October 12, 2005
The KGB Spy Who Was a Coffee Expert
By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Exactly 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 20th century.

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.

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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.

The second 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 direction.

Grigulyevich complies. 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 coffee.

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 from Moscow.

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 certain antidotes.

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.

A couple 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 Grigulyevich.

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.

2005 Firmas Press

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