Salvaging a Page from Cuba's Past

Move over Elian, another famous Cuban may be taking center stage.

Last May, as freelance tabloid videographer Bob Calvert pulled into his office parking space at West Palm Beach, Fla., he noticed an open 30-foot gondola encroaching on the area. Taking a closer look, Calvert found the bin was overflowing with ornate furniture, cancelled checks, letters and photographs chronicling the lavish lifestyle of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Aware that the Batista family owned a storage unit in the office complex next door, Calvert was quick to identify a salvaged photograph of the former dictator. “The deeper I went, the better it got,” he says.

Calvert found documents spanning three decades, including books; a 1964 Waldorf Astoria hotel receipt for $250 per night for two weeks; a Jan. 5, 1972, Pan American Bank of Miami statement listing a Portugal address and $28,000 in deposits; and a 1968 Christmas Eve list of cash-gift recipients naming customs agents, journalists, bodyguards and servants in Spain.

While Calvert, a private investigator, claims he had the right to loot the uncovered gondola, the Batista family disagrees. The family says that although the trash bin had no lid and the office complex is open to the public, Calvert stole these documents.

Attorney David Dee of Tallahassee, Fla., says the Batistas should have taken more precautions. “If the Batistas wanted the documents to be handled in a confidential manner, they should have made special arrangements with the waste hauler,” Dee says. “If they did not do this, then they have no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

This is not Calvert's first foray into the trash bin. While investigating Patricia Bowman, who in 1993 accused William Kennedy Smith of rape, Calvert sifted through the trash for discrediting evidence.

“I would stuff trash into a bag identical to hers, and as I drove by, I would substitute my bag for hers,” Calvert says. He even took a discarded rocking chair from the Kennedy's dumpster.

Calvert says he has been contacted by collectors, but he will not release the most intimate family photos. A Cuban government press agency also has contacted him for an interview.

A soldier and dictator who ruled Cuba from 1933 until 1944, and again from 1952 until 1959, Batista lost power when rebel forces led by Fidel Castro launched a successful coup in the fall of 1958. When he fled Cuba with his family in 1959, Batista went into exile on the Portuguese island of Madeira and later went to Estoril near Lisbon, Portugal.

Meantime, Calvert says the Batista story is just beginning to unfold. “There were boxes of [documents], and they're all in Spanish political jargon,” he says, adding that there are many documents left to analyze.