For D.C. based author and illustrator Juana Medina, learning English in her native Columbia was a requirement she resisted as a child, yet appreciated later as an adult.
At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union saw the Caribbean as a key battleground. But while Washington and Moscow competed for ideological supremacy in the 1960s, the leaders of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were manipulating outside support to their own advantage. How a decade of corruption, violence and revolution left a lasting impact on the Caribbean.
- Alex von Tunzelmann Author, "Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean" (Henry Holt)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Very shortly we'll be talking about "Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean". It's the book authored by our guest Alex von Tunzelmann. She joins us from studios at the BBC in London.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAlex von Tunzelmann, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. ALEX VON TUNZELMANNThanks for having me on the show.
NNAMDIWe'll be talking about the book shortly, but I'd like first an update on what's been going on in Britain. We've been hearing reports of riots taking place for the past several days. I know it's evening there now. Can you tell us what occurred today?
TUNZELMANNWell, I mean, today's been mostly quiet, but there's been a lot of police out on the streets and certainly here in the center of town, a lot of businesses seem to be shutting early and people kind of going home early, shutting up shop.
NNAMDIThere's a little bit of puzzlement over here as to exactly what these riots are all about. We know that they were sparked by the shooting of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, I think, this past Friday or Saturday. Is that correct?
TUNZELMANNWell, I think that was correct for the original riot on Saturday night in Tottenham, which is where Mark Duggan was shot. And that seemed to be sparked off by a reaction to his shooting by police, which does indeed -- you know, now there are some pretty serious doubts going around about that because it seems like he didn't fire on them first.
TUNZELMANNBut actually, last night, which was by far the biggest night of rioting so far, I don't think, you know, most of the people rioting last night would have had any idea originally who Mark Duggan was. So I think it's kind of moved on and become something quite different now.
NNAMDIExactly who was rioting and where?
TUNZELMANNWell, you know, it's hard to know and actually that seems to be a question people are just kind of starting to ask is who these rioters are. I mean, they obviously seem to be mostly young, mostly kind of coming from some kind of disaffected background and they've been rioting all over London, I mean, an incredibly wide geographical area, you know, east, west, north, south, the whole place.
NNAMDIAre they predominately black or people of color or is the rioting well diverse?
TUNZELMANNIt's pretty diverse, actually. You know, it's hard to say. I mean, originally, of course, because Mark Duggan was black, as you rightly say, there was a kind of perceiving that this was a race riot. And actually, now, I think it really has moved on from that. I mean, certainly some of the worst violence last night was clearly committed by white youths and there's -- you know, there seems to be a real kind of -- as I say, it's moved on from that now really.
NNAMDIAnd even though there seems to have been widespread condemnation of the activities of the rioters, I hear the word social deprivation being -- or the term social deprivation being used a lot because there seems to be, in the minds of some people, some relationship between what's going on right now and some of the drastic cuts in social spending that the current government has instigated or instituted.
TUNZELMANNYeah, I mean, that's part of it. I think, at the moment, it's -- so much of this is speculation because it seems to me that nobody has actually really spoken to the rioters very much and asked them what they're rioting about. You know, it's hard to know.
TUNZELMANNSo there are some people saying, oh, they're just looters. They're just out to, you know, steal electronics and sports goods and all this stuff, which indeed they seem to be doing. And then, other people saying, this is a kind of deeper malaise. This is about some political reason. But it's not at all clear at the moment, you know. We may have to wait until the dust settles to find that out.
NNAMDIAnd there seems to be some comparisons between how the rioters are communicating and how people every place from the Middle East and from China were communicating in recent protests. They seem to be communicating by Blackberry messaging and Facebook and Twitter in large measure. Is that correct?
TUNZELMANNYeah, very much, I mean, although I think you have to be very careful not to kind of then come out and say, oh, it's Blackberry's fault or anything like that. Well, it's not -- it's nothing to do with that. And I mean, one thing we saw today that was very positive, for instance, is on Twitter. This campaign was organized for those of us who kind of were very sad about this to go and clear up some of the rioted mess this morning. So we all kind of -- you know, people all over London were going out with brooms and their, you know, kind of waste bags and their rubber gloves and clearing up some of the mess that had been made last night.
TUNZELMANNAnd so, you know, as much as Twitter or whatever can cause a kind of negative force, it can also create something very positive. So you know, it's just a tool, but, of course, the rioters would use whatever is the easiest means of communication.
NNAMDIAnd of course, there's a great deal of speculation about what impact this is likely to have on preparations for the Olympic schedule for next year in Britain. Is there anything that you can say about that at all?
TUNZELMANNYeah, well, it's hard to know. I mean, the government keeps saying there's no Plan B on the Olympics so -- but now we have this obvious situation where, you know, you have to wonder whether people are going to be put off coming to London. I mean, it was pretty dangerous in London last night, frankly, and it may well be dangerous again tonight. And, you know, even though that comes under control, of course it damages the image of the city. And certainly, you know, somebody was saying last night you don't know if we're going to have an Olympic stadium left by the time this lot are finished.
