Is The Bank Of England
Hiding Billions In
Cuban Gold?
The Guardian - Inside Story
Link< /A>

  The quest for Cuba's lost gold According to 20,000 Cubans, the Bank of England's vaults are stuffed with treasure which belongs to them. They believe they are the heirs to a fortune sent to this country for safe-keeping in 1776. But does it even exist? Tom Gibb on a 400-year-old mystery Thursday February 3, 2000 When Norma Perez brought the news to the small town of Esperanza, it spread as only rumours in Cuba can. A spindly woman in her 50s, Norma talks in an urgent conspiratorial whisper, at a speed which even Cubans find hard to follow. The Contreras fortune, she told people, really exists. The money is sitting in the vaults of the Bank of England waiting to be claimed. She heard it from a friend who used to be a bodyguard of Fidel Castro, who had heard them talking about it in the Council of State. It must be true.

  The other heirs were already organising to reclaim it. If the Contreras did not hurry, they would get left out. Norma's news unleashed a gold fever which has spread the length and breadth of the communist-ruled island, even crossing over to the mainland US and Florida. The story of the Contreras lost gold is an old one, passed down over at least a century. But it has found its most fertile ground to reflower in today's Cuba of frustrated dreams, uncertainties and shortages. The full version is told in a series of highly sensationalist articles published in the Cuban magazine Bohemia in 1946, now being photo-copied and passed from hand to hand in villages across the country. The tale starts with Don Francisco Manzo de Contreras, King Phillip II of Spain's chief justice for the Indies. He arrived in Cuba to clean up smuggling in 1599. He settled in the town of Remedios on Cuba's north coast and over the next 150 years the family became exceedingly rich. In 1776, according to Bohemia, the sole heirs of the fortune were three nuns. The articles describe in great detail how, frightened of pirate raids, they secretly took six chests of gold from their hiding place in the walls of the Santa Clara convent in the dead of night and sent them off to London with a trusted nephew, Joseph Manzo de Contreras y Perez de Prado.

  The magazine quotes florid conversations between Don Francisco and his trusted servant and between the nuns and their nephew, along with descriptions of the voyage and a portrait of Joseph standing proudly in London - all, it seems, the product of the journalist's highly vivid imagination. The final article features a group of humble sweet-makers in the small village of Majagua in central Cuba - heirs of the "bounteous fortune", who, says the chronicler, are about to become millionaires. Fifty-four years later, Angel Contreras, one of those interviewed, is still waiting for a fortune which so far has only brought the family misfortune. Majagua is a hot, dusty little town with a typical Cuban mix of old-style red-tiled houses and Soviet apartment blocks. There is a factory for canning fruit preserves, but the family sweet-making business long since succumbed to collectivisation. Angel assures me that in the 1920s his great-grandfather once had the receipt from the Bank of England. But it did him little good. "They put him in a madhouse," Angel says, "and then they killed him. All for greed. They wanted the money." Angel is never precise about exactly who "they" were. However, they never got the receipt because his uncle had hidden it. Unfortunately, he too was murdered and the receipt has remained lost ever since. Of course in Cuba such things no longer happen, he tells me. But outside, in London or the capitalist world, he warns, I had better be careful. "You should have a bodyguard," he says. "And make sure you are not followed. Otherwise they will wait until you are close to the inheritance - and then kill you!" After Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, Cubans had other dreams to occupy their minds and the inheritance was forgotten for a while. The new National Bank president, Ernesto Guevara, summed up the revolutionary attitude to money by signing the notes with a derisory "Che". But the collapse of the Soviet bloc has brought the island back down to earth with a crash. There is still support for the practical achievements of the revolution, the health and education systems and low levels of crime. But the end of the millennium has left many people casting around for something in which to believe. The news that Norma brought spread quickly. Members of the Manzo and Loyola families, also heirs, were organising to get the money, she said.

  The Contreras - who are mostly descended from African slaves - were going to get left out. Over the next six months, led by a fiery orator called Roberto Perez, who is married to a member of the family, the Contreras got to work. They put out messages on the local radio to contact all the possible heirs. Committees were formed to draw up family trees. Roberto travelled up and down the country holding public meetings in town halls, accompanied always by a large man of few words who he only half-jokingly referred to as his bodyguard. Roberto spoke with the passion of a born-again preacher - but using the slogans of the revolution. He assured people that the inheritance had never been recovered before the revolution because only individual heirs had applied. It would be different if all the heirs reclaimed it. "I've said it a thousand times," he told a crowd of several thousand in the city of Camaguey. "Our strength is in unity." It's a slogan which everyone in Cuba has heard many times. Through unity, Roberto said, they would also find the missing documents needed to prove their claim. He called the meetings "family gatherings". He assured his audiences that he had informed the Council of State what they were doing. But, he said, the state is not involved. Of course no one believed him. For 40 years nothing has moved in Cuba without Communist party authorisation. How could such a movement grow up, with announcements on state-controlled radio, without government involvement? "Why don't they just tell us whether it is true or not?" was the constant complaint. Roberto was too autocratic to last long. He was also accused of deviating funds to hold unauthorised events, such as a pig roast. He was ousted from the leadership by a collective decision - intended to re-impose order. In fact it led to more division. The family is now split into two main groups - with a total of some 20,000 possible heirs affiliated.

  What is happening pales alongside their cousins' experience in Florida. The Manzos in Miami are waging their own battle. Last month they occupied the street in front of the British consulate in Miami. They shouted slogansagainst the Queen, accusing her of sending their money to the tyrant Fidel Castro through British aid programmes in Cuba. Nine of them were arrested for causing a disturbance. Adelaida Leopo, the church archivist at Remedios, back where it all started in 1599, has also been busy. Every day there is a line outside her door of possible heirs looking for the documents to prove their descent. Adeleida hammers out copies of 18th-century birth certificates on an ancient typewriter with stoical patience. "I do whatever I can to help," she says. "These people are doing this because of the poverty in the country. Before, if one talked of inheritances, people took no notice. Now everyone is looking for one." She says many of those who have visited are lawyers, engineers, doctors and other professionals. They are looking for something to believe in and to fill up their time, she says. Many have met cousins they did not know existed in her office as the family trees sprout new branches. "That's very beautiful," she says. "I am happy to keep a dream alive for them." People are convinced the Cuban and British governments have already reached a deal. There are rumours that the government will be handing out credit cards for them to spend their money. They will be able to buy Ladas, but not new cars. Many people have borrowed money on the strength of the inheritance. One man actually divorced so that his stepchildren would not be able to claim it. The need to believe is much more powerful than any other argument. And why not? A large part of the population in today's Cuba live off money from abroad - either from tourism or remittances sent from family members in Florida which make up the island's largest hard currency sources. Why not place one's hopes in a lost inheritance?

  But the hopes are not likely to be realised in any great hurry. The Bank of England was brief and to the point on the subject. "I am afraid that there are no unclaimed monies in the names you mentioned, and the story must go down as a myth. We have been receiving requests on these lines from Cubans for some time now and I must say we have searched our records thoroughly and can find no trace."
  Try telling that to the Cubans.


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