Prisoner 217: British architect recalls his time in a Cuban gulag

A sunburn is not the only thing foreigners have to worry about when they decide to move to Cuba and become business partners with Cuba’s totalitarian dictatorship.

Via The Guardian:

‘From now on you have no name. You are prisoner 217’: life in a Cuban jail

A brutal high-security prison was the last place Stephen Purvis expected to end up when he moved to Havana. Stephen Gibbs tells his story

stephen purvis cuban gulag

If you happened to go to a British embassy reception in Havana in the early 2000s, you would likely have met Stephen Purvis. You could not miss him. Six foot four, cropped grey hair, rum in hand, a broad smile and no shortage of good stories.

Purvis loved Cuba. Escaping what he saw as the risk of a “pre-ordained suburban middle-class life” in Wimbledon, the architect and his wife seized the opportunity to move to the island 17 years ago. He had been offered a job as development director with Coral Capital, an investment and trading company. It was one of several small foreign firms – almost all led by maverick, adventurous individuals – that were setting up in Cuba as the country sought international partners following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Purvis’s job was to look for joint venture opportunities with the Cuban government. The planned projects included the first golf course to be constructed there since the 1959 revolution, and the revamp of a formerly glamorous hotel, the Saratoga.


On 8 March 2012 they came for him. Shortly after dawn, a fleet of unmarked Ladas drew up outside his home. The Purvis children were hastily packed off to school, told by their mother that the commotion was because “Dad needs to answer some questions about work.”

Purvis was taken away, handcuffed, his head forced between his knees, to an anonymous art deco house close to the airport. There, he was provisionally charged with being an “enemy of the state”. He was advised not to hire a lawyer and to co-operate immediately. Agreeing to that, he was then taken to the notorious Cuban state security prison known as Villa Marista, for what was described, euphemistically, as “further instruction”.

“The villa”, as it is known by Cuban dissidents, is a former Catholic seminary on the outskirts of Havana. Since 1963 it has been an interrogation centre, using techniques perfected by the KGB. Eventually, they say, everyone “sings” at the villa. Purvis believes he and his boss (who had been transferred to a military hospital by the time his co-director arrived) are the only Englishmen ever to have been held there. For months, he became “Prisoner 217”. His life was entirely controlled by a man known as “the instructor”. He spent almost every hour of the day in a cell the size of a double mattress, with three other inmates (one of whom he believes was a government informant). The four shared an open latrine.

The appalling conditions were only alleviated by the “psychological games” of interrogation that took place day and night. Purvis says he was questioned for hours, often about the details of the lives of other foreigners on the island. The intent was to get him to inform on anyone who might have done something illegal, however minor. Purvis says he refused to do so, probably sparing other expats (some of whom still live and work in Cuba) a similar fate to his own. He does not deny the temptation was there. “You can see why in the end people just go, ‘Oh give a dog a bone. Throw them some names just to get out of there,’” he says.

Read the entire account HERE.