Written over the course of a year through email exchanges and sparse phone calls, former University of Texas Rio Grande Valley professor Philip Zwerling has published his latest book, “Eyes on Havana.”
The book was co-written by ex-CIA agent Verne Lyon and tells his story of his time spent in the agency.
As an aerospace engineering student in the 1970s at Iowa State University, when he was struggling to make ends meet, Lyon was recruited into the agency uncertain of what he was getting himself into.
His involvement began by being paid to report back on the political opinions of his professors and before he knew it, he was living a secret life in Cuba, wed to a Cuban woman and being instructed to poison the milk of schoolchildren, according to Lyon.
“The idea was to make the government fail so that the Cuban people would rise up and overthrow (Fidel) Castro,” Zwerling said.
In writing Lyon’s story, Zwerling noted, “He never talked about feeling. That wasn’t usually the way he was thinking about things.”
Zwerling attributes this to his background as an engineer and instruction-like style of writing.
In addition to having written, co-authored and edited five books, Zwerling has published several plays and academic journals.
Born and educated in New York, Zwerling’s first career move was training for the Unitarian Ministry. For two decades he served churches in Massachusetts, California and Arizona.
In 1985, on a six-month sabbatical from his ministry, Zwerling embarked on a trip to Nicaragua curious to learn about the state of the nation following the Sandinista Revolution. This experience inspired his first book, “Nicaragua: A New Kind of Revolution.”
The result was a compilation of interviews with locals, some of whom were related to government officials.
“After 20 years I decided to go back to school and try something completely different,” he said. “We’re living long enough so you can have multiple careers.”
This idea led him to pursue a Master of Fine Arts and a doctorate in Theater.
Upon his arrival to what was then the University of Texas-Pan American, he learned it was one of the institutions selected by the CIA to recruit students. He found this troubling and began his quest for greater knowledge on the subject.
In speaking with his colleagues, Zwerling discovered the CIA sent agents to instruct college courses at historically black and predominantly Hispanic universities — this in an effort to diversify its workforce and enlist students following the 9/11 attack.
“You couldn’t really do what a school’s supposed to do,” he said, “which is encourage students to be critical thinkers and make decisions for themselves while there’s this big agency… trying to draw people into their orbit.”
He edited a book with testimonies of other professors from around the country who were in the same circumstance. His quest to add the perspective of a CIA agent eventually led him to Lyon.
From Lyon’s contribution and personal experiences as an ex-agent, the idea for a memoir was born.
“Eyes on Havana” also follows Lyon’s time in prison and includes several art pieces he created while incarcerated.
Lyon decided he wanted out of the CIA and wrote a resignation letter. This wasn’t easy, he added.
Upon departing the agency and returning to the United States, Zwerling said Lyon was framed for an airport bombing and sentenced to 17 years in prison — of which seven were actually served.
“His feeling was they’re trying to make an example of him,” Zwerling said.
In hearing and learning Lyon’s anecdotes, Zwerling said, conflicts occasionally arose in having to omit “sensitive information” that could lead to trouble for other parties involved.
“What was really nice to go from playwriting, teaching playwriting and studying theater, studying theater history, writing about plays and writing a book like this,” said Zwerling. “So it’s all kinda connected.”
Now officially retired, Zwerling is returning to California where his three children and three grandchildren reside.
Already in the works is a new book, a collection of his own plays. In his downtime he plans to keep active by swimming, playing racket ball and possibly starting a community course in memoir writing.
“Everybody has a story,” he said. “Everybody has some really hard time in their lives that they haven’t resolved.”
More information on Zwerling can be found on his website, philipzwerling.com. His books are available for purchase through McFarlandbooks.com.