Secret papers show ballerina’s role in Panama coup
2010-05-28 0:00

By Sylvia Hui |

Previously secret papers declassified Friday revealed that British ballerina Margot Fonteyn was heavily involved in plotting a coup to overthrow Panama’s government, detailing how her clandestine political activities both exasperated and amused officials on both sides of the Atlantic.

The confidential telegrams and correspondence released by Britain’s national archives pieced together a bizarre and sometimes comic account of the attempted coup in the late 1950s, during which the celebrated dancer and her diplomat husband, Roberto Arias, sought Fidel Castro’s help in a revolution that failed because of a last-minute blunder.

Fonteyn was 39 and an internationally renowned ballerina when she was arrested and briefly detained in a Panama prison on April 20, 1959. A few days earlier she and Arias had set out in a yacht on an apparent fishing holiday, but aiming to gather men and arms for the coup.

The papers showed that British officials in London, as well as diplomats in Panama and New York, scrambled to contain the incident, fearing the plot would threaten British relations with the central American country. But they also documented how the officials thought the events were a kind of "slapdash comedy."

"I had to pinch myself several times during her visit to be sure I wasn’t dreaming the comic opera story which she unfolded," wrote Foreign Office Minister John Profumo in one of the papers as he described a private meeting with Fonteyn shortly after she was released.

Profumo wrote that Fonteyn admitted to him how she and her husband had visited Castro in Cuba and received a pledge of some weapons and men from the leader. "She affirmed that ... Castro was behind this coup. Naturally he now had to disclaim all knowledge," Profumo wrote.

He himself later courted controversy. As a Cabinet minister in 1963, he had a liaison with a prostitute who was disclosed to be linked to a Soviet spy.

British ambassador to Panama Ian Henderson was not impressed by Fonteyn’s behavior and wrote that he hoped she would "keep away from Panama for a very considerable time."

"I do not regard her conduct as fitting in any British subject. ... Her conduct has been highly reprehensible and irresponsible," Henderson wrote in a telegram.

The officials believed that although Fonteyn was "involved in the plot up to her neck," she was an amateur revolutionary who viewed the whole situation in a "charmingly lighthearted way."

Profumo wrote that Fonteyn described how, as the coup unraveled, she mistakenly dumped some incriminating documents into the sea. Officials later retrieved the items, including Arias’ address book, which contained the addresses of actors John Wayne and Errol Flynn. The celebrities apparently had business dealings with Arias.

Mark Dunton, a historian at the archives, said the files gave an unusual glimpse into a previously little known chapter of Fonteyn’s life.

"The extent of Dame Margot’s personal involvement has not been in the public domain before," said Dunton. "It adds to the slightly bizarre nature of this attempted revolution."

Fonteyn, who was born Peggy Hookham in 1919, went on to reach even greater creative heights through her acclaimed partnership with Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. She returned to Panama with her husband years later and died there in 1991.

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Image: In this Sept. 18, 1968 file photo, British ballerina Margot Fonteyn in London. British ballerina Margot Fonteyn was heavily involved in a plot with Fidel Castro to overthrow Panama’s government, previously secret files revealed. (AP Photo/PA, File)

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