NNAMDIAnd the extent of which people feel that it may be related to the impact of social service cutbacks. Are you hearing anything from the Cameron government at all along those lines?
TUNZELMANNWell, you know, obviously, they're saying, of course, it's got nothing to do with that. And as I say, it's going to be hard to know 'til we speak to the rioters, but it certainly seems, from what indications we have, that this is, you know, this has become something that is not necessarily so much about race or anything like that, but more really about, yeah, maybe poverty and the deprivation that, you know, a whole swath of London youths suffer. And of course, to some extent that correlates with race, but it's kind of a complicated issue.
NNAMDIYou're a historian. Have there been comparisons made to the riots that occurred, I think it was -- it was 25 or 26 years ago, which seemed to be much more about race than these are?
TUNZELMANNYeah, I think those were much more clearly about race. I mean, we've had riots in London in the past in Brixton and Broadwater Estates and all sorts of places. But, you know, those have often been -- I mean, since then, what's happened, certainly with the police, for instance is there have been a lot of efforts to improve them. I mean, 25 or 30 years ago, you could certainly have said very fairly that the Metropolitan Police had a really serious problem with race. And now they've got, I think, if I get the number right, something like 3,000 black and Asian officers.
TUNZELMANNYou know, they've made pretty significant efforts. Of course, I'm not saying it's all solved, but certainly efforts have been made to really improve that situation that was once very bad and is now much better. So, you know, I think the kind of -- the situation has moved on and I also think there's probably a case for saying that, you know, some of these communities are more integrated.
TUNZELMANNI mean, if you looked at the rioters last night, you had black kids and white kids and Asian kids all rioting together. So I'm not saying that this unity is necessarily a great thing, but it does not seem to be one ethnic group, certainly not.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we will have -- we will resume our conversation with Alex von Tunzelmann. She is the author of "Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean." That's what we'll be talking about after this short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt was an unlikely battleground in the global fight against communism. In the 1950s and '60s, the Caribbean seemed to be on the brink of left-wing revolution. In the mountains of Cuba and the slums of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Washington watched with apprehension as a potent mix of nationalism, anti-Americanism and foreign tampering brought the Cold War into our backyard.
NNAMDIA procession of Republican and Democratic presidents all saw existential threats to our way of life, but others saw an opportunity. Strongmen like Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic realized that they could get away with almost anything as long as they were fighting communism, mass murder, torture, embezzlement. If a leftist conspiracy didn't exist, he could make one up.
NNAMDIHistorian Alex von Tunzelmann says Washington was at war with an idea, but that idea didn't quite conform to the reality on the ground. She joins us from studios at the BBC in London. Her book is called "Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean." Alex von Tunzelmann, for two weeks in October 1962, the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear war. The U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a diplomatic standoff now known in the U.S. as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Cuba, they called it the October Crisis.
NNAMDIWhatever you called it, it was the first time most Americans realized we were in an ideological war in the Caribbean. But you say that the view from Latin America was very different. How so?
TUNZELMANNWell, the way I see it, communism became a kind of -- a sort of Bete Noire for the U.S., a kind of bogey man that was built up to be this kind of great evil against which the whole nation must be rallied. And, you know, that had to happen nationally in things like McCarthyism, but it also had to happen internationally.
TUNZELMANNThe threat of communism became so frightening that it was, you know, it became the ultimate evil. And you know, I compare it a little in the book perhaps to kind of the way that Islam is viewed today, that there's this kind of global evil and the U.S. needs to fight it. And really what I'm looking at when I started to look at the papers from Latin America -- because The Missile Crisis was, of course, the event that kind of drew me into this book in many ways. It's such a big deal, you know. The world came so close to global nuclear war. It's never been closer.
TUNZELMANNAnd when I started to look from a Latin American point of view, I was kind of surprised when I found more and more that there really wasn't very much Soviet involvement. That actually these kinds of stories about the USSR kind of going into Latin America and setting up all these cells and these empires and stuff just didn't match up with what we knew of the KGB records. So there seemed to be a different story going on, a story about Latin American nationalism, that actually had nothing to do with communism. But perhaps this kind of beast that was communism, you know, this kind of perhaps slightly mythical beast, started to become a convenient hook on which to hang that nationalism.
NNAMDIThe story, as you tell it, focuses on three countries, Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. At various times, all had ruthless and eccentric dictators, but they also had unique historical trajectories. Why group them together?
TUNZELMANNWell, part of the reason for that was I felt that just looking at Cuba was something that, first of all, had been done a lot. You know, a lot of people have looked at Cuba, either people often who are very positive about Cuba or very negative about Cuba under Fidel Castro, and, you know, people often have a real agenda about that. And what I was trying to do by broadening it out to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which at the time were really the only other two major independent nations in the Caribbean, because, you know, I mean, a lot of the British colonies and so on were just getting their independence. So these three were the kind of big three independent nations.
