flee the island in flimsy craft, has been used as a safety valve to avoid explosions of social unrest. During the most recent mass exodus, in 1994, when economic hardship was at its worst following the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than 30,000 tried to reach Florida on hastily constructed rafts. After the majority were intercepted by US coastguards and returned to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay while the political implications of their admission to the US were debated, they were finally allowed to emigrate.

Rather than a flood of exiles wanting to return to Cuba once Castro goes, it is this prospect of an even greater exodus of those wanting to leave the island that has the US worried. If a successor regime allows would-be emigrants to cross
the Florida Straits unchecked, it could well be the US military that steps in to stop the flow.

The official mantra of the Cuban government is that life may be tough — owing principally, they argue, to the US embargo — but most people are content. Crime is low (police are everywhere); there are few beggars (ditto); nobody is starving (a UN report claims 17% of the population was undernourished by the end of the 1990s); and education and health care are good and free. There is little evidence of such contentment on the streets. Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the island’s indulgent sponsors in the Kremlin, Cuba’s economy is still in crisis. It has improved in recent years owing to trade deals with China, Venezuela and a growing number of European companies. But basic goods are still rationed. A family ration book allows one tube of toothpaste every three months, a bar of soap every two months, 5lb of rice, 2lb of beans, 1/2lb of coffee per person and six eggs — on an average monthly wage of less than £10. As a result, a black market flourishes and nearly everyone is forced to find unorthodox and illegal ways of surviving.

Unlike the gerontocracies that prevailed behind the Iron Curtain, however, Castro has recruited highly educated young economists into the ruling elite. Some believe they offer the best hope Cuba has of a peaceful transition to democracy. Others fear that a power struggle — between moderates who support more market-oriented reforms and hardliners who fear that too swift an opening up of the economy could lead to a Tiananmen Square-style revolt — will play into the hands of the military; Cuba has little record of compromise.

After a brief flirtation with market reforms led by moderates in the 1990s, the hardliners now hold sway. What limited private enterprise had been allowed has been severely curtailed. Cuba’s main industry is tourism, but the face of its tourist industry — like that of its leadership — is almost exclusively white. Apart from free health care and universal education, the elimination of racial discrimination has been trumpeted as one of the greatest achievements of the revolution. Yet there are many who view racial divisions on the island as a time bomb.

More than half of Cuba’s population is black or mulatto. They live in the island’s most dilapidated areas, make up a disproportionate share of the prison population and complain of constant police harassment. They are excluded from the “convertible peso” — the tourist currency — as most tourist-sector employees are white, and so they are invariably poorer. Simmering racial tension exploded briefly and was brutally repressed in April 2003, when the government decided to make an example of young blacks who attempted to hijack a ferry and force it to change course for the US. Three were executed. When riots broke out on the Malecon in Havana in protest, the demonstrators were dispersed by club-wielding security forces.

To keep a lid on such discontent, the authorities have swelled the neighbourhood spy system — the committees for the defence of the revolution (CDRs) . There are an estimated 15,000 watch posts in Havana alone. Parents also say that their children are being indoctrinated with ever more vehement “anti-imperialist” views. One display was of primary-school children laughing and whistling to each other as their teachers encouraged them to sit scrawling anti-American graffiti and swastikas on the pavement with chalk in front of the US-interests section on the Malecon. Behind the children were giant billboards carrying pictures of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by US soldiers in Iraq. The sign read “Fascists — Made in the USA”.

The billboards were erected in response to Christmas decorations put up by the US-interest section containing a large illuminated “75” in protest at the jailed political prisoners.

Far from such playground politics, in Havana’s gritty neighbourhood of Alamar, Cuban youths start talking openly about what they really want.

