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Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean
By Alex Von Tunzelmann
McClelland & Stewart, 368 pages, $33
THIS action-packed and entertaining effort is a watershed event in the telling of American and Caribbean history, unimaginably rich in detail, scholarship, and humanity.
It is also a deeply painful journey. North American readers will not be shaken by the villainy of Communists; indeed, most have been raised on that information. This book, however, levels the playing field, documenting the covert terrorism of the CIA in the post-Second World War era, revealing the extent to which men who believe themselves to be good (i.e. "our side") will go to secure their power.
Red Heat goes beyond the postcard, sun-and-sand image of tropical paradise, detailing U.S.-engineered events in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, all large, decolonized republics the Americans believed they could stage manage to the advantage of the American ruling class.
What the Americans failed to see, British journalist and historian Alex Von Tunzelmann suggests, was that their puppet governments might come to life.
In this, her second book, she neatly intertwines the lives of dictators Papa Doc Duvalier, Rafael Trujillo and Fidel Castro, the first two she portrays as bona fide psychopaths and the last as a formidable nationalist whose influence was wildly exaggerated.
Indeed, an unrealistic and uninformed fear of Castro's perceived "red magic" drove many of the CIA's most murderous activities elsewhere.
Among events covered here are the Thirteen Days in October of 1962 when Khrushchev and Kennedy brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster with weapons that equaled 4,000 Hiroshimas; the Bay of Pigs fiasco; the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and of the frail but charismatic Argentinian, Che Guevera.
With careful fidelity to historical texts, scholarly journals, diaries and many original interviews, Von Tunzelmann also offers unexpected and intimate details about the personal lives of the major players, bringing home the impact personalities can have on world events.
She paints Haiti's Papa Doc, whom Americans supported, as a Voudouist who viewed torture as an organized sport. The confesses she was surprised to learn that Raul Castro was a committed communist, and Fidel, who admired Lincoln and FDR, violently disagreed with him.
"But Fidel is a terrible organizer," she writes, "while Raul is brilliant -- and has commanded the loyalty of the Cuban army for half a century."
Bobby Kennedy emerges as a man transformed by the poverty and treachery he witnessed and who was, at the time of his murder in 1968, determined to take Americans down a more enlightened path.
Red Heat is accompanied by a dazzling collection of footnotes, a comprehensive bibliography and an impressive index. It concludes definitively that the perpetrators of America's secret war in the Caribbean "supported maniacal dictators, toppled democracies, financed terrorism, set up death squads, kept Cuba communist for half a century, ruined the reputation of the U.S., and very nearly triggered a nuclear holocaust."
Yet, in what will certainly comfort wounded Americophiles, she maintains these men were neither stupid nor evil. From this chapter of history, we ought to see that nations should not make war against ideas they don't understand, and that nightmarish events can occur as a result of good intentions.
The latter, she writes, may be one of the most important lessons of our age.
Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer.