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What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five

by Stephen Kimber

The history of U.S. efforts to undermine and overthrow Fidel Castro is chock full of bizarre assassination plots, economic sanctions, and enough bush-league spycraft to make for dozens of satirical TV series. While there have been some attempts at rapprochement, the virulence of Miami’s Cuban exile community, combined with an ever-vigilant security apparatus in Cuba, make for a continuous Cold War tangle that rarely receives sufficient news coverage.

In his new book, Halifax journalism professor Stephen Kimber examines a key flashpoint in the conflict: the case of five Cuban intelligence officers who, after infiltrating right-wing Florida groups in order to prevent terrorist actions against Cuba, were thrown behind bars in the U.S., some for life. It’s a plot worthy of John le Carré, played out against the backdrop of a schizophrenic North American superpower that condemns some terror attacks while celebrating anti-Castro vigilantes who have records of blowing up civilian airliners, planting explosives inside tourist hot spots, and receiving acquittals in the rare instances the perpetrators are charged. In Kimber’s hands, however, the novelist’s touch is missing, and what appears instead is a rather clunky chronological account of a complex web of spies and counterspies.

Kimber has done an admirable research job – combing through 20,000 pages of court testimony, conducting dozens of interviews, and doing his best to present the facts of a conflict in which both sides admit to lying – but his attempts to dramatize events tend to fall flat, reading more like a paperback potboiler than rigorous history. His extraneous editorial comments can be annoying, and the sheer volume of material may confound the reader, especially when the author introduces new plot elements, then warns that “we are getting ahead of ourselves.”

Despite the structural and stylistic problems, patient readers will unearth a useful history of America’s ongoing war against Cuba, marked by sometimes honourable men and women trying to defeat drug dealers, thugs, and other lowlifes. On the specific subject of the Cuban Five, Kimber is best when he sticks to an unadorned telling of the story and allows readers to come to their own conclusions.