“I want to be able to afford to buy a drink and take a girl dancing in a club, and I can’t,” says one 17-year-old. “I want a pair of Nikes or Reeboks,” says another. “I want to be able to walk into a tourist hotel and not be stopped like I am a criminal,” says a third. “Here, tourists have more privileges than we do in our own country. It stinks.” “Here they’ll arrest you for nothing. We are not free to say what we want. I just want out,” says one 22-year-old, who has already tried to flee Cuba on a flimsy raft and says he will try again. None of them wishes to be identified.

“The climate of fear this regime plays on has been very effective. We are frozen in time. At the moment, there is no sign of a thaw,” said one prominent academic, who also wants to remain anonymous. “There is a great emptiness and disorientation in this society. People are searching for alternatives. But the government does not give alternatives any space to grow.”

Some turn to religion, to the growing number of evangelical sects, to Santeria — an Afro-Cuban form of voodoo — or to traditional Catholicism. Outsiders point to the Catholic Church as a potential force for change in Cuba, but within the country itself there is less optimism.

Father Jose Felix Perez, of Santa Rita Church in Havana’s Miramar district, says despite hopes that the Catholic Church would be given more space in society following the Pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998, “nothing has changed fundamentally. We are still not recognised as an interlocutor with the government. People here are spiritually exhausted. We all need to be able to look to the future, but people see a future with little hope”.

Every Sunday morning, a group of women dressed in white gathers for morning mass at the church of Santa Rita, among them Laura Pollan. All have husbands, fathers or sons among the 75 dissidents still in jail. They come to his church, Father Jose Felix says, because Santa Rita is the patron saint of difficult causes. But the church is also close to the embassy district of Havana and the women, calling themselves the damas en blanco (the women in white), hope such a high-profile location will draw attention to their campaign to have the political prisoners released.

After mass, these women walk silently up and down outside the church with pictures of their loved ones pinned to their clothes. They then stand before the church and say the Lord’s Prayer in unison. After praying, the women raise their hands and call loudly for what all but those who rule Cuba now desire: “Libertad!” — “Freedom!”

Passers-by pay them little attention. “Those who know what they are doing are afraid to show them any sign of support,” the priest says. “The problem for dissidents is one of solitude.”

“We will never give up our protest,” declares Pollan. “The authorities have three options — free our husbands, imprison us or kill us.” Sadly, there is a fourth: the women are ignored — not only by their countrymen but by the world.

The South’s sinister secret

October 3, 2004

The barbaric murder of a black schoolboy scarred small-town Mississippi — and led to one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history. So why, 50 years on, has the FBI decided to reopen the case? Christine Toomey reports

As temperatures reached 118F in the Tallahatchie County courthouse on the afternoon of September 19, 1955, the two small ceiling fans did little to stir the stifling, soupy heat. It was the busiest time of year in the Mississippi delta — the peak of the cotton harvest — and fields stretching almost to the courthouse steps were blanketed with what locals still call “white gold”. Yet the small brick building was so packed with white farmers and their families that extra seats had to be crammed into the aisles.

The few black spectators who dared to attend were forced to the back of the room by the county sheriff, Clarence Strider, who called for cane-bottomed rocking chairs to be brought in for the comfort of the two white defendants in the trial getting under way, one of whom then sat ostentatiously twirling a cigar as he rocked himself back and forth. When the heat, humidity and fug of smoke became almost unbearable, the presiding judge invited all men in the courtroom to remove their jackets. Eventually, fearing the overcrowding was hazardous, the judge called for the courtroom to be cleared in early recess with the warning that “if fire develops anyplace in this courthouse, a great tragedy will take place”.

Though some of those present in the courthouse did not see it that way, the real tragedy had already occurred. Three weeks earlier, the horribly mutilated body of a 14-year-old black schoolboy had been discovered floating feet up in the Tallahatchie river, with a large industrial fan wrapped around his neck with barbed wire. The boy’s tongue and eyes had been gouged out, his skull crushed and his genitals mutilated before he was shot in the head.

