Jerry Brown’s Castro Trouble on 2000 Cuba Trip

Meg Whitman isn’t the only gubernatorial candidate with a legal skirmish in her past. Ann Louise Bardach reports Brown violated U.S. sanction law on a visit to Cuba by using a CIA turncoat as a travel agent.

Jerry Brown and Fidel Castro. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo; Javier Galeano / AP Photo

Meg Whitman isn’t the only gubernatorial candidate with a legal skirmish in her past. Cuba expert Ann Louise Bardach reports that Jerry Brown violated U.S. sanction law during a trip to Cuba by using a CIA turncoat as a travel agent. Similar sanction violations were prosecuted extensively by George W. Bush. Plus: never before reported details of Brown’s mojito-fueled conversations with Fidel on topics from Elian Gonzalez’s future to Hugo Chavez’s role in Venezuela; Brown’s four-hour limo ride with Fidel; the double agent who booked Brown’s travel; and Brown’s later concerns about breaking the law.

It was well after midnight on July 24, 2000, when I heard a knock at the door of our room on the Hotel Nacional’s sixth floor. Visiting hours in Cuba run later than they do in the United States, but even by Havana standards, this was a tad late. My husband opened the door to reveal Jerry Brown, the mayor of Oakland, former governor of California, former presidential candidate, and one of the most original and unpredictable politicians in American history.

It’s true you never know who you’ll run into at the Nacional Hotel in Havana. A shabby Grand Hotel, whose suites are rumored to be secretly wired, the very walls of the Nacional seem to breathe intrigue.

Think Casablanca on the Caribbean.

“Well, it makes it a crime!” Brown exclaimed. “The Treasury Department can prosecute me.”

And never more so than in the summer of 2000. Fidel Castro, after all, was celebrating his greatest triumph since the Bay of Pigs: the return of the miracle rafter child, Elian Gonzalez.

Welcomed into our modest room, an amiable Brown, who had put on some weight and lost some hair in recent years, first inquired what we had to drink. Finding something to his liking in the minibar, he settled into the room’s one upholstered chair and put his feet up.

Earlier in the evening, we had encountered and chatted with Brown and his aides in the small dining room on the Nacional’s sixth floor. He and his companions said they were enjoying Cuba’s many enchantments, including the hotel’s mojitos, when not attending to official business.

My Havana meeting with Brown came at the beginning of his one-week Cuban adventure, a Caribbean getaway that perhaps did not take into consideration his future political ambitions. It was unlikely that Brown anticipated he would soon be the attorney general of California or that 10 years hence he’d be throwing his hat into the ring once again to be governor of California. Or that his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, would be willing to pony up some $150 million to defeat him. Until last week, Whitman was basking in a five-point lead, numbers that plummeted after revelations of her long-term employment of an undocumented Latino housekeeper.

Suddenly Brown, in a state where Latinos cast 22 percent of the vote, has the five-point advantage. But as it turns out, Brown had his own Latin misadventure, one that may have skirted the law.

Indeed, by the time Brown returned from his Cuban idyll on July 29, 2000, he had bonded with its Maximum Leader and lunched with the world’s most famous 6-year-old, Elian Gonzalez.

And all thanks to a trip planner who happened to be a former CIA officer-turned-double agent-turned-tour guide.

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Traveling to Cuba with Brown was Jacques Barzaghi, his controversial aide de camp; George Musgrove, Oakland’s assistant city manager; and the director of KTOP, Oakland’s public TV channel, who was there to memorialize the mayor’s mission. Brown explained to me that he was there to officiate Oakland’s sister-cityhood with Santiago de Cuba.

Election Oracle: Predictions for the Hot RacesTrue to form, Brown offered plenty of engaging and unpredictable conversation: He lamented that “the liberals were ruining Oakland’s school system” and discussed his plans for establishing a charter military school. Brown and company also expressed shock at the number, youth, and visibility of the prostitutes who flocked around Cuban hotels and visiting foreigners.

Brown then surprised me with a query of his own. “Do you know who this guy Philip Agee is?” Before I could reply, he added guilelessly, “He’s our travel agent.”


Prior to his reinvention as a Cuban tour guide, Agee, who died in 2008, was a CIA agent who had disclosed the identity of scores of U.S. intelligence assets in 1975 before fleeing the country. Many in U.S. intelligence, including former CIA director George H.W. Bush, believed that Agee’s disclosures led to the murder of at least one of those named.

