By Eliseo Cardona | Sun Sentinel
The Castro Obsession. Don Bohning. Potomac Books. $29.95. 307 pp.
Cuban exile history is marked by the many scars of defeat, drama and tragedy. Take the outrageously high number of Cuban rafters who’ve lost their lives trying to cross the Florida Straits; the tainted image of a community that embarked in the uphill battle to keep the boy Elian Gonzalez in Miami and away from his father in Cuba; or the fact that Fidel Castro has remain untouched in power for more than four decades and is most likely to remain a dominating figure in the politics of the island even after his death.
Yet none of the Cuban exiles’ scars seems as festered as the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Even 44 years later, many exiles, especially those who participated in the Brigade 2506, the 1,500-member troupe financed, armed and trained by the CIA during the Kennedy Administration, still consider the guerrilla mission to topple Castro and establish a government of democratic values as a major source of resentment against this country.
It was, in fact, a military and political embarrassment for both the Cuban exiles and the United States; one that moved President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to back a series of military strategies that ultimately turned into disgraceful errors and to take diplomatic measures that evolved into nightmarish confrontations that peaked during the missile crisis in October 1962. Don Bohning’s book, The Castro Obsession, suggests that by trying to defeat a dictator by intervening without really intervening—that is, by setting a program of covert propaganda, sabotage and assassination plots—the U.S. gave Castro the moral high ground and the international aura of a victimized David battling Goliath.
At times an overwhelming account of U.S covert operations against Cuba, The Castro Obsession also portrays this piece of history as a stain hard to remove from memory.
From the beginning of Castro’s rise to power in 1959 to almost the end of 1965, the United States—first with President Eisenhower and then with Kennedy—tried to get rid of a communist 90 miles off the Florida coast. Bohning states that removing Castro not only became an obsession for the Kennedy Administration, but also “was one of the most extensive, sustained, and ultimately futile covert action programs by one country against the government of another in the post-World War II era.”
A former Latin American correspondent and editor for The Miami Herald, Bohning is a keen, incisive investigator. He’s also a strict reporter who relies heavily on interviews with the main participants in the covert operations, extensive reading and a meticulously study of declassified military and government documents. This serves one the book’s seemingly main purposes: to present the facts, no more, no less, and allow readers to come up with their own conclusions.
It also drains the readers’ attention, for Bohning is more a mostly-by-the-book reporter than a historian or a storyteller. Indeed, the barrage of information, details, quotes, facts and names is presented without the benefit of historical analysis, engaging narrative or astute observations. This may explain why the book, which is written in the tone of long, convoluted reportage, becomes heavy reading.
Nevertheless, he connects events with superb dexterity and offers some revealing answers as to why, for example, the Kennedy White House never backed the Cuban brigade with air support; or how the so-called Mongoose Operation became probably the most fruitless, budget-draining program of the Kennedy government; not to mention how White House pressures to liberate Cuba from Castro led government officials to create the most nonsensical, and indeed hilarious, plots to kill the man (the chapter “Nutty Schemes” is devoted to what Bohning describes as the plots that “ranged from the silly to sublime, with the outrageous sandwiched in between”).
If anything, The Castro Obsession provides evidence that politics on this side of the straits can also be a comedy of errors. For what started 45 years ago is now a relationship of dullness between two countries. Or, as Jorge Luis Borges was stated: “The struggle of two bald men fighting for a comb.”