A review of Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean by Alex von Tunzelmann
The words quoted above come from Cuba’s Fidel Castro. This was how, looking back at the incident, he described the abortive invasion at the Bay of Pigs in March 1961, planned and funded by Jack Kennedy and his officials in an attempt to topple a revolutionary government that was still little more than two years old. It was certainly ridiculous, leading to Kennedy’s temporary humiliation, but was only one of multiple examples of US blundering, that occurred throughout the period covered by Alex von Tunzelmann in her book Red Heat.
In retrospect, it seems almost incredible that successive US governments were so obsessed with the expansionary aims of the Soviet Union that they pursued devastatingly incompetent and counterproductive foreign policies in neighbouring Latin America, that was so remote from the Soviet Union and where its influence was much more limited than in other parts of the world. The policies were not only self-defeating but put the US on the wrong side of many progressive movements that might have ameliorated the poverty suffered by most Latin Americans at the time. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Caribbean, which arguably suffered even more from US incompetence than the other obvious regional candidate for this distinction, the countries of Central America. The case is ably argued by Alex von Tunzelmann, not a known expert on the region’s politics, but one who exhaustively scans and details the effects of US policy on (particularly) the nations of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, over the 1950s and 1960s, the period when the cold war was at its most intense.
The broad facts are well known. The region had two of the worst and longest-standing dictatorships in the Americas, those of Duvalier in Haiti and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Both enjoyed varying support from the US. Sometimes they would lose favour after some particularly horrendous feat of repression, but almost invariably their regular cruelty, especially in Duvalier’s case against his fellow blacks, was ignored. Not only this, but whenever possible alternatives to these despots presented themselves, the dictators successfully rolled out their pathetic arguments that, by repressing opponents, they were stemming the tide of communism that was lapping at their shores.
The source of this tide was, of course, Castro’s Cuba. But again, von Tunzelmann shows how Castro might well have looked for the long-term support of the US had he not been rebuffed soon after the revolution in 1959. Also, of course, while the 1962 missile crisis provided the excuse for continued anti-Castro policies, they had begun much earlier. While the ridiculous Bay of Pigs invasion is the best known intervention, there were many more attacks through the long-running CIA operation known as ‘Operation Mongoose’. However, they had little effect on Castro other than to keep him in a state of high alert and provide him with plentiful (and demonstrably truthful) anti-US propaganda as he was able to point to the bombs planted in factories or the bridges destroyed.
It is hardly surprising if this hostility to the US on Cuba’s part continues today, given the many devastating bomb attacks carried out, often not against political or military targets but against ordinary Cubans or tourists. The worst of these was the planting of two bombs on a Cuban airliner which killed 78 people in 1976, and which at the time was the deadliest terrorist attack ever carried out on a civilian aircraft. But as recently as 1997 six bombs exploded in Havana hotels, killing one Italian tourist. When Cuba tried to tackle the dangerous terrorism of the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami in 1998, the agents who successfully uncovered their plots were themselves imprisoned on trumped-up charges in a Florida court, while the real culprits went free. (I write this in Cuba, where the campaign for repatriation of the ‘Cuban Five’ continues, even though one, Rene Gonzalez, is now home. The others languish in US prisons.)
Perhaps the most disastrous effect of the distorting lens through which the US views its neighbours is its consequent inability to understand or even recognise the existence of genuine support for governments or political parties that promote reforms which favour the poor, and which the US then brands as communist. The most recent example is the Chavez/Maduro governments in Venezuela, which have won repeated clean elections and referendums, the latest of which (in April this year) the US has still to recognise. Equally, looking back to 1959, there is no doubt that Castro had widespread support in Cuba after he displaced the dictator Fulgencio Batista; even if support has fallen over the 55 years there are few Cubans today who denounce either Fidel or Raul personally, even in private conversation, whatever reservations they express about the current government more generally.
Tunzelmann says that for many ordinary Cubans, race equality, class equality, public order and a meal on the table at the end of the day felt like meaningful liberation in 1959. Freedom was the freedom from being shot in the street. As for the lack of a free press, as one ordinary Cuban quoted in the book says, ‘how could we miss that when we never had it anyway?’ – and the same might be said for free elections.
Most of those who hate the Cuban government most vociferously are no longer in Cuba, of course, and in many cases haven’t been there for several years. But from their Miami base they continue to have a disproportionate influence on US policy. Why, over half a century, has Cuba been the uniquely terrible government that has justified an economic blockade that is so all-embracing that it affects even non-US firms that trade there, when truly despotic regimes like those in Haiti and the Dominican Republic were only ever blockaded briefly and sporadically? Further, they usually enjoyed massive US investment (even, in Haiti’s case, investment that was known to the CIA to be passing directly into Duvalier’s personal bank accounts).
Those brought up to think that Castro is a murderer ought to read Tunzelmann’s account of the torture chambers in both neighbouring countries. While Castro’s government carried out summary executions of counter-revolutionaries (estimated by Amnesty International at 237 by 1987), Duvalier and Trujillo not only ordered thousands of murders, but often watched their victims being horribly tortured or even did it themselves. Duvalier’s death count alone is estimated at between 30,000 and 60,000, with several hundred of those being killed by him personally. Baby Doc Duvalier succeeded his father Papa Doc in an ‘election’ in 1971 which he won by 2,391,916 votes to zero. The result was nevertheless recognised by the United States. When he was deposed in 1986, the personal fortunes held by him and his mother totalled $1.6 billion. Haiti was and remains the western hemisphere’s poorest country.
Towards the end of the book, Tunzelmann notes that, in the Dominican Republic, even after Trujillo had long been assassinated, in a subsequent election the US backed a right-wing Trujillo associate. During the campaign he was thought to have murdered 3,000 opposition supporters. His opponent, a mild leftist, was so scared he conducted his own campaign only by radio. Once elected, the US’s favourite responded by opening the economy to US companies in tax-free zones. Many of his opponents fled to Cuba and became revolutionaries. Does that represent intelligent foreign policy on the United States’ part?
Tunzelmann fascinatingly points out the shift in attitude experienced by Bobby Kennedy after his brother was killed, when the accession of Lyndon Johnson to the presidency marginalised his political influence until he began his own campaign to become Johnson’s successor. Whether, had he become president, US policies might really have changed is a moot point, and a question to which we cannot know the answer. But the younger Kennedy made it is business to tour Latin America and see the real circumstances behind its political struggles. In a Lima slum he had a sort of epiphany, not unlike Che Guevara’s on his legendary motorcycle journey through the length of South America, that had occurred 13 years earlier. Seeing the disgusting living conditions, Kennedy asked a colleague whether if he had to endure them he wouldn’t be tempted to become a communist himself – and then added, ‘I think I would’.