In 1998, Agee settled in Havana and started a travel agency. He was well-known in the capital as an entertaining storyteller, and he had plenty of tales for his Californian guests. “When Che Guevara was in El Morro, executing the enemies of the revolution,” Brown said, recounting one Agee chestnut, “the CIA sends him a message that says, ‘We ask you not to execute this particular person.’ And [Che] said, ‘The hell with you,’ and he went ahead and did it. And [Agee] said that a month later, [the CIA] did Bay of Pigs. I guess, his theory being that they cannot work with these people.” As a trip planner, Brown said Agee was “a very good travel agent, [who] got everything done,” adding, “he’s quite a guy.”

James Olson, former chief of counterintelligence at the CIA, had a less benign view of Agee, whom he identified as a Cuban intelligence agent beginning in the 1960s. “It was Agee who approached an inexperienced CIA officer in Mexico City and requested confidential files, claiming that he was asking on behalf of the CIA’s inspector general. And he got some stuff,” said Olson. “It tells you how good the [Cuban intelligence agency] was. Agee was on their payroll and had done very well by them.”

And there was another thorny issue. A Treasury Department official said, “U.S. citizens are required to use authorized travel agencies approved by OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control],” which did not include Agee’s. (His U.S. passport was revoked in 1979.) While quite a few Americans violate U.S. travel sanctions to Cuba every year, not using an agency on OFAC’s list, she said, “is a violation of U.S. sanctions.” ( See Editor's Note below.)


Brown had an agenda for his late-night visit to our room: to snare a meeting with Fidel. How exactly, he asked, had I come to interview Castro in 1994 for Vanity Fair? I explained the time-intensive process of “knocking on all the doors of entry,” and related Castro’s wry comment when he finally consented: “We decided to speak with you because we know you will never leave until you get this interview.”

I suggested that when Brown next met with Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly, he emphasize that like Fidel Castro, he was educated by the Jesuits. Indeed, Brown might mention that he had been a seminarian—and nearly became a priest.

Both shared an asceticism and intellectualism, encouraged by the Jesuits. Brown, however, retained spiritual aspirations, while Castro had neither doubt nor belief. I was quite sure Castro would be intrigued.


I had been covering the Elian saga since the precocious child was found bobbing in the waters off Fort Lauderdale the previous Thanksgiving. The following night was an event to celebrate his return. At the Carlos Marx Theater, the Comandante, swapping his military fatigues for a designer suit, honored the “nobility and patriotism” of Elian’s father, Juan Miguel. A simple, shy man who worked as a cashier at a tourist restaurant, the young father barely spoke, his eyes glazed in bafflement—with occasional flickers of fright.

Then it was on to Santa Clara, where Castro delivered an early-morning speech before thousands of groggy Cubans, who dutifully waved small paper flags. As I scanned the rows of Cuban military and Politburo VIPs, I saw a familiar face: Jerry Brown, in a short-sleeved white shirt, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. And trailing behind Brown, as the crowd streamed out, was Philip Agee. A small, courtly man, Agee was wearing a Panama hat and khaki suit, as if he had been scripted by Graham Greene.

I caught up with Brown, who excitedly reported that he and Castro had bonded over their shared background. “We first had lunch in Havana, and I mentioned that we both went to Jesuit high schools,” related Brown. “Fidel was talking about the Pope and the Catholic Church and how the Doctrine of Hell doesn’t do anything for anybody…He talked about when he was in school and they taught him this, and he was saying how bad that was.”

Brown said he shared a similar disenchantment: “I actually went into the seminary, but at some point, some of these doctrines lost their plausibility for me.”

Although Castro allowed Brown’s KTOP director to film the arrival of Brown, Agee, and company at the Palace of the Revolution, cameras were barred from the lunch. “But he filmed when I went in to meet Castro: We stood around and had a drink, chatted for a while, and then we sat down and we talked” for almost three hours. Lunch was lamb, vegetables, and grapefruit, washed down with a good deal of spirits—mojitos, white wine, and red wine Castro picked out for the occasion. He “didn’t waste any time,” reported Brown. “He launches right into something—what I call substantive discussion. He talked, when we first met, about Elian.”

After lunch, Castro ordered another round of mojitos, and it was clear to all that the Cuban strongman was delighted by Brown’s company. So much so that he extended another invitation: “Castro said, ‘Come out to Santa Clara,’” Brown told me. “‘I’d like you to see the 26th of July rally and meet Elian and his father.’”

It was the coup of an already astounding week. The Brown entourage had just returned from festivities in Santiago, where Brown had met his mayoral counterpart and finalized Oakland’s sister-cityhood. Later in the day, the group attended a Santeria rite, he said, followed by “an hour and a half of wild dancing in the street” with a small bevy of lively cubanitas.


