Behind the Cold War 
- in the Caribbean

“George W. Bush’s War on Terror was not the first time the United States declared war on an idea,” writes Alex von Tunzelmann in her latest historical narrative, Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean.

In the 1950s, it was the perceived threat posed by communism that obsessed many US officials and empowered the Soviet Union, she writes.

The conflict between the US and the Soviet Union didn’t end with the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. It started long before and continued long after, largely in secret.

Ultimately, the author writes, the United States’ sense of security depended on whether Caribbean leaders were pro-American.

Pro-American became synonymous with anti-communist, and pro-communist meant anti-American. The Caribbean was in crisis during the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and US foreign policy was implemented accordingly. This included supporting right-wing dictators Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti, and suppressing Cuba’s left-leaning nationalist, Fidel Castro.

Von Tunzelmann writes that Castro attempted to join forces with the US government several times during the Cuban revolution, but the CIA’s secret war against him forced Castro to seek allegiance with the Soviets.

Human rights hypocrisy

The author’s editorial comments make for an interesting read, but they sometimes get in the way of the story. She does make points that aren’t hard to agree with — like the inherent hypocrisy of the US intervening in Cuba to protect against the potential danger of communism while ignoring human rights violations in neighbouring nations.

Von Tunzelmann brings to life what it was like to be on the streets of Havana after the Cuban rebels led by Castro successfully toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in late 1958.

The reader senses the dread felt by the women and children taken deep in the forests of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where they were tortured and killed in 1964 for being related to members of an opposition group.

Readers are also transported to Air Force One with Johnson, who had boarded in Dallas as vice president and deplaned as president in Washington in the hours after JFK’s assassination on 22 November, 1963.

At points in the book, Red Heat is so bizarre, you may not believe what you’re reading, and at times, the story is so horrifying, you may be brought to tears.