The Caribbean crises of the Cold War are revealed as never before in this riveting story of clashing ideologies, the rise of the politics of fear, the machinations of superpowers, and the brazen daring of the mavericks who took them on.
During the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, the Caribbean was in crisis. The men responsible included, from Cuba, the charismatic Fidel Castro and his mysterious brother Ral; from Argentina, the ideologue Che Guevara; from the Dominican Republic, the capricious psychopath Rafael Trujillo; and from Haiti, Franois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a buttoned-down doctor with interests in Vodou, embezzlement, and torture.
Alex von Tunzelmann's brilliant narrative follows these five rivals and accomplices from the beginning of the Cold War to its end, each with a separate vision for his tropical paradise, and each in search of power and adventure as the United States and the USSR acted out the world's tensions in their island nations. The superpowers thought they could use Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic as puppets, but what neither bargained on was that their puppets would come to life. Red Heat is an intimate account of the strong-willed men who, armed with little but words and ruthlessness, took on the most powerful nations on earth.
Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean is a comprehensive look at the tumultuous politics of the region focusing on Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. It starts with the roots of the slave trade and the Monroe Doctrine to chronicle this past century of turmoil and political upheaval on these volatile islands. There's a lot of ground to cover here, especially considering the long and complicated relationship with these countries and their big brother to the North, the United States. Tunzelmann does a thorough job of laying out the events, providing lots of context, and portraying an accurate sense of time and place.
Sarah Coomes imparts a fine energy to the narration. The storylines here are far from the usual dry litany of historic facts and dates. There's a lot of juicy stuff here: CIA plots, brutal murders, Latin playboys, and a cast of bigger-than-life characters that you'd be hard-pressed to match in even the best fictional political thrillers. Coomes seems to always find the right tone whether laying out cold murderous plots, or relaying the horror of a brutal massacre or military action. Her occasional asides on the rumors and tabloid headlines of the time are particularly enjoyable. And Coomes’ British accent becomes material, seeming to give her a bit of third-party impartiality. There's also a fine irony in having a woman narrate this story that is so wrought with testosterone and machismo.
Tunzelmann bookends the work with a look at contemporary times, reminding us that history often repeats itself if we don't learn our lessons. The parallels here to current Middle East politics are uncanny. You see once again the U.S. history of supporting unsavory characters in the name of stability, and our sometimes myopic focus on one overriding issue above all else. In the Caribbean it was the fear of communism that overrode every other consideration, and in the end became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's hard not to react to Red Heat on a very visceral level. But it is definitely worth revisiting this era and area now and taking a good hard look at these events, especially in how U.S. policy shaped the area, and how it shaped our future. Cleo Creech
"[A] mesmerizing, Conradian tale where the truth is almost too dark to bear. A remarkably gripping popular history." (Kirkus)
"Von Tunzelmann’s diligent work will widen the eyes of cold war buffs.” (Booklist)
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Interesting, not extraordinary.
Communists with halos, Americans with horns
If you like your history with a strong, left-wing, anti-American chaser, this is the book for you. I can tolerate historians with a notable bias, especially if the historical facts seem to be well-researched. And this book indeed appears, at least in the 45 minutes I listened to it, to have the chronology and players fleshed out pretty well. But von Tunzelmann relentlessly beats the Americans-and-other-white-Europeans-are racist-greedy-opportunists-who-exploit-and-kill-minorities-for-the-sheer-fun-of-it drum. It is a red flag (pun intended) when characters like young communist Fidel Castro are portrayed, without a hint of irony, as "freedom-fighters" against barbaric dictators. This is a sure sign you have nose-dived from biased history into outright propaganda. And it is when I pull the rip cord. It is too bad, because as a history junkie, the subject is unusual and intriguing and I was really looking forward to it.