Brown had been driven out to Santa Clara with the English-speaking Alarcon, which required him to cancel a scheduled appointment with U.S. officials at the Interests Section in Havana. One official said he had explicitly warned Brown not “to bring Philip Agee,” whom he described as a “traitor,” to the meeting. “We called them from Alarcon’s car [and] left a message with one of their helpers,” said Brown. “They can be pretty vindictive over there at the State Department.”

Upon his arrival, he said he saw Elian Gonzalez playing outside the guest cottages and met the boy's father. While he was there, Brown said the Gonzalez clan visited with Castro. “You know, Castro walks around like the Leader,” said Brown, “who bestows darshan [blessings] on everybody.”

Following Castro’s speech, Brown cheerfully told me that he was en route to another lunch with Fidel and Elian.

A week later, I again caught up with Brown, who filled me in on his excellent adventure with Fidel and Elian. The Santa Clara lunch, he said, had been delayed for about two hours, as Castro wanted some time to chat with a visiting Venezuelan journalist. “I understand he’s trying to interfere with the Venezuelan election,” said Brown, in what would prove to be an historical understatement: Hugo Chavez, Castro’s disciple and oil patron, was up for election in 2000.

Brown, a good listener and a close observer, predicted that an auspicious political future lay ahead for young Elian. “Fidel’s obsessed with Elian,” Brown told me. “This kid is really destined to do some great stuff...It almost feels to him like Elian was providential. [Fidel] looks at him as a kid with potential. And, Castro, in a very fatherly way is recognizing the potential...I think he’s grooming him to be his successor.”

Brown’s political antennae proved to be dead on. In late August 2010, Elian Gonzalez, now a 16-year-old cadet at Los Camilitos Military School, declared in one of his increasingly frequent public appearances his “great commitment” to the Cuban Revolution and his willingness to shed his “own blood for it.”

The Santa Clara lunch, like most meals with Castro, went on for hours. Indeed, he was so engaged by conversation with the visiting Californian that he did not want lunch to end. As Brown’s flight was to leave Havana later that evening, Castro offered to personally escort him to Jose Marti Airport in his black Mercedes limousine. With Fidel’s driver and chief bodyguard in the front seat for the four-hour drive back to Havana, the two former Jesuits sat in the backseat—along with Castro’s interpreter—discussing the world.

Asked what he communicated to Castro, Brown replied: “I said I think the world needs a new shift in attitudes because the historic way of nations handling their problems has to be modified in view of the weaponry that’s out there. That’s my point.” He added he was troubled by “all the happy-time news, everybody’s smiling. Every time you look at television, you look at a politician [who’s] all smiley in an unprecedented way…In general there’s a Panglossian optimism in the American political discourse which I didn’t see in Castro.”

Upon his return, Brown mentioned his two forays with Castro to the San Francisco Chronicle, which noted that the visit was “not part of the itinerary approved by the U.S. State Department, which prohibits meetings between U.S. and Cuban government officials.” However, the law on public officials is less stringent, and Brown seemed unconcerned.

But he was a tad worried when I chatted with him a week later. “When I came back I was reading the material, and you’re supposed to have an authorized travel agent,” he said. I asked if that was of significance. “Well, it makes it a crime!” he exclaimed. “The Treasury Department can prosecute me.” (Brown’s office did not respond to a request Monday for comment on his Cuba trip.) As it turned out, the department had little interest at the time in pursuing infractions involving travel to Cuba. Not until George W. Bush took office three months later did such prosecutions become common and expensive.

Someone, it seems, was looking out for Jerry Brown.

Editor's Note:

After this article was posted Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) contacted The Daily Beast and requested that we amend it. Before the article was posted, during a series of three phone calls with our reporter, the same spokeswoman confirmed Brown's concerns that using an unauthorized travel agent for Cuban travel was “a violation of U.S. sanctions.”

After the article was posted, the spokeswoman contacted our reporter to ask that it be changed to say “a potential violation of U.S. sanctions.” The spokeswoman said all the variables were not known to her and that she had since spoken to a lawyer at OFAC who provided additional information. She asked that her name not be used.

In a later email, the spokeswoman wrote: "To be clear, I am not commenting on whether or not Jerry Brown was an authorized traveler…I realize that this is confusing."

The OFAC rules regarding Cuba sanctions are notoriously complex—and have been enforced differently depending on which party is in the White House and who is appointed to run OFAC. Presidents Clinton and Obama have been more lax, while George W. Bush was very aggressive in enforcement.

Ann Louise Bardach is author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and the acclaimed Cuba Confidential. She is Daily Beast contributor, a PEN/USA award winning reporter, a member of the Brookings Institution Cuba Study Project, and was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and has written for The New York Times, Washington Post Outlook, Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic. She has appeared on 60 Minutes, Today, and CNN, NPR among others.