TUNZELMANNAnd what I wanted to do really was kind of look at how U.S. policy reflected in all of them. You know, when I started to put Haiti and the Dominican Republic into the picture and see the levels that the U.S. went to keep dictators in power in those countries who sold themselves to the U.S. as big anti-communists, then it became a kind of much fuller picture than just this kind of image of you know, Castro versus Kennedy. It became a much kind of bigger picture.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Alex von Tunzelmann. She's a historian who writes a regular film and history column for the Guardian newspaper. Her latest book is "Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean." If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Did you live or travel outside the U.S. during the Cold War? Maybe you grew up in the Caribbean or Latin America.
NNAMDIYou can call us and share your memories at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I was a teenager in the Caribbean, myself, during that time. Maybe I'll talk a little bit more about that later.
NNAMDIBut for the time being, Alex von Tunzelmann, Rafael Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic, is commonly viewed as a right wing monster, somebody who tortured and murdered thousands of people, while Fidel Castro in Cuba, on the other hand, is seen here as a left wing dictator. But ideology, as we see it in the West, might actually obscure more than it explains, especially in trying to understand how these different leaders position themselves over the years. Is that correct?
TUNZELMANNIt's definitely something I noticed in writing this book. I say in the book that I think ideology in Caribbean politics is really not that important compared to a much more simple kind of holding onto power. And it's partly because these are very small states often, you know, and power is very toughly felt. But you see that people like Fidel Castro, if you actually look back at his history, the whole time he was fighting in the mountains in Cuba when -- you know, he had not yet had any contact with the Soviet Union or anything like that.
TUNZELMANNIn fact, some of his supporters thought he was going to turn out to be another right wing military dictator if he got in, like Trujillo or someone so -- because he seemed authoritarian and he seemed -- and, in fact, he, at the time, it appears that he was probably trying to start a relationship with the CIA as well. So, you know, these people were very flexible about exactly which side they would support. And a lot of that was really just about power.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that because there was, in the middle of all of that kind of nationalism, a strong anti-Washington sentiment in all of those countries, but not much more than a couple of small groups or intellectuals who could be called socialist or communist. Why was anti-Americanism conflated into communism?
TUNZELMANNWell, I think that happens for a couple of reasons. First of all, because -- in the U.S., because as I say, communism at the time was kind of this big evil, this big bad that had to be fought. There was a tendency in Washington to kind of conflate the two ideas. If someone was anti-American, it was presumed they were, you know, quite possibly a communist. And if someone was a communist, it was definitely presumed they were anti-American.
TUNZELMANNAnd, in fact, these two things could be quite different. There was not necessarily an overlap between them all the time. And at the same time, of course, when Washington started to do that, people in Latin America who didn't like the U.S. for all sorts of reasons, started to see communism as more attractive because it irritated the U.S. Therefore, you know, there was some kind of countercultural attraction in that. So, you know, it became a kind of cycle when -- it didn't necessarily imply that there were a lot of Latin Americans who were fundamentally communists.
NNAMDIYou're telling the story of American involvement in the Caribbean 50 years ago, but that historical record has some interesting parallels in the present. First and foremost, you say we seem to constantly wage war based on ideas, not based on a realistic understanding of the enemy. And I'm thinking here, Afghanistan. I'm thinking here our conflicts with Venezuela, but I'm thinking here that you should be the one expanding on this.
TUNZELMANNWell, I'm thinking, unfortunately, you're completely right as well. And I wish I could say that was just confined to the U.S. It's not. I mean, you know, Britain, where I live and where I'm from, is -- has the same problem, to a large degree, these days. So there seems to be the sense of kind of it's some kind of mission creep from the idea of ethical foreign policy into the idea that you can go to war with an idea.
TUNZELMANNAnd, of course, it's impossible, with weapons, to fight an idea. I mean, it's just not the thing you would use. So you end up in these kind of really long term conflicts. And I mean, I think it's never been clear in Iraq and Afghanistan, really, what those wars have been about.
NNAMDIYeah, because the intelligence on the ground has not always been very reliable. Much of the saga of American relations in the Caribbean in the 20th century is dominated by Washington's relationships, or lack thereof, with Fidel Castro from our tentative relationship with him at the onset of the revolution to our attempts to overthrow and assassinate him. But in a very real sense, the first dictator to capture the attention and the fantasies of Washington was Rafael Trujillo, was it not?
TUNZELMANNYes, well, he came into office in 1930 so he had a kind of very long pedigree, really because he stayed in office for nearly 30 years. And then he -- in fact over 30. Thirty-one years, he kind of went through various phases with the U.S. He found a lot of people in Washington pretty much hated him from the outset, could see this guy was a thug, could see that what he was doing was not acceptable.
TUNZELMANNAnd, I mean, there were awful incidents, like the Parsley Massacre in late 1930s when he committed an act of genocide against black people in the Dominican Republic who he suspected of being Haitians who'd come over the border. And you found that, at the time, you know, of course, this was condemned by lots of people in Washington, but at the same time, Trujillo was consistently friendly to American business interests and, you know, put great effort into wooing a lot of American business men and military men and politicians and so on.
TUNZELMANNYou know, and actually bribing them on a lot of occasions. We're very aware. And he managed to hold on to -- with this kind of sense of support from Washington. And also because positioned himself, sold himself as Latin Americas premier anti-communist. You know, this was his tag for himself.
