Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean, by Alex von Tunzelmann, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 528 pages
In 1955 vice-president Richard Nixon visited three of the US’s closest cold war allies in the Caribbean. In Cuba he compared Fulgencio Batista to Abraham Lincoln. In the Dominican Republic he embraced Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, a butcher and dissembler of the highest order who could conjour up tears when he commiserated with the wives of men that he had just ordered killed. Nixon then went on to Haiti. Seeking a change from the company of dictators, he chose to talk to a peasant woman passing by with a donkey. “Tell this coconut to get out of the way,” she barked in creole. Nixon persisted after an aide translated her remark as “she is pleased to meet you”. “What is the donkey called?” he asked. “He’s crazy,” she replied. “It’s called a donkey”.
The anecdote boils down as well as any in Alex von Tunzelmann’s sweeping history of US foreign policy in the Caribbean during the cold war. It was a donkey. Washington was under no illusion as to its allies’ democratic pretensions or human rights records. At the state department, John Foster Dulles had made it clear that staff should “do nothing to offend the dictators; they are the only people we can depend on”. But, as von Tunzelmann tells it, the result was a crucible of folly that also forged later and more costly foreign policy mistakes in Vietnam and, most recently, the Middle East.
Washington’s quest for regional stability and its determined fight against the threat of communism, however vague that threat, was the result of the Cuban revolution and the 1962 missile crisis, which almost brought the world to nuclear war. In order to “prevent another Cuba”, the US continually modified its stance towards the Haiti of François Duvalier, whatever the costs. (And they were high. “Impossible to deepen that night,” wrote Graham Greene of Papa Doc’s 14 years of voodoo-inspired horror). In the Dominican Republic, Trujillo similarly played on US paranoia during his 30-year rule. John F Kennedy considered trying to remove Duvalier from power but stopped at the last moment. Not so in the Dominican Republic, where, on April 28 1965, five years after Trujillo’s death, Lyndon Johnson ordered a US invasion to quash what he believed was a leftist uprising. Based on flimsy evidence, “Operation PowerPack” was the moment when Washington arguably lost the cold war battle for Latin American hearts and minds.
Von Tunzelmann writes with the same verve and range of material she deployed in Indian Summer, a praised treatment of the end of the British Empire. But her taste for violent incident is almost voyeuristic. The old canard that Fidel Castro was almost hired to become a professional US baseball player is repeated. And the conspiracy theory that the US joint chiefs of staff in 1962 plotted a bombing of Bloomingdales and Macy’s in order to rally the US for a Cuban invasion remains just that, even if it does neatly mirror later conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
More pointedly, does the world really need to be told yet again of Che Guevara’s glamour, when he was as often a Robespierre; of the CIA’s bizarre attempts to assassinate Castro using deadly cigars; or that much US behaviour in the region, and beyond, was deplorable?
Times change. When Barack Obama toured Latin America last month it was to visit popular elected leaders. More significant still has been Washington’s desire to remove itself from operations in Libya, and indeed elsewhere. Past imperial over-reach, and present financial crises, might be bringing to a close the US era of adventurism that Red Heat describes. Is it not time for historians to explore fresher material too?
John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s Latin America editor and author of the ‘The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon’ (Penguin)