I don’t recall the last time I was so excited at the anticipation of reviewing a book.

Thus I devoured Ambassador Vicki Huddleston’s Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba, in a day’s swift three-course sitting that left me well sated… yet with faintly lingering heartburn.

A long-time advocate of dialog with Cuba, and an equally committed opponent of the U.S. embargo, Huddleston served as U.S. charge d’affaires for Cuba during the George H.W. Bush Administration, and three years (1999-2002) as Chief of the US Interests Section in Havana—our ambassador there in all but name—under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

Uniquely positioned to profile the inner workings of U.S. policy, Huddleston offers a brilliant summation of the two nations’ tangled and tormented relationship as she marvelously chronicles her personal anecdotal travails with Fidel in her conflicted role as the USA’s in-country advocate.

Far more than a mere memoir of Huddleston’s time on the island, Our Woman in Havana is a nuanced argument for continued diplomatic engagement, made more poignant today as Trump reverses Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, and as Raúl Castro prepares to step down.

Our Woman in Havana is eminently timed for this flashpoint moment.

Lay readers scratching their heads over the six-decades-old US-Cuba impasse should buy a copy posthaste.

Critically, Huddleston shines a blistering State Department insider’s light on the stranglehold that rabidly anti-Castroite, politically powerful Cuban-American exiles have long held on Washington’s Cuba policy: “The Cuban American community in Miami—more than the law—determines what is and is not acceptable when it comes to Cuba.”

On May 20, 2002, for example, she was present when President George W. Bush gave a speech in Miami to mark the centenary of Cuban independence. The Cuban-American audience “had not come to hear about the possibility of mending relations with Castro… They didn’t want better relations with Cuba; they wanted the Castro brothers out of power.” The crowd booed when Bush spoke of supporting internal reform in Cuba. “The Díaz-Balarts [Cuban-American congressional representatives for Miami-Dade County for the past two decades] and Cuban Liberty Council didn’t like the idea of homegrown reform… Engagement with Cuba was unacceptable,” she writes candidly.

As Huddleston explains, nothing has changed. “For conservative Cuban Americans, free and fair elections in Cuba [are] not a viable option.” Their desire is “to ignite chaos in Cuba” so that they can return as (in their eyes) long-exiled legitimate rulers.

(I’m reminded here of Machiavelli’s advice: “We see, then, how vain the faith and promises of men are who are exiles from their own country… They naturally believe many things that are not true, and add many others on purpose… They will fill you with hopes to that degree that if you attempt to act upon them you will incur a fruitless expense, or engage in an undertaking that will involve in your ruin… A Prince therefore should be slow in undertaking any enterprise upon the representations of exiles, for he will generally gain nothing by it but shame and serious injury.”)

Much to her credit, Huddleston also details the perfidy of extremist Cuban-American terrorists, who have regularly attacked Cuba (bombing aircraft and tourist hotels, machine-gunning beach resorts, etc.) and have “a writ of immunity that extends to the highest levels of [US] government.”

It’s frank and fascinating stuff from one of the USA’s top foreign service Cuba specialists.

Maintaining a balance is always tricky when it comes to profiling US-Cuba relations. More so when profiling Cuba itself, and here Our Woman in Havana paints an unduly dour and one-sided picture.

We accept as a given Fidel’s egoistic, megalomanic streak. His vindictiveness. His throttling grip on information (now, thankfully, much relaxed under Raúl). His imposition of a suffocating bureaucracy and utterly sclerotic state-run economy (again, greatly relaxed under Raúl). All true.

Huddlestone spares no effort in effectively portraying Fidel’s iron fist.

But what’s missing is any equivalent praise for Fidel’s astonishing accomplishment in eradicating illiteracy, homelessness, hunger, and institutional racism in a land that on the eve of Revolution was a racist society suffering vast illiteracy, malnutrition and impoverishment on the scale of Haiti, Mexico, and even Jamaica, to this day. (The omission is more remarkable given that Huddleston also served as the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission to Haiti, 1993-1995.)

Of course, Huddleston’s time in Cuba coincided with the ‘Special Period’—the decade-long post-Soviet era when Cuba lost its sole benefactor, the über-stressed economy verged on collapse, and the itinerant visitor saw Cuba at its worst. (I, too, plead guilty to a blinkered interpretation of Cuba’s malaise during this period, as reflected in my own Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba, recalling my many extensive journeys during the 1990s.)