NNAMDIHe was one of the first people to recognize he could manipulate Washington by playing the communism card, is that correct?
TUNZELMANNI think that's correct. And he definitely did so the whole time. And Trujillo really was the master of this. I mean, lots of Latin American dictators figured out this was a good way to stay in power, to say your opposition was communism. So, you know, and actually, talking about current events, it's really very similar to what someone like Hosni Mubarak has said for years in Egypt. You know, he said well, if I go, it's going to be the, you know, Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalists are going to take over, and all this.
TUNZELMANNAnd actually, that hasn't yet come to pass. That hasn't really proven to be true. And similarly with Trujillo, he actually invented his own communist opposition. He constructed a party and had it run against him. And it was something that he had completely invented.
NNAMDIHe created the socialist party, the popular...
NNAMDI...socialist party in 1944. And it's my...
NNAMDI...understanding, as you reported in the book, he brought in exiles to manage the party?
TUNZELMANNYeah, I mean, he let back some of the Dominican exiles that he'd kind of -- had been forced out of his country and had them manage the party and had it run this whole election against him. Of course, which then allowed him to say to the U.S., that not only was he a democrat because you see he was having an election -- although, of course, it was completely fixed. They always were.
TUNZELMANNBut he was also, you know, running against communism. And then after the election, he declared communism illegal and put all these exiles into prison again. So, you know, it was a pantomime. I mean, it was a charade. But, of course, you know, in Washington, these countries were small. You know, people in, you know, the state department didn't necessarily have a huge amount of time to devote to working out what was going on. And so, you know, on the surface, it pretty much looked like it was as Trujillo was saying it was.
NNAMDIAlex von Tunzelmann is the author of "Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean." She joins us from studios at the BBC in London. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Did you live or travel outside the U.S. during the Cold War? Maybe you grew up in the Caribbean or Latin America. You can call us and share your memories. Or have you seen the legacies of anti-Americanism in the Caribbean or Latin America? 800-433-8850. Here is Tesfa (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Tesfa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Tesfa, are you there?
TESFAYes, yes, I am. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIWe can, go right ahead.
TESFAOkay, good afternoon. My question is, in the Caribbean or the Latin American countries, their Condor conflicts stayed within the national border. It was a dictator, usually, imposing on the people. In the horn of Africa and the Congo, it was between countries and a war -- unending war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, between Somalia and Ethiopia. (unintelligible) and seemed the Cold World War year, who was a communist himself, Meles Zenawi has created genocide -- has committed genocide in Ethiopia and...
NNAMDIOne of the things you need to know, Alex con Tunzelmann, is that there are a great many Ethiopians and Eritreans in the Washington area who are particularly upset about the U.S. relationship with the government of Ethiopia right now. And so they make relationships, some of them, easy to understand, some of them not quite as easy to understand between U.S. foreign policy today and U.S. foreign policies then. I think the commonality is what you've been talking about earlier and that is not being able to fully understand the situation on the ground.
TUNZELMANNYes. I mean, I think that's a consistent problem that actually, pretty much all Western nations have when dealing with, you know, these kind of -- what would then in the '50s and '60s have been called the Third World, is they want it simply packaged. You know, they want to know, okay, who are the good guys, who are the bad guys? Let's just work with this. And, you know, we're seeing that at the moment in things like the conflict in Libya. People want a simple answer and the fact is, there often isn't a very simple answer.
TUNZELMANNOften, you know, some of the guys that you think are good are going to turn bad or the guys you think are bad are going to turn good or, in fact, there's a kind of mixture of light and shade about the whole thing, which makes it way more complicated than just a simple, you know, black and white situation.
NNAMDIIn Haiti, François Duvalier came to prominence as a medical doctor and as a follower of the Negritude movement. This was a cultural tradition in Haiti and in much of the French-speaking black world. It emphasized the African roots of the population and celebrated its unique cultural identity in Haiti, of course, that included voodoo. But although Duvalier flirted with some left leaning ideas, his world view, to the extent that he had one was informed more by race, not class, and perhaps more accurately is -- his world view was informed by serving, first and foremost, himself.
TUNZELMANNAbsolutely. I mean, this is something that I was keen to get across with Duvalier because Duvalier is so often portrayed as just, you know, kind of, by historians who kind of conflate the idea that, you know, he was into voodoo, which they kind of demonize. And he was into black power, which they also demonized and that, you know, in fact, again, kind of what I'm saying about him is that he was really using these things, just as Castro was using communism or Rafael Trujillo was using communism negatively or whatever, you know. He -- again, his goal was all about power and it was all about self enrichment. I mean, he embezzled a huge amount of money. And that's what it's about. It's not about ideology for him.
NNAMDIIndeed, to go back to Castro for a second, you write that he was deeply affected by the colonial story of Haiti, how it threw off the yolks of the Europeans. He actually wrote about that history while he was serving time in prison.
TUNZELMANNYeah, he did. He wrote about it and he found this story quite amazing, as anyone does really who finds out the story about, you know, the Haitian...
