Thursday 11 August 2011

Book Review of Alex Von Tunzelmann’s RED HEAT: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean

Two things come to mind after reading Alex Von Tunzelman’s gripping tale of United States decades cum centuries-long foreign policy towards its neighbours in the Caribbean. First is the overly used truism attributed to the philosopher George Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and secondly, the “Ugly American”, a catchphrase derived from a 1950s-era novel penned jointly by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer.

That the policies and actions of the United States of America should be consistently scrutinized and often-times be subjected to the most devastating sort of criticism is no surprise given the highly moralistic tone of its national ethos as well as the expansive role it has come to play in the affairs of human kind.

It is the former colony of an empire, but has itself become something of an empire, vying for power and influence in world affairs with other empires or aggregate of nations to which American leaders have given various terms such as “Empire of Evil” and “Axis of Evil”.

As an “Empire of Liberty” and a chief proponent for the spread of the values of personal freedom and free enterprise, the United States has acted in ways which have stifled the very things it professes to be the paramount values upon which human beings should organise their societies.

Whether motivated by the expansion of its commercial interests or in the containment of the spread of communism, America has utilized or given support to acts of murder and terror, as well as to overt and secret wars.

At the heart of these endeavours, spanning the hemispheres of the globe, has been the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A) which engineered numerous coups d’etat aimed at installing regimes which would act favourably to US interests.

Among the most notorious were those involving the 1963 assassination of the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Din Diem and a decade earlier, the removal of Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran.

It sounded out military officers in the West African state of Ghana who in 1966 proceeded to overthrow the Soviet-friendly administration of Kwame Nkrumah.

The agency did not remain idle in Latin America where amongst many endeavours it was at the centre of the successful effort to destabilize and overthrow the democratically elected Marxist government of Chile led by Salvador Allende, and of course, it was active in the European Cold War theatre where it gave sustenance to Italian fascist groups which carried out a number of terrorist acts from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

The object of these operations was to create what was termed La Strategia della tensione, the fostering of an atmosphere of fear, confusion and seeming chaos out of which the populace would make increasing demands for an authoritarian, right-wing government to bring order and protect the society from a ‘communist takeover.’

Von Tunzlemann limits her focus to American efforts designed to forestall the spread of communism in the Caribbean, centring her narrative on the largest Islands: Cuba and Hispaniola, which is composed of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

She starts off by giving a concise history of these Caribbean countries while linking each to their respective but similar relationships with their larger neighbour to the north. These parallel histories are not to be read by the fainthearted given, as Von Tunzelmann reminds,  the Caribbean’s brutal history which is rooted in “genocide, slavery, imperialism and piracy.”

What is most striking about the chronologies as they unfold is the perennial corrupting of the avowed aim of successive American governments to help create the conditions for the establishment of democratic government and free enterprise in these and other nations of the Americas.

But like a seemingly ineradicable flaw, the diplomats, the politicians and the spies continued to make many choices, which led to the perpetuation of despotic and corrupt regimes and the resulting stultification of socially progressive change.

These wrong turns inevitably led to anti-American sentiment often expressed via the term Yanqui Imperialism. It also had disastrous consequences in regard to Cuba and the missed opportunities which could have played a part in influencing the direction of the post-revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro.

The stories of Presidents who started off with stated best intentions, but who ended up pursuing short-sighted and reactionary policies are recapitulated. For instance, Woodrow Wilson’s desire that “material interests must never be made superior to human liberty” along with his pledge not to “seek one additional foot of territory by conquest” did not prevent him from eventually indulging in what could be termed ‘moral imperialism’ when it came to his neighbours. Under his stewardship, Haiti was invaded by US marines and occupied for a lengthy period of time.

Again, John F. Kennedy’s imaginative Alliance For Progress, which set the target for the alleviating of poverty and social inequality in the southern Americas, ended in failure as the perceived threat of communist influence led for instance to the stifling of a democratic alliance among political parties of the Dominican Republic in favour of a military government, the toleration of the morally degenerate regime of Haiti and the aforementioned missed opportunities in developing a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with Castro’s Cuba.

It was this almost irrational fear of the spread of the perceived ‘Bolshevik bacillus’ which led to the unintended perpetuation of the murderous regimes of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Francois Duvalier in Haiti.

Von Tunzelmann’s pithy dissections of these dictators are masterful and in this context she relates the cynical manipulations employed by them in successfully soliciting financial aid and support under the pretext of fighting communism.

Both men went so far as to invent communist parties. On assuming power, it had been the unabashed aim of Duvalier that Haiti would become the ‘spoiled child’ of the United States and like his Dominican counterpart, he milked what he could out of the Americans by playing up to their fear of communist encroachment.

The propping up of these malodorous governments, on the basis of a brand of Yankee-style Realpolitik , was an unsettling but recurring feature of United States policy that had roots in the era pre-dating the challenge offered by Soviet and Chinese communism when the United States under the guidance of the Monroe Doctrine, determined to resist the re-establishment of military or commercial influence of the old colonial powers from Europe.

The ‘He-may-be-a-sonafabitch-but-he’s-our-sonafabitch’ syndrome, an amoral and self-conscious justification in the apparent exercise of political pragmatism, continued to hold sway for long and remained intact despite the ostensible expurgations posited in the 1980s by Jean Kirkpatrick’s famous distinction between the support of regimes which were ‘totalitarian’ on the one hand and ‘authoritarian’ on the other.

Within the wider story are illuminating mini-biographies of the major players including the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, Nikita Khruschev and the Kennedy brothers: The evolving position of Fidel Castro from having been primarily a Cuban nationalist to his embrace of Marxism and an alliance with the Soviet Union.

Also, Bobby Kennedy’s transformation from strident anti-communist hawk to a ‘softer’, more enlightened position in terms of his understanding of the roots of poverty in Latin America and by extension his taking up of the cause of the downtrodden minorities of his country, is persuasively presented.

She also charts the improbable but radical metamorphosis of Francisco Caamano, the son of one of Trujillo’s generals, from die hard rightist to figurehead of a democratic movement who finally became a Cuban-trained guerrilla and was martyred in the process of attempting to overthrow the military regime installed by the Americans after it had snuffed out the burgeoning democratic coalition which was forming after the fall of the Trujillo regime.

Conceptually, there are parallels between Red Heat and Stephen Kinzer’s All The Shah’s Men, in which Kinzer took to task American policy in Iran and how its bungling had sowed the roots of the anti-Americanism which persists in the Middle East.

Similarly, what Von Tunzlemann makes plain through the succession of events leading up to the Cold War-era, is that by its actions in the Caribbean nations (as well as in Latin America), the United States established a template for intervening in other lands, using methods which it applied and continues to apply in the wider theatre of world politics.

This, as the author deftly shows, has not been without significant cost to the prestige and standing of America.

Adeyinka Makinde (2011)

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