Stephen Purvis has returned to Britain after spending 16 months in a Cuban jail on false spying and fraud charges. He speaks to Colin Freeman about the ordeal.
By Colin Freeman, The Telegraph
WHEN the £400 million Bellomonte Golf and Country Club eventually opens for business, its pristine fairways will mark an elegantly-landscaped route for Cuba to move into the 21st century. In a country that once banned golf as a “bourgeois sport”, its five-star hotel, spa and luxury villa complex is the clearest sign that the Communist outpost is finally embracing the long-taboo ethos of capitalism.
One man who is unlikely to attend any future ribbon-cutting ceremony, though, is Stephen Purvis, the Wimbledon-born architect whose firm, Coral Capital, was behind the Bellomonte development. Resident with his family in Cuba for ten years, he was the ideal person to mastermind the flagship project of its tourist economy, having previously turned Havana’s crumbling, colonial-era Saratoga Hotel into a chic hang-out favoured by the likes of Beyonce and Naomi Campbell.
Last week, though, he was recovering back in London, after losing 16 months of his life – and 50lbs in weight – to a stint in the rather less comfortable accommodation of Cuba’s prison system.
In an ordeal that could have been torn from the pages of a Graham Greene novel, Mr Purvis was falsely accused first of being a spy, and then of obscure breaches of finance laws, while never being told details of the allegations against him. He fled the island after a court released him a fortnight ago, following a trial conducted entirely in secret. Meanwhile, Coral’s offices in Cuba have been shut down, and the country club project in which he has invested millions of pounds and five years of his life handed to a Chinese firm.
Yet he counts himself lucky. During his time in Havana’s notorious Villa Marista spy interrogation centre, he feared he might never see the outside world again, or his wife Rachel and four children.
“It was grim, absolutely grim,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “Being accused of espionage is bad enough anywhere, let alone somewhere like Cuba. You get this overpowering sense of being forgotten by the world, and that you are about to receive a huge prison sentence for nothing at all.”
Mr Purvis, 52, spoke out last week to warn other British entrepreneurs of the risks in Cuba, which has courted foreign investors in recent years to revamp its moribund command economy. They were risks, though, that he himself thought he no longer had to worry about, given that his own firm, financed by private European backers, was among the best-established on the island. Since setting up there in 2000, it has invested in everything from tourism through to factories and docks, and even financed El Benny, a Cuban film about the country’s most famous singer, Benny Moré.
Mr Purvis was also a pillar of Havana’s expatriate community, working as vice-chair of Havana’s international school, where diplomats sent their children, and producing “Havana Rakatan,” a Cuban dance show which has toured London’s West End.
His connections, however, counted for nothing when in October 2011, Cuban police arrested Coral’s British-Lebanese chief executive Amado Fakhre, on charges of bribery and revealing state secrets. The move appears to have been part of a wider sweep against dozens of foreign businessmen, launched after Cuban intelligence – which still views capitalism with suspicion – became convinced that the occasional bribes which took place had become an epidemic.