TUNZELMANN...War of Independence. I mean, it's incredible story and it is still the only successful slave revolt in the Hall of History, you know, which is just an incredible fact. I mean, even Spartacus, you know, the other really famous one was eventually defeated. And Haiti actually, you know, kind of the slaves took over and the slaves did win, although they were terribly punished for it by, you know, all the other nations in the world really.
TUNZELMANNAnd, you know, that kind of goes to start explaining why Haiti is in such terrible state today, was that kind of punishment that it suffered after declaring independence.
NNAMDIBut it goes to, also, understanding or lack of understanding of who Fidel Castro is or certainly who he was. Because the most important belief structure he adhered to at that time was indeed a form of nationalism when we, even then, started to see him as some kind of communist ideologue.
TUNZELMANNYes. And, I mean, actually at that time, he was definitely not a communist. And you can see, in fact, race politics is something that's very important to him.
TUNZELMANNIt's interesting to note in his speeches, for a long time, he's talking about, you know, race equality and so on. And that was something that he often brings up. And, again, this kind of note wasn't really heard a lot of the time in Washington because what people were listening for was about communism. So they were listening out for signs of that and kind of ignoring the bigger message of what he was saying.
TUNZELMANNAnd as I say, I think he started a nationalist and actually, I think, he stayed a nationalist. I think he still is a nationalist. I think communism has been something for him that has been a useful prop, you know. I don't actually think he has been particularly idealist about it. I think, early on, his brother Raúl was a very idealist communist and he was for a long time. But Fidel did not listen to Raúl in all matters.
TUNZELMANNNow -- and actually Fidel -- interestingly now, I think the situation is slightly reversed between them. I think Raúl is now probably considerably more progressive than Fidel and I think he moved away from kind of doctrinaire communism in the '80s.
NNAMDIOn to Gary in Sterling, Va. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARYOh, good afternoon, thank you. 1961, my mother got her American citizenship. And once she got that, we lived overseas. She would coach foreign nationals on how to get into the United States when they were pregnant and about to have their child and she would set up, like, a doctor and a hospital to go to. And as long as they weren't too dark and were anti-union because she thought that was the first step toward communism. And she would make money on doing this and that's -- was just my experience -- one of my experiences.
NNAMDISo there -- we talked a lot on this show, in the past, about anchor babies. If people who were, at that point, seeking to come here in order to start families, who could have American citizenship. You were saying that she essentially instructed them in how to be anti-union and anti-communist in order to grease the skids, so to speak?
GARYWell, so that they -- she would also put them in girdles and shape them so that they could get by the immigration authorities. And I thought that, you know, the women used to make noises when she was doing this and -- because it hurt them. Is -- I thought they were going through a lot of pain for their child.
GARYAnd my mother chuckled and said no, they're doing it for themselves because the children are going to go to military school and become, you know, Americanized and go to work in the U.S. And then they can bring their parents into the United States so they can get Social security because they didn't have any Social Security where we were.
NNAMDIGary, thank you very much. That was the whole point. And I guess that's what Trujillo and others did, exploited the kind of anti-communist sentiment that existed in the United States. But, Alex von Tunzelmann, it's inevitable whenever we try to understand our cultures, we see them through our own cultural and political lens. And in some cases, that's a good thing, but doesn't it also mean that we can sometimes misdiagnose the politics of countries that we are not very familiar with?
TUNZELMANNI think it's one of -- that's one of the biggest traps that exists in diplomacy and foreign policy. You know, and that's kind of one of the reasons why, with this book, what I wanted to do was try and look quite strongly at the motivations of these Caribbean leaders. And look at them as much as possible in their own terms, you know.
TUNZELMANNBecause it seemed to me like it's so easy to make presumptions about what these people are thinking and doing and why they're doing it and actually, you often can't make those presumptions. Often, if you actually look at the motivation, it turns out to be very different from what you might imagine.
NNAMDIYou know, perhaps the most prevalent and dangerous mistake we tend to make is to graft our ideas of the political spectrum of left and right onto other cultures. That was done repeatedly in the Caribbean and it proved almost completely useless to understand the politics of a place like Haiti, both then and now. We went to Haiti to broadcast last year and the general perception here was that Aristide was not good for the Haitian people because, well, he was too left.
NNAMDIHe leaned too much toward what we think of as socialism and communism. And when we got there, we found that the Haitian people themselves had no clue what we were talking about in terms of ideology. And when we look at the current situation in Haiti, it becomes difficult for U.S. foreign policy to figure out who is who because the kinds of political labels we used to here, mean nothing there.
TUNZELMANNI think that's absolutely right. I mean, I would say, in Haiti now, it's actually pretty hard for anyone to figure out who is who. You know, it's a very complicated situation over there. And goodness knows, I mean, absolutely, yeah, extraordinary situation, really. But I agree with that about Aristide. I think that's something that, you know, it's absolutely true. That I think, you know, most Haitians, if you ask them, would be completely dumbfounded at this idea that he was some kind of, you know, sleeper cell, commie or whatever he was accused of being.
