The Cold War brought great misery and vast political miscalculation to many parts of the world. The Caribbean, despite being of little strategic significance to either of the Cold War superpowers, had more than its share. The story revolves, inevitably, around Castro’s Cuba, but in Red Heat, the narrative boundaries are extended to embrace both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Of the two, Haiti wins the prize for Cold War-sanctioned mayhem. If you wonder why things in Haiti today are as bad as they are, the answer is simple: history.
The emergence of the Caribbean as a Cold War battleground was accidental. The ideological proclivities and foreign-policy stances of the Soviet Union and United States played a role, but the Caribbean was in neither country’s original playbook. The first battleground of the Cold War was, of course, Europe, especially Berlin. But in the aftermath of the Korean War, the Cold War’s frontiers were everywhere.
Central America first felt the bite of the Cold War in 1954, when the Eisenhower administration, believing that a regime in Guatemala dedicated to agrarian reform and mild nationalization of foreign ownership was a communist wolf in sheep’s clothing, launched a CIA-directed covert operation to overthrow the government and install a pro-Western military leader in its place. Much misery for Guatemala was in store.
Alex von Tunzelmann’s story of how the Cold War moved offshore to the Caribbean starts with the coming to power of Fidel Castro and his band of barbudos (bearded soldiers) in Cuba in 1958. Castro, whose early ambition in life was to be a professional baseball player, forged an improbable path to power, aided by passion, persistence, charisma, luck and the deep corruption and unpopularity of the Batista regime he sought to overthrow.
Once in power, Castro had no master plan, and no strong ideological convictions; he was a romantic rebel and a nationalist. But American politicians and policy-makers found him hard to read, and they were temperamentally inclined to see all nationalist rebels or reformers as Cold War wolves. And so the U.S. government plotted to overthrow Castro in turn, a plan first conceived during the dying days of the Eisenhower government and inherited by the go-getting Kennedy administration, which launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and sealed not just the fate of U.S.-Cuban relations down to the present, but, strangely, the fates of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Both Haiti and the Dominican were run, or misruled, by despots of a remarkably vile kind. Von Tunzelmann has strong gifts as a popular, narrative historian and is able to dig up many vignettes of life and politics in the age of the Caribbean despots. A nice one concerns British writer Graham Greene, whose 1966 novel The Comedians provided a vivid description of the misery and violence that marked Haiti under the reign of Papa Doc Duvalier.
Duvalier, never one to tolerate critics, even of the visiting novelistic type, denounced the book and published his own anti-Greene tome, in which he accused the author of being, among other things, “perverted, sadistic, unbalanced … a spy, drug addict and torturer.” This little episode of the pot calling the kettle black amused Greene, who won the spitting contest by remarking that, with regard to Duvalier’s Haiti, it was “impossible to deepen that night.”
As von Tunzelmann shows, in unflattering and lurid detail, the United States had a big hand in propping up both Duvalier’s Haiti and the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. They did so with one eye open to the realities of both regimes and their deprivations and craziness, but also with what they imagined were Cold War calculations in mind. Castro was believed to be forever plotting to overthrow both governments; the Soviets were believed to be lurking in the wings. Anti-Duvalier, anti-Trujillo elements who were engaged in their own, understandable, plotting, were easily cast as just another set of Cold War wolves, hiding their present (or future) links to the communist cause.
This was vast paranoia, rooted in stunning ignorance. In truth, Castro adopted a hands-off approach to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, knowing what trouble both countries were mired in. Neither country was on the Soviets’ radar screen. Those who plotted did so in desperation, with domestic agendas that could easily be described as reformist and nationalist. But from the perspective of the United States at the time, a known, if unlikeable, despot was better than the unknown of political change, especially if you might end up with another Fidel.
The Cold War in the Caribbean was one long nightmare that ended badly for the peoples of the region and might have ended very badly for the world if the Cuban Missile Crisis had produced its nuclear winter in 1962. Once the Caribbean was turned into an accidental Cold War battleground, the ability of successive U.S. administrations to really understand what was going on in the region was lost, as was any U.S. moral compass. The combination of bad intelligence, bad political calculations and a shocking absence of moral judgment, in von Tunzelmann’s words, “destroyed any hope of freedom and democracy in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.”
That’s a sobering thought for a world trying to puzzle out the demands of “liberal interventionism” in response to the Arab Spring.