Saturday, May 07, 2011

Book Review: Alex von Tunzelmann, Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean

Alex von Tunzelmann, Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean , Henry Holt and Co, 2011.

Americans remain fascinated by the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the fall of 1962, American planes photographed Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The situation quickly escalated with members of both the American and Soviet governments calling for nuclear war. Mercifully, both U.S. President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to their senses before blowing up the world.

At the heart of the conflict was Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whose 1959 revolution threw American leaders into fits of fury. Alex von Tunzelmann’s new and very readable book, Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean, certainly will appeal to readers fascinated by the intrigue between Castro and Kennedy. This relationship became implanted in popular memory both through the missile crisis and with the rumors that Castro was behind the plot to assassinate JFK.

We don’t know anything concrete about Castro’s involvement in that murder, but we do know that Kennedy did approve several plots to kill Castro. That’s just the start of von Tunzelmann’s detailing of American outrages committed in the Caribbean during the Cold War. Focusing on Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic she paints a deeply disturbing picture of the United States propping up brutal dictators, overthrowing democratically elected governments, and undermining social reform in the name of anti-communism.

Beginning with the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States dominated Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it U.S. policy to act in the best interests of its irresponsible American neighbors. In practice, this meant supporting governments that protected American business interests and sending in the Marines when governments threatened those interests.

These interventions caused long-term resentment toward the United States. As the Cold War developed, Americans became obsessed with keeping its neighbors communist-free, even though, as von Tunzelmann points out, Stalin had no interest in world revolution. Equating social justice and economic rights with communism, the CIA gave almost unconditional support to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Batista’s corrupt government gave rise to many protest movements, but under amazingly long odds, Fidel Castro and his tiny group of guerillas in the Sierra Madre convinced the dictator to flee at the end of 1958. While Castro first avoided identifying with communism, the United States took his revolution personally, particularly as he looked to end American domination of Cuba. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to topple Castro proved an unmitigated disaster for the United States. Moreover, it forced Castro into the arms of the Soviets, precipitating the missile crisis, solidifying his support among the Cuban people, and creating long-term hostilities between Cuba and the U.S.

Von Tunzelmann revisits the frequently asked question of when Fidel Castro became communist. I find this debate tiresome but she usefully points out that Castro had flexible ideological leanings in these years. She accurately refers to him as a pragmatist, unlike Che Guevara or Raul Castro, both of whom supported communism from the revolution’s start. Fidel’s primary goal was a nationalist Cuba free from U.S. Intervention, he might have avoided the Soviet alliance had he any alternative. Of course, once he committed to communism, he turned his attention to developing a centrally planned economy, but his relationship with the Soviets waxed and waned over time.

Von Tunzelmann shows that no head of state took advantage of Castro’s rise as effectively as the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. Ruling over his nation with an iron fist since 1930, Trujillo tortured, murdered, and raped opponents into submission. The United States supported him throughout his decades in power, seeing him as an unfortunate but necessary anti-communist leader. When a democratic government followed Trujillo’s assassination in 1961 and began instituting social reforms, the United States balked. Von Tunzelmann excoriates Lyndon Johnson for ordering the 1965 invasion that led to another three decades of right-wing dictatorship.

Her connection between Cuba and the Dominican Republic is clear. But at first, the reader wonders why she spends so much time on the non-ideological regime of the murderous Francois Duvalier’s Haiti. Americans thought of him as a mad man and plotted his overthrow. But Duvalier masterfully played Trujillo, Castro, and successive American presidents. Although he had no particular ideological agenda, he created enough “communists” to convince Americans of his importance. By promoting order, he established alliances of convenience with the Dominicans. This point may be von Tunzelmann’s greatest contribution: the United States would and did actively promote any type of human rights violations to support short-term goals on fighting communism.

While I liked the book, von Tunzelmann sometimes panders to American sensibilities. I find her suggestion that Kennedy had learned from Cuba and might not have invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 highly dubious and ahistorical (p.316). This is a prime example of perpetuating what I call the “Evolving Kennedy myth” in popular history: Kennedy about to become a champion of civil rights, Kennedy pulling out of Vietnam, Kennedy rejecting American domination of Latin America. Maybe this would happened. Who knows.

All we can do as historians is judge a president on what he actually did. Kennedy did not press hard for civil rights. He expanded American involvement in Vietnam. He approved any number of questionable and illegal activities in the Caribbean. Americans want to think the best of Kennedy, but his actual actions don’t support this interpretation. While Lyndon Johnson pursued a disastrous foreign policy, it’s hard to believe that Kennedy would have done anything much differently. And Johnson is the presidential hero of civil rights, not Kennedy.

Moreover, while von Tunzelmann points out that Castro is not a mass murderer on the scale of Duvalier and Trujillo, for narrative’s sake she frequently lumps the three dictators together. Many Americans may think of Castro as the devil, but it’s worth noting that Cuban health care, education, and life expectancy far surpass almost any other nation in the developing world. I’m not apologizing for Castro’s lack of democratic values. But to compare Castro with Duvalier and Trujillo simply doesn’t make sense except to note that all three were dictators, which is hardly a revelation.

Overall, Red Heat is a useful and readable primer for U.S. Cold War activities in the Caribbean. Americans as a whole lack knowledge of how its government tolerated, trained, and encouraged some of the world’s most notorious dictators. The American government found Fidel Castro so shocking that it nearly plunged the world into a nuclear war. It accepted a homicidal maniac in Haiti because he was non-communist. It overthrew a democratically elected government in the Dominican Republic because it feared a new Castro. The people of these nations still feel the effects of American foreign policy today in their nations’ poverty, violence, and shaky to nonexistent democratic institutions.