TUNZELMANNYou know, I mean, I think, actually, a lot of people would be, for instance, more interested in the fact that he was, you know, a religious figure or something like that. You know, there would be completely different points of reference about who he was. And, you know, that's very important that these identities are very different, often on the ground from what's perceived in Washington or London or Paris or anywhere else.
NNAMDIIn this book, you talk about the language of politics in Latin America at that time. This was a different set of codes that Washington never really seemed to understand, even if the embassy staffs in Havana and in Santo Domingo where Trujillo was, did seem to understand, they couldn't seem to get it through the heads of people back here.
TUNZELMANNAbsolutely. And I think there's this quote in the book from a guy called Juan Bosch who was, at some point, President of the Dominican Republic...
TUNZELMANN...and was kind of ousted by the U.S. at a later point for being a lefty. And actually, Juan Bosch was pretty pro-American. In fact, immensely pro-American. And he -- there's this interview I found with him from the early '60s where he was saying, you know, you've got to understand that, for us, the language that was being used was completely confusing because every time that America was talking about democracy, well, all the Latin-American military dictators called themselves democracies, said they were acting in the name of democracy.
TUNZELMANNSo we thought democracy was this -- we had no interest democracy. We thought that this was a completely anti-freedom movement, you know, because things had been totally turned on their head. So he said of course, people didn't care about democracy in the Caribbean because they had the idea that democracy was the opposite of what, of course, Americans would think it was. So, you know, this was very interesting to me, that actually this language was completely inadequate and people were speaking at total cross purposes.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again, here is Alexander in Fairfax, Va. Alexander, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXANDERThanks, Kojo. I was calling just to agree with you guys about how a lot of times as an American or as someone from any country when you might go to another country or be looking at a conflict that happened in another country, you kind of put your own perspective -- your own nationalist perspective on it. And I was gonna just give a quick anecdote that I was in Panama traveling for about a month last year, and while I was down there, there was a parade of some sort that was related to when the American government was down in Panama.
ALEXANDERI guess that was about 20 years ago now, and there was military action that action that occurred in Panama City to, I think, get rid of Noriega more or less. And as Americans, me and person I was traveling with, we both thought, okay, so you guys must be, you know, kind of grateful or thankful about this, and speaking to Panamanians about it, they weren't going to say that they liked the dictator they had it place, but at the same time, you know, it isn't that America -- that they were grateful that Americans would just come in and do, you know, come in with a military force and just start kind of this presupposition that, you know, we're the bigger brother here.
ALEXANDERWe know what -- we know what you would like to have happen because, you know, you're willing to sacrifice your kind of self -- I don't know how to put it, kind of dignity, kind of just nationalistic sentiment for…
NNAMDIWell, Alexander, I'm glad you raised that issued because in this book, our guest, Alex Von Tunzelmann, talks about how that manipulated. Alex, on the one hand, this is the story of dictators, you know, skillfully manipulating the fears of Washington or, as you describe it, of puppets coming to life on their own, and defying their masters. It was a story of incredible complexity where everybody was manipulating everyone else.
NNAMDIIn the case of Cuba, in the midst of the revolution, all sides realize that a key to winning the war lay in convincing American journalists that they were winning.
TUNZELMANNAbsolutely. I mean, that was a crucial factor in Fidel Castro winning the Cuban Revolutionary War was inviting this guy Herbert Matthews from the New York Times down to his base in the mountains in southern Cuba, and convincing Herbert Matthews that he had this massive force of very well-drilled troops, and he had a second front and all this stuff.
TUNZELMANNAnd he didn't have a massive force. He had about 17 men at this point, and he just had them march past again and again in a big circle so that Matthews saw all these guys going past, you know, and though wow, there's hundreds of them. And no, there were about 17.
TUNZELMANNBut of course, when this story then came out in the New York Times, the interesting thing is the reaction to that was, of course, that that was very inspiring for anti -- I mean, the leader at the time was Fulgencio Batista, and anti-Batista rebels all over Cuba started actually springing up because they had seen this great story. So, you know, it became -- this media manipulation incredibly important.
NNAMDIGot to talk a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Alex Von Tunzelmann. She is author of "Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and Cold War in the Caribbean." We'll take your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Alex Von Tunzelmann is a historian who writes a regular film and history column for the Guardian newspaper. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Alex Von Tunzelmann. She is a historian, and she writes a regular film and history column for the Guardian newspaper. Her latest book is called Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and Cold War in the Caribbean." She joins us from studios at the BBC in London. We're gonna get to the telephones in one second, but Alex, one of the other simplistic ideas we might have of the relationship that you describe in the book, the relationships was that it was one-sided, and that all of the action took place in the Caribbean.
NNAMDIIn the case of the Dominican Republic especially, that was not the case. In fact, Rafael Trujillo was apparently a master of manipulating American officials and the American public even here in the United States. How did he do that?
