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Blood feuds across the Straits of Florida

Cuba Confidential, Love and Hate in the Two Havanas, Ann Louise Bardach, Random House: 384 pp., $25.95

October 27, 2002|Carlos Eire | Carlos Eire is the author of the forthcoming "Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy." He is the T. Lawrason Riggs professor of history and religious studies at Yale University.

A Pioneer's uniform. That's all. A measly uniform, worn by Elian right after he was returned to Cuba. I couldn't stand looking at that photo of him, and neither could thousands of other Cuban exiles in the United States. It spoke to us in a language outsiders couldn't even begin to understand. It seared our souls, and to many in America our rage seemed so odd, so absurd. Like some primitive tribe bewailing their fallen idols, we seemed to be grieving over nothing substantial, or something other than what met the eye. This behavior baffled millions of people, yet none of them cried out: "Call in the anthropologist!" That is, until now.

In one sense, Ann Louise Bardach's "Cuba Confidential" bears a resemblance to works such as Claude Levi-Strauss' "The Savage Mind," Clifford Geertz's "The Religion of Java" and Victor Turner's "Forest of Symbols," for "Cuba Confidential" is a book that seeks to unveil to civilized eyes the seemingly cryptic meaning hidden deep within the behavior of primitive aliens. In this case it's not the islanders of some faraway archipelago who are analyzed but Cubans, both in their native habitat and in their diaspora.

Bardach does this by focusing on intrigue and unbridled emotions at many levels of Cuban society: inside Castro's own family and inner circle, among the players in the Elian epic and within the exile community in Miami. She also seeks to reduce the last half century of Cuban history to a simple formula: The Cuban Revolution should be seen as a family feud. It's not really a story about five decades of unrelenting totalitarian rule. It's all about kinfolk. Simply put, Cubans are the Hatfields and McCoys of the Caribbean, and like all such benighted clans, they have created an incestuous brawl in which compromise and mediation become treason.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 29, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 98 words Type of Material: Correction
Book subtitle -- The subtitle of Ann Louise Bardach's book "Cuba Confidential" was wrong in Book Review on Sunday. It is "Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 03, 2002 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 2 inches; 92 words Type of Material: Correction
Book subtitle -- The subtitle of Ann Louise Bardach's book "Cuba Confidential" was wrong in the Oct. 27 issue of Book Review. It is "Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana."

It's all about unruly neighbors too. Bardach contends that this tawdry melee has spilled over onto the streets and voting booths of South Florida and the desks of policymakers in Washington, drawing Americans into a fray that debases them and costs them dearly. If you want to understand why Cuba is such a mess and why 10 U.S. presidents have been unable to fix the problem, then, writes Bardach, focus on love and hate, those two unreasonable passions that rule Cuban politics and American policymaking.

As the title suggests, this book seeks to disclose secrets. Few American journalists are better poised to do this than Bardach. For many years she has been covering Cuba on both sides of the Florida Strait. Her work has appeared in the most venerable newspapers and magazines; network television and National Public Radio often call upon her to shed light on all things Cuban. That Bardach knows Miami and Cuba from the inside out is undeniable: Her contacts are wide-ranging in both places, her research is thorough and meticulous, her access to key figures is impressive. She has quizzed Castro and joked with his brother Raul. She has also interviewed scores of high-profile players in recent Cuba affairs, including some of Castro's and Elian's relatives, and some of Castro's most passionate enemies.

So, then, what is it that she has to show us? What we find here is not a cache of secrets but rather a collection of tales about troubled relationships among Cubans of all sorts. For instance, we learn that Fidel Castro was once involved in a bitter custody dispute with his first wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart, and that he kidnapped their son. When this story is juxtaposed with that of Elian Gonzalez, we can recognize the distant echoes of this all-too- familiar drama. We are also reminded that Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is the nephew of Castro's first wife and thus also a first cousin to Castro's oldest son, "Fidelito." We are led to see why Diaz-Balart carries heavy emotional baggage in all of his attempts to sway Congress to vote for "retrograde legislation" concerning Cuba.

We are taken deep inside the households connected by blood and marriage to Elian Gonzalez, both in Cuba and Florida. We are reminded at every turn of the absence of ideology and of the soap-opera plot lines that led to the boat wreck, the custody war and the media frenzy: We learn that Elian's mother didn't flee Cuba in a flimsy skiff because she was seeking freedom but rather because her love life was a mess and that the same passionate disorder extended to everyone else on that ill-fated voyage and to the family members who battled for custody of Elian.

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