The boy’s name was Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till, and it would be repeated by poets, songwriters and playwrights for years to come. Till was not from the Deep South. He was from Chicago, so was unschooled in what passed for “southern etiquette” — the sort that called for black males to bow their heads and step off the pavement if they saw a white woman approaching. He was spending the summer with his great-uncle and cousins on the outskirts of a down-at-heel Mississippi community inappropriately called Money.

In the mornings the boys helped out in the cotton fields. In the afternoons they were allowed to take a trip to the nearby country store — Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market — to buy sodas, sweets and bubblegum. Till had only been in Money a few days when rumours started to circulate that he had wolf-whistled at the young wife of the white storekeeper Roy Bryant, and maybe even suggested he take her on a date. Bryant was driving a shrimp truck to Texas at the time. But when he returned four days later, the boy was hauled from his bed in the middle of the night by Bryant, his cigar-chomping half-brother, John Milam — and, it was claimed, up to 10 others — stripped naked and tortured for hours before being shot. One witness, prevented from testifying to what he knew of the brutal murder, was smuggled out of the state of Mississippi in a coffin for fear that he too would be killed.

While most lynchings in the American south — and Mississippi had the worst record of all — had been hushed up or ignored to that point, the murder of Emmett Till was different. When his body was returned to his mother in the north, she insisted that his funeral casket remain open so that people could see how he had been brutalised before being killed; 50,000 people filed past the coffin, some fainting at the sight. The resulting national and international outcry made it impossible to sweep the murder under the carpet. In a hurry to calm public outrage and appear to be addressing what had happened in their midst,county officials called for a trial to be held just three weeks after Till’s murder.

But holding a trial was still a far cry from convicting those responsible. After listening to a series of testimonies identifying Bryant and Milam as having abducted Till, the all-white, all-male jury retired for 65 minutes to deliberate. Bill Minor, then a journalist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, still remembers hearing laughter coming from inside the room where the jury sat. One juror later admitted that they would have emerged to deliver their verdict in half the time had they not stopped for a “soda break”. When the foreman of the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” on both men, Minor recalls the courtroom erupting “like it was a Fourth of July celebration”. Both Milam and Bryant then posed for the cameras in the courtroom, bouncing their brood of young sons on their knees and kissing their wives at length. Soon afterwards, protected by the double-jeopardy law — meaning they could not be retried on charges of which they had already been found innocent — the men sold their story to the now-defunct Look magazine for $4,000. In it they admitted they had murdered Till, though their intention had been to “just whip him and scare some sense into him”. “But we were never able to scare him. He was hopeless,” said Milam. Till, he said, kept shouting: “I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are.”

“So I just made up my mind,” Milam boasted. “‘Chicago boy,’ I said. ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you. I’m going to make an example of you — so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’ I’m no bully. I like niggers in their place. I know how to work ’em,” he bragged. “But I decided it was time a few people got put on notice.”

The appalling crime and blatant miscarriage of justice was one of the sparks that set the civil- rights movement alight in America’s Deep South. The grotesque murder, hasty trial and subsequent confession of Till’s killers was headline news in late summer and autumn 1955. Three months after the trial ended, Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, saying later that uppermost in her mind that day was the murder of Emmett Till. Martin Luther King also cited Till’s murder as one of the most egregious injustices that fuelled his passion in opposing segregation. Now, nearly half a century after Till was killed, the FBI has announced that it will help the district attorney’s office in the state of Mississippi to reopen its investigation into the case. Bryant and Milam are now dead; Milam died of cancer in 1980 and Bryant of the same disease 10 years later. But investigators for the DA’s office and FBI agents have begun sifting through old files and interviewing witnesses, some for the first time. The expectation is that others believed to have been connected with the crime may now face criminal charges of conspiracy to murder or attempting to pervert the course of justice by covering it up.

Some are dismissing this as a cynical ploy by a Republican administration keen to garner votes at a time when George W Bush is struggling for re-election. Few black voters, overwhelmingly Democrat, are likely to be swayed; Bush’s record on furthering race relations and improving the lives of American minorities is seen by most as dismal. But the fiercest battleground for control of the White House in November’s election is being fought in the Midwest states. It is here that those who support Bush welcome any initiative that might help paint a picture of the president as a more “caring and compassionate conservative”.