TUNZELMANNWell, he was -- he spent a lot of time and money trying to do that. Well, he would, um, he spent a lot of money bribing American politicians in some cases. Possibly also some military men. He certainly had some very strong supporters in the senior ranks of the U.S. military. And also, you know, kind of -- and he would do things like place adverts in American newspapers, in the New York Times and so on, declaring how fantastic the Dominican Republic was and, you know, sponsor long editorial sections about what a great country he had and all of this which, you know, was nonsense really.
TUNZELMANNHe wasn't at all. And, you know, but he was very successful at that, and he had his people in, you know, in the Senate and in the House of Representatives and so forth. And, you know, it was a pretty terrible situation frankly. But he was very successful at it.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Here now is Patricia in Washington D.C. Patricia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICIAGood afternoon, Kojo. I wanted to ask the author if she thought that the United States missed an opportunity with Fidel Castro when he first won and came to the United States asking the U.S. for help, even stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. The Kennedy administration didn't really think he was much of anything. And he ended up asking the Soviet Union for help, and of course the rest is history.
PATRICIAAnd I also wanted to give you a real interesting little anecdote about the Dominican Republic. There's a beer that's brewed in the Dominican Republic still to this day, and actually sold here in Washington and in New York and the rest of the country, that's called Presidente beer that was named after Trujillo. And the reason that they named it Presidente was because the owners of the brewery were -- didn't want him to harass them.
PATRICIAAnd so they figured, let's name the beer after him, and that way he'll leave us alone. And that shows you the influence that he has even to this day, years and years later, and thank you for taking my call.
NNAMDIPatricia, thank you very much for your call. Alex, were you familiar with that beer story at all?
TUNZELMANNNo, I wasn't. But I know that Trujillo did actually take ownership of the island's breweries at some point. So I wonder whether he named it himself, which was a common thing he would do. He took over a lot of the businesses in the Dominican Republic. But yeah. I mean, onto what Patricia was just saying about Castro coming to the U.S., it was actually the Eisenhower administration at that stage that he...
TUNZELMANNIt was before Kennedy. But I think probably an opportunity was missed there. I think at that stage it's very -- I mean, I found that trip, you know, I researched that in some detail and I've written about it in the book. And I found it very sad really, because it seemed again, you know, these two countries have been at cross purposes. I mean, one thing was that Castro had said to his treasury minister, you know, let's not talk about aid. I don't want this to be some trip with a, you know, with a third-world leader turning up with his cap in his hand, you know, asking for money.
TUNZELMANNBecause that's what always happens, and I don't want it to be about that. So we don't want to talk about aid at this stage. And so, you know, the treasury minister turns up and the Americans kind of mention that maybe they'd like a loan or whatever, and they say, well, no thanks, we're not interested. At which point, of course, Washington assumes that this can only be because Fidel is getting funding from somewhere else, and that can only be the Soviet Union.
TUNZELMANNAnd actually, at that stage he wasn't getting any funding from the Soviet Union. But it was a simple piece of misperception that have kind of gone on. And there were lots of little things like that that just made me feel like just the most terrible kind of, you know, human failure. Just little misses and miscommunications that happen that -- and I think Castro could certainly have gone a different way.
TUNZELMANNI mean, on that trip three were quite credible reports really from the CIA itself, and from the Cuban side, that Fidel had actually come very close to kind of going over to the American side. And actually, it has gone to the stage where Raul, his brother who was much more anti-American than him, had even flown to Texas and they had had this huge argument in the hotel there, which of course the CIA had recorded with great interest.
TUNZELMANNBecause Raul thought Fidel was going too far and becoming too pro-American. So, you know, it seemed to me like that was a very interesting moment that perhaps hadn't been fully perceived at the time.
NNAMDIHere is Ronald in Glen Burnie, Md. Ronald, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
RONALDGood afternoon, Kojo.
RONALDFirst a little background. I served in Guyana with the United Nations for two years during '93 and '94. And it was an interesting experience for me because I was managing a technical assistance program for the government, and -- Ministry of Finance, and I was very interested to learn about the Cold War experience of Guyana and the Guyanese, where the United States and Britain were very concerned that the Soviets and the Cubans I suppose...
NNAMDILet me tell you Ronald, I lived that experience in 1962 and 1963. The...
RONALDI thought you did, yes.
NNAMDIThe CIA and the MI5 collaborated to have a series of strikes and riots take place in the capital city of Guyana that ultimately led to a new governing arrangement and the removal of the government in power, because the government, which was essentially a nationalist government, was seen to have leftist tendencies, and that was assumed to be pro-communist. And as they say, the rest is history. Go ahead.
RONALDThe fact is that the Jagans were communist, Cheddi and his wife Janet were known communists.
TUNZELMANNNo, they weren't.
RONALDAnd the fear of the British and the Americans was that the Soviets would establish a submarine base on the shores of Guyana which would enable them to control the flow of petroleum and other cargo in and out of the Caribbean and the south coast of the United States, the Gulf Coast. This was a genuine fear.
NNAMDIBut the leap...
RONALDAnd so there was kind of a triple ballet going on there...
NNAMDIAnd -- and...
RONALD...with the Soviets and the Americans and the Cubans.