Still, one year before Huddleston’s first visit in 1990, novelist James Mitchener had visited Cuba. (His book—Six Days in Havana—recalling the visit is, writes Huddleston, one of her favorites.) Mitchener arrived when the Soviet Bloc was already unraveling and newly bare shelves indicated that Cuba’s ‘Golden Period’ was already painfully at an end. Mitchener admits to having been there too briefly to “generalize about the politics, the dictatorial repressions.” Still, he and Huddleston didn’t see Cuba eye to eye. Recalls Mitchener: “I saw hordes of the most enchanting children, all in regimented school uniforms so colorful they looked like a meadow of flowers. Well nourished, well shod and clothed, they were the permanent face of the land.”

Another of my favorite books—inevitably drawing close comparison with Our Woman in Havana—is Isadora Tatlin’s Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana (2003), a riveting contemporaneous account of life in Cuba in the 1990s by a woman who clearly had a feel for her vivacious, culturally alive, and richly spirited hood.

By contrast, Huddleston seems to have been out-of-touch, too cocooned in the U.S. ambassadorial mansion in Havana’s exclusively privileged Cubanacán enclave—a sheltered ‘Beverly Hills’ for diplomats and Cuba’s own governmental elite. Understandable, perhaps. Not least, Cuba’s state security tailed her every move: Our Woman in Havana deliciously details her often farcical cat-and-mouse tussles.

Plus, one suspects that Huddleston may have been somewhat blinded by her own work, which focused (understandably) on aiding dissident groups (by distributing short-wave radios, for example)… leading her to inflate their size and the degree to which they reflect the sentiments of the Cuban populace as a whole.

Vicki Huddleston, chief of the U.S. Interests Section, holds a short wave receiver during an interview Tuesday May 7, 2002 home at her residence in Havana. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)

Huddleston fails to acknowledge (never mind explain) the deep genuine affection for Fidel and the Revolution among a massive—majority?—percentage of the populace. Her book lacks this objective balance as she frequently overplays her hand profiling Washington’s vision of a depauperate nation ruled by a ruthless tyrant, and the USA as a gentle (although, she readily admits, often misguided) generous giant.

Thus, Guantánamo City she claims, “is relatively prosperous because of the pensions paid to those Cubans who once worked at the US naval base.” Really?

Tom Miller’s Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba (1992) paints a far more accurate portrait of Guantánamo–today “a healthy provincial town”–and neighboring Caimanera (the town closest to the base), which before the Revolution was “a wide-open town with prostitutes and sailors… For a town known to [US] navy lore as dedicated to debauchery, Caimanera had been cleaned up so much that only a couple of the old buildings that once housed brothels still stand. One has been converted into a crafts workshop, and the other into one of Cuba’s ubiquitous museums… The country has pumped money into Caimanera since the Revolution, built new housing projects, and trained former prostitutes for more respectable jobs. The town, whose economy is based on salt, has been virtually rebuilt.” 

Her two token references to the Revolution’s accomplishments total a paltry half a dozen or so sentences… about the same as she allots to an analysis of the consequences of the USA having thwarted Cuban independence (with the Spanish-American War) and its endorsement of five decades of corrupt, dysfunctional and racist quasi-‘democracy’ (and, twice, brutal dictators) for its own economic benefit.

The reader deserves to learn that Cuba was essentially a vassal state of the USA, and Fidel its nationalist redeemer. As journalist Jon Lee Anderson noted: “If [Castro] was to govern as he saw fit and achieve a genuine national liberation for Cuba, he was going to have to sever [U.S. relations] completely.” In chronicling “America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba,” Huddleston fails to assess (or even acknowledge) the USA’s role in setting the stage for revolution, and Fidel’s motivations in keeping the USA at arm’s length.

Fortunately, Huddleston is more objective—and compelling—when she sticks to the post-revolutionary political relationship…

Our Woman in Havana even offers up-to-date revelations on the Trump administration’s accusations about so-called “sonic attacks” on diplomatic staff in Havana. Rushed to print following an FBI report (January 8, 2018) that concludes there’s no evidence whatsoever for any such attack, Huddleston argues that the reported health symptoms may be due to listening devices that malfunctioned, as “the Cuban government now seems to believe.” And, it should be noted, as U.S. scientists, too, now believe.

Plus, she does a marvelous job explaining the (Sen. Marco) Rubio-Trump marriage, bringing us full circle in revealing the here-and-now role of the Cuban-American lobby in keeping the embers of an embittered Hatfield-McCoy relationship stoked.

Huddleston sagely warns of how China and Russia are increasingly filling the void by stepping up their investment and influence in Cuba:  “By derailing the Obama-Castro opening, President Trump has given Vladimr Putin the opportunity to become the predominant foreign power in Cuba by replacing Venezuela as the island’s major source of oil.”

She concludes: “Trump’s Cuba policy will have satisfied his political base at the expense of our national interests.”

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Christopher P Baker

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Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and success travel writers and photographers is considered the foremost authority on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions and other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.