Yet many are already questioning the move. What is really to be gained, they ask, from reopening such a painful chapter in the country’s recent history? The answer to this question lies among those who still live close to the small rural community of Money, in what visitors arriving at the airport in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, are assured is America’s “New South”.

There are no road signs left to show where Money begins or ends. Since the cotton plantations in the area became mechanised, most inhabitants have moved away. The only public building left is a part-time post office in a Portakabin parked in a stand of sprawling oak and magnolia trees by the roadside. To one side of it looms a giant disused cotton gin; to the other, the ruins of what was once Bryant’s grocery, where Emmett Till went to buy bubblegum with his cousins.

Exactly what happened on the last afternoon that Till went to that store before he was killed was the subject of heated debate at the time of the trial. That he wolf-whistled as he left the store there was little dispute. But in court, Carolyn Bryant claimed Till had come into the store alone, grabbed her hand and said, “How about a date, baby?” and then blocked her as she tried to get away, saying: “You needn’t be afraid o’ me. I been with white girls before.”

Till’s cousins disputed this and said he had whistled at two chequers players making a move as he came out of the shop onto the porch where they were sitting. A bout of childhood polio had left the boy with a stutter and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had taught him that if he got stuck on a word to “just whistle, then go ahead and say it”. She always believed that was what her son had done that day. Whatever the reason, the whistle led to Till being so badly beaten that when his body was pulled from the river, he was identifiable only by his dead father’s signet ring which he wore. His murderers were acquitted on the spurious grounds that prosecutors had failed to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that the body was Till’s. Bryant and Milam’s defence team (which was supported by counter-top jar collections in local stores) suggested another boy’s body had been dumped there in place of Till’s by “people in the United States who want to destroy the way of life of southern people”.

Jurors ignored Till’s relatives, who said they had heard a woman’s voice — believed to have been Carolyn Bryant’s — identify Till as Bryant and Milam pulled him from his bed and shone a torch in his face. They also dismissed claims that the lynch party had consisted of others waiting with Bryant’s wife by the red truck in which Till was then driven away. They paid no attention to two farm hands who testified they had seen Bryant and Milam with two of Milam’s black employees, and at least two other white men, in the same truck in the back of which Till was seen crouching as it sped towards the farm of one of Milam’s brothers. The same witnesses testified that “licks and hollering” were heard coming from a barn on the farm and that a large, heavy object wrapped in tarpaulin was later loaded back onto the truck and driven away.

Jurors never heard evidence from Milam’s two black employees, Henry Lee Loggins and Leroy “Too Tight” Collins, one of whom, it was said, was later seen washing blood from the back of the truck. The men, it emerged, had been kept locked at a secret destination by Sheriff Strider and intimidated into keeping quiet. When they were released, it was feared they too would be killed if they testified. So black activists — hoping to have the trial moved to a neighbouring county, where a less bigoted sheriff might permit a fairer trial — smuggled the men over the state border to Tennessee. Although Till’s body was found in Tallahatchie County, the barn to which witnesses testified he had been taken — and it was presumed killed — was in neighbouring Sunflower County. But the trial was never moved.

Had Loggins and Collins testified, however, it is unlikely it would have made any difference. In his summing-up, one defence attorney’s advice to the jury was that they should do their “Anglo-Saxon duty” and acquit Bryant and Milam. If the two men were convicted, the jury was told, “your forefathers will turn over in their graves”. After their acquittal, Bryant and Milam moved away from the area. Despite rejoicing by white spectators at the end of the trial, most customers at Bryant’s store had been black and they boycotted the business, forcing it to close. Bryant’s wife, now 70, divorced her husband, changed her name several times and kept on the move, first in California, then Florida. Till’s uncle’s family and other witnesses moved away too. Though the murder and subsequent sham trial remained a festering sore, few talked about it openly again in the community in which it happened, preferring to put it in the past.