NNAMDIAlex can talk about this a lot more than I can, of course. The leap from the leadership of a political party being communist in those -- in that case the two individuals, husband and wife, to the establishment of Soviet bases there, is a leap of imagination, is it not?
TUNZELMANNYes. And, I mean, I don't actually think the Jagans were communists either. I mean, you know, it was -- that was a very interesting moment. I mean, actually I would have loved to write about Guyana as well in the book, but, you know, the book was already pretty long. (laughs) But, I mean, it's a fascinating story because Cheddi Jagan went in to meet Kennedy and kind of had this conversation with Kennedy, and Kennedy said to him at the time, that, you know, actually, you know, we don't, you know, we don't want to kind of force things on your country.
TUNZELMANNIf you maintain your national independence, this is what's important. And if you do that, we don't care what you are, and he actually said, apparently, we don't care if you're socialist, capitalist, pragmatist, or whatever. I think, I mean, Jagan was a socialist. I don't think he was a communist. But straight after that meeting, Kennedy actually met national security advisors and said that he thought Jagan must be overthrown.
TUNZELMANNYou know, and actually there was strong support from Bobby Kennedy for that, and also from Dean Rusk if I remember rightly. So there was a kind of sense within the American government that, you know, any kind of left-wing politics was inevitably going to slip toward communism. And I don't think there was any basis for thinking that at all. I don't think the Soviets were interesting in Guyana at all from what I'm aware, although I may...
NNAMDINor for what -- nor from what I am aware also. But Ronald, thank you very much for your call. It raises this issue, however, Alex. America doesn't tend to think of itself as a colonial power, and many people, during the height of what they would call American Imperialism and the Cold War, drew sharp distinctions between what Washington was doing and what London was doing in its empire. What were the differences, and what were the similarities?
TUNZELMANNWell, I mean, previous to this, I wrote about the British empire in India, so British empire is something I'm familiar with and very critical of all -- I think it was, you know, it was -- it's interesting because it's something that obviously is touch point in the U.S. Talking about an American empire immediately makes you sound like this kind of, you know, anti-American person, which you're not necessarily.
TUNZELMANNI mean, if you're, you know -- but in the Caribbean is the place in the world where you can perhaps most say that there is something resembling an American empire, or there was at the time. And, you know, I think...
NNAMDIBecause one parallel -- one parallel, even thought the concept of empire can be debated forever, but one parallel seems to be the ongoing violation of sovereignty.
TUNZELMANNAbsolutely. I mean, this -- well, that's the crucial factor for me, I think. I think sovereignty is the thing that, I mean, that's the thing that makes you not a colony. And interestingly, I mean, in Guyana particularly, I mean, actually, the U.S. which had been consistently encouraging the British government to give up its empire, speed up decolonization, actually when, you know, in Guyana, the U.S. told them to slow down independence because they were worried about this, you know, supposed communism that was going on.
TUNZELMANNAnd in fact, I think at the time, you know, in the House of Commons, the conservative chairman, Iain MacLeod, said, America is all over the world is urging us towards colonial freedom except when it approaches its own doorstep. So this was, you know, a very interesting situation that actually had the British kind of wanting to give Guyana its freedom, and the Americans saying slow it down, at that point. So something very strange was going on.
NNAMDIOnto Steve in Woodbridge, Va. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEOh, Kojo, thank you. You are a real hero of humanitarian work. I appreciate what you're trying to do a lot, but I think it's almost hopeless. I spent some time in the foreign service and quite a bit of time abroad for the U.S. government, including in Haiti. They are clueless. They lack interest in the local population, they remain in diplomatic circles, and one small aspect of State Department that prevents them improving is the rotations are rather quick.
STEVEThey don't encourage people to remain in country, to remain in the region. Their idea is by rotating them out perpetually they'll remain loyal to America. And I guess they do, but they don't, uh, really develop appropriate policies. I think the one thing that I'd like your guest to comment on, since she's also an expert on the British empire, the British empire was in an earlier period before jets and so on, and they had a different policy.
STEVEThe governors and the local officials of the British empire remained in country a long time. Some of them developed extraordinary local expertise, and they often encouraged and won the loyalty of local populations. The (word?) fought very bravely for the British. Now, they also engendered a lot of hatred.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. I'll have to ask Alex Von Tunzelmann to frame her response due to the extent that she can during the course of the next, what, oh, 30 seconds or so, Alex. Your turn.
TUNZELMANNWell, it's definitely true that they had long-term relationships in the British empire, which, yeah, the American, whatever you call it, has never attempted to do.
NNAMDIAnd Steve, thank you very much for your call. Alex Von Tunzelmann, thank you very much for joining us.
TUNZELMANNThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlex Von Tunzelmann's latest book is called "Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean." She joined us from studios at the BBC in London. Once again, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Fresh off the presidential campaign trail, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine is back at work on Capitol Hill on issues affecting both Virginia and the greater Washington region.
Since election day, the incoming Trump administration has slowly taken up residence in the Washington region. We look at how welcoming the region has been to new residents.
We talk with Chevy Chase business owners and residents about the reaction to the Sunday gun scare at Comet Ping Pong.