The KGB Spy Who Was a Coffee Expert
a year ago, the Costa Rican writer Marjorie Ross published an
extraordinary book about an unknown chapter of the Cold War. The
book, ironically titled The Secret Charm of the KGB,
tells the amazing story of Iosif R. Grigulyevich, a Soviet agent
who took part in some of the most hair-raising intrigues of the
Grigulyevich was one
of the first conspirators sent by the Soviet Union to destabilize
Latin America. In Mexico in 1929, he joined the Stalinist cell
that murdered the charismatic Cuban student leader Julio Antonio
Mella, who had been secretly accused by his more-orthodox comrades
of being a Trotskyite. Grigulyevich also participated in the Spanish
Civil War and, in 1940, contributed indirectly to the assassination
of Leon Trotsky in Mexico.
In the first
half of the book, although she provides few new details, Ross
gives a magnificent description of the manner, environment and
characters with which Moscow built its raving, revolutionary Utopia.
It was a sinister world, where the cruelest methods did not matter
because the grandiose purpose of building a paradise on Earth
justified everything. Upon that stage paraded the most colorful
figures of the intellectual world in Latin America and other continents,
along with spies and murderers: Pablo Neruda, Diego Rivera and,
of course, Ramón Mercader, the Catalonian son of a fanatic
Cuban woman, who, on Stalin's orders, crushed Trotsky's skull
with a mountaineer's pickax.
half of the book is truly surprising. Agent Grigulyevich creates
a new identity for himself and becomes a peaceful and extremely
cultured Costa Rican living in Europe, an expert in the coffee
trade who answers to the name of Teodoro B. Castro. His assignment
is to infiltrate the Costa Rican government, become indispensable
to San José leaders and operate from there at Moscow's
He sweet-talks his way to President José ''Pepe'' Figueres
and his closest advisors. The year was 1950, and Figueres had
become the leader of a social-democratic (and anticommunist) revolution
that had seized power at gunpoint a bit earlier. He wanted to
improve Costa Rica's economic situation and felt that his providential
compatriot could find new and better markets for the nation's
Figueres is a well-intentioned
politician with a reputation for honesty. He appoints Castro as
ambassador, first to the Vatican and later to Yugoslavia, where
Marshal Tito is inventing a communist dictatorship that's independent
Stalin hates Tito
and sees a wonderful opportunity to repeat the operation that,
one decade earlier, rid him of Trotsky. Stalin orders Tito's assassination.
The KGB has a key man in the field, Grigulyevich disguised as
a Costa Rican ambassador. The disciplined agent plans the crime
and plots four ways to liquidate his prey. The most efficient
seems to be a silent and deadly gas that leaves no trail and whose
effects can be avoided by the ''diplomat'' through the use of
But the unexpected
occurs: The one who dies is Stalin, of a massive brain hemorrhage.
Teodoro B. Castro vanishes, returns to Moscow and resumes his
true identity: Iosif Grigulyevich. Thereafter he will become a
quiet academician devoted to the study of international issues.
of weeks ago, historians Christopher Andrews and Vasili Mitrokhin
corroborated everything that Ross had written. Their book, The
World Was Going Our Way, compiled from the archives of the
KGB, touched on a thousand topics and briefly told the story of
But it added something
disquieting: The anticommunist Figueres of 1950, the idealist
revolutionary, received large sums of money 20 years later, during
his second constitutional term (1970-74). In exchange, he created,
in concert with the Kremlin's agents, disinformation campaigns
that would be spread through the communications media that he
controlled or owned.
Also around that time,
in 1972, President Figueres accepted $2 million from swindler
and drug trafficker Robert Vesco, a fugitive from U.S. justice,
and arranged for the passing of a law that would prevent Vesco's
extradition. What had happened? Something terrible: Figueres had
slipped into cynicism and hubris. He felt that he was above good
and evil -- and that's the shortest way to becoming a heel.
I grieve over that.
When I was young, I admired him deeply and enjoyed every minute
of the two or three conversations we held. Now, the remembrance
causes me infinite sorrow.
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