For the past nine years, however, a young black documentary maker has been tracking down witnesses in the case: both those who testified and those who were never called. As Keith Beauchamp began piecing together his film, he also started touring the country giving previews of the material he was gathering to special-interest groups and state legislators, in an attempt to get them to support his conviction that the case should be reopened. Two years ago the veteran black film-maker Stanley Nelson made an award-winning documentary about the case and called on the attorney general’s office to reopen Till’s murder investigation. Yet in May, when the US Justice Department announced that the investigation was being reopened, a spasm of dread gripped some still living in and around Money, Mississippi. The community has now dwindled to isolated clusters of dwellings: the larger, stylish homes belonging to white farmers who have diversified from cotton into catfish farming and growing soya and corn, and the smaller red-brick bungalows of their black neighbours, who commute to the nearby town of Greenwood for what work they can find. Few appear to feel easy talking about what happened even now, nearly 50 years later. William Henley, a 72-year-old former field hand who lives close to the site of the cabin that once belonged to Till’s great-uncle, summed up the feelings of many of Money’s older black residents with his conclusion that “ain’t nothin’ much going to change in Mississippi by opening all this up again”. “What happened then could happen now,” says Henley, sitting under a thin awning outside his front door in the early evening rain. “It don’t take much to stir up bad feelings.”

Anniebell Hill, 64, who lives by the side of the railway track that winds through fields of cotton and corn, agrees. Hill still remembers listening to news of the trial of Till’s killers on the radio when she returned from working in the fields as a girl. “What good will it do now to put an old woman on trial?” she says referring to Bryant’s wife, who, it is thought, is the most likely to face charges. “I don’t think many people here think it’s a good idea… We get on fine with the white folk, don’t have no problems now.”

The reasons for such reluctance at the prospect of a fresh trial becomes clearer after speaking to some of the community’s white inhabitants about their attitudes now to what happened to Emmett Till. “I reckon he got what he deserved,” says Roy Petty, Money’s elderly part-time postmaster. “Maybe it got a little out o’ hand. Maybe it was a case of taking chivalry to the extreme. But Bryant was protecting his wife from insult and injury — from what we used to call ‘uppity niggers’. That boy was smarting off, grandstanding, and when they went to deal with it, he did the same to them, far’s I understand. In my opinion, if he had been contrite, he would have gotten away with a whippin’.”

Delmar Turney, 39, who lives next door to the ruins of Bryant’s old store, which some are now talking of turning into a museum, adds: “Like we say around here, if a dog does his business in the street and you leave it alone, it’ll smell a bit, but then you won’t pay it no heed. But if you poke it with a stick, the stink will come up again. Dragging this old case up will create such a stink, it will pit neighbour against neighbour.”

Ted Kalich, the editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper, in the nearest town to Money, also believes reopening the case could damage race relations in the area. “What is to be accomplished by going after the bit players now the two principal protagonists are dead? What are the chances of there being a fair trial 50 years after the fact?” he asks. Kalich admits to “mixed feelings” about the prospect of a new trial. While conceding the historical significance, he believes it could end up as an exercise in “beating up on Mississippi”. “Mississippi in 2004 is not what it was in 1955,” he stresses, pointing to the fact that 47 of the state’s 174 legislators are now black. But one of those legislators, David Jordan, a 70-year-old Mississippi state senator who lobbied hard for the case to be reopened, stresses that while some things have changed in the delta, much has not. As we drive through an affluent northern neighbourhood of Greenwood, Jordan remembers that when he was a boy in the 1940s, no blacks could walk the streets here unless they were wearing worker’s overalls, showing they had come to provide some service to white residents.

Jordan was the first in his family to escape such servitude. He had just started college at the time of the murder trial and was among the handful of black spectators — allowed in, he believes, because he was wearing a shirt and tie, not work overalls. “Few people who know about what happened to Emmett Till want to talk about it now,” he says. “But unless there’s a fair trial, this thing will never end.” As we drive, Jordan, a former science teacher, points out Greenwood’s private Pillow Academy, where pupils are almost exclusively white. Despite desegregation of the school system, pupils in the town’s state schools are overwhelmingly black.

“The [Ku Klux] Klan still exist in splinter groups here,” he says. “If you make too many waves you still get harassed.” When Jordan publicly backed a black candidate for the post of lieutenant governor recently, he had eggs thrown at his wife’s car. He also had the windows of his home broken several times. Whether a new trial will aggravate such attitudes or expose them and lead to change remains uncertain. “Perhaps the state of Mississippi will eventually reap the greatest benefit from a new trial, if it’s clearly and unequivocally fair,” said a Washington insider. “Perhaps it will rid itself once and for all of its image as a lynch-mob society.”

But for many, questions of image are beside the point. “There is no statute of limitations on murder. Justice was never done. As time has gone by, people have become more willing to talk, and now is the time to try to bring closure to this terrible crime,” stresses Hilary Shelton, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The reopening of the Till case should also be viewed, Shelton argues, in the context of a wider reckoning with the south’s murderous past. In the past 15 years, nearly two dozen “cold cases” from the civil-rights era have been reinvestigated, many leading to successful prosecutions. Among the highest-profile of these was the 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the murder of the civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. Two years ago, a 72-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman, Bobby Frank Cherry, was finally convicted for the murder of four black schoolgirls in the 1963 bombing of an Alabama Baptist church.Two weeks after the announcement that Till’s case was being reopened, the justice department was also called on to help reinvestigate the killing of three civil-rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, during the 1964 “freedom summer” drive to register black voters. The murder of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner — both civil-rights workers from New York — and James Chaney, a local black activist, was portrayed in Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning. But Mississippi’s attorney general has recently expressed doubt about whether there’s enough fresh evidence to continue pursuing the case.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights advocacy group based in Alabama, believes the Emmett Till murder could be the end of an era as far as reopening old civil-rights cases is concerned. He believes the move is particularly significant as America is now facing a resurgent neo-Confederate movement. “There is still a vast swathe of white America that refuses to believe what occurred in the south,” says Potok. “These are people who continue to describe the antebellum and postbellum period here as some kind of Garden of Eden, when the reality was, it was a society based largely on violence and the threat of terrorist murder. I hope these cases will help lodge that fact in the American mind.”

While welcoming the initiative to reopen the case, Potok is cynical of the current administration’s motivation for doing so. “Whether this is based on new evidence or is an attempt by Bush to look good before the election is unclear to me. I think the latter is a clear possibility, which is rather disgusting.”

Keith Beauchamp, 32, is quick to dismiss such scepticism. “Even if this is being done for political reasons, we have to take the ball and run with it,” he says. “This is the last opportunity we are going to have to see justice done.” Till’s mother, who died last year, fought all her life, he stresses, to have the case brought before a just court. Beauchamp believes there are at least five people still alive — including Carolyn Bryant, Loggins and “Too Tight” Collins — who need to be held accountable for the part it is alleged they played in the boy’s murder.

The seasoned film-maker Stanley Nelson is more sensitive to the repercussions a new trial could have for the locals. “The power structure in Mississippi is still in many ways what it was. The economy is still controlled by white landowners who operate a feudal system. Many African-Americans live on their land and buy their food on credit, and if someone testifies even today, they could find themselves the victim of a backlash.” But there comes a time, says Nelson, when everyone has to examine his or her own conscience and do what is right. “And in the case of Emmett Till,” he says “that time is long overdue.” As Bob Dylan wrote in his ballad The Death of Emmett Till, released in 1963,the year of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and a time of particularly brutal and frequent Ku Klux Klan activity in the south, “If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing / A crime that’s so unjust / Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt / Your mind is filled with dust.”