Bayou of Pigs
By Stewart Bell
344 pages (paperback)
In early April, the Associated Press reported that USAID — the United States Agency for International Development, whose website advertises its lofty goal “to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential” — had concocted a hare-brained scheme to create a stealth Cuban version of Twitter using “a byzantine system of front companies” in Spain and the Cayman Islands. “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” AP quotes one contractor insisting in a 2010 memo. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”
The Mission? To topple the Cuban government.
The idea was to lure unsuspecting Cubans to sign up for the service — known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet — so they would share their latest news and views on everything from baseball to the weather to… politics. ZunZuneo’s American puppet masters then planned to mine those messages for personal information as well as hints about the tweeters’ attitudes toward their government. Once the network “reached a critical mass of subscribers,” the AP investigation concluded, “operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’ — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that might trigger a Cuban Spring.”
Aside from the use of social media, there is nothing new here. The United States has been actively promoting regime change in Cuba since… well, since the regime changed from American puppet to Cuban communist back in 1959: the Bay of Pigs, poisoned cigars, exploding seashells, Havana hotel bombings…
This particular effort, which lasted from 2010 to 2012 and cost American taxpayers $1.3 million, was equally fruitless. Only about 40,000 Cubans — far from that critical mass — signed up.
After AP outed ZunZuneo, State Department officials were quick to channel Orwell, insisting there was “nothing classified or covert” about USAID’s “democracy program,” even though it employed phony front companies to mislead everyone from the executives who ostensibly ran it to the Cubans who used it. “Discreet,” explained spokesperson Marie Harf, “does not equal covert.”
And so it goes.
Why am I telling you all of this in what is supposed to be a review of a wickedly fun and funny romp of a book about a motley collection of cross-dressing, white supremacist, neo-Nazi soldiers of misfortune who, in 1981, tried to overthrow the government of Dominica, a “little nation of shanties, volcanic peaks and old colonial plantations”?
Well, because, Cuba — or more precisely, Washington’s unrequited obsessive compulsion with ridding the world of the Castro brothers and their communist Cuban government — is what made these peculiar whack jobs and their improbable, quixotic, crazy-assed coup attempt not only possible but also almost inevitable.
Author Stewart Bell is a reporter for the National Post. He specializes in foreign affairs and national security issues, and also writes — as he puts it on his own Twitter account — “about Canadians who do stupid things in the name of their causes.” In Bayou of Pigs (a new paperback edition of a book originally published in 2008), Bell has tapped into the motherlode of stupid people of all nationalities and persuasions doing very stupid things.
First, a quick plot summary: In 1981, a self-styled American ex-marine mercenary named Mike Perdue came up with a scheme to overthrow Grenada’s new Marxist government. Quickly realizing that would require too many men and too much work, Perdue set his sights instead on overthrowing the democratically-elected, pro-American government of Dominica.
To assist him, he enlisted the aid of such luminaries as David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who put him touch with Don Andrews, the “cult-like” Toronto-based leader of the neo-Nazi Western Guard, who hooked him up Wolfgang Walter Droege, the German-born Canadian white-supremacist founder of the infamous Heritage Front…
Ringing any bells? Reading Bayou of Pigs is like taking a trip down out-there 1970s Canadian radical memory lane. Bayou even offers cameo appearances by Grant Bristow, the too-hard-working CSIS mole inside Droege’s Heritage Front, and Rosie Douglas, the Dominican revolutionary who spent 18 months in prison for leading the 1969 occupation and destruction of the computer centre at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) before becoming a more conventional politician back in Dominica in the 1980s (he would eventually become its prime minister).
But I digress. There’s also Eugenia Charles, the black pro-Western Dominican prime minister Perdue and his none-too-bright misfits want to overthrow, and Patrick John, the equally black but populist leader of the left-leaning Labour Party they inexplicably want to replace her with. And then there are the Dreads, Dominica’s hardcore Rastafarian revolutionaries, who opposed all forms of colonial oppression but were willing to cut a deal to become Perdue’s muscle in exchange for the new regime’s marijuana-growing franchise.
In the end, Perdue’s failed coup — which “united right-wing Americans and Caribbean leftists; white nationalists and black revolutionaries; First World capitalists and Third World socialists” and was stage-managed by a man “who believed in nothing at all”(P90) — was really about the get-rich possibilities of Caribbean gambling casinos, though none of those involved would have characterized it that way.
They talked instead about Cuba.
The plotters obsessively read over-wrought CIA assessments: “Cuban prospects [to spread communism] have increased dramatically,” noted one, “because of the changes of government in Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia and the Netherlands Antilles.” They made their own self-justifying links: Dominica’s prime minister, Perdue incorrectly lectured an undercover U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, “has really made some ties with communist Cuba.” They imagined they were doing God’s — or at least Ronald Reagan’s — work. Like several others, Don Black, a former American soldier, signed up because he believed the coup was actually a U.S. Government operation “in conformance with the Reagan administration’s policies on containing communism throughout the world, but particularly the Caribbean.” Black himself was “more than familiar with the fact that the State Department and the CIA use all kinds of people for their operations. In the Bay of Pigs, for instance…”
Even FBI and ATF agents involved in foiling the actually far-off-the-Reagan-rails plot understood its mother’s milk connection with Cuba.
“‘This is like the Bay of Pigs,’ one of the ATF agents said during an operational planning meeting. ‘More like the Bayou of Pigs,’ another agent cracked. The name stuck.” The undercover sting operation officially became known as the Bayou of Pigs investigation.
Although Bell’s manuscript is dotted with more dot-connecting Cuba references than I could count, Bell himself doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing them or examining how America’s other-galaxy obsession with regime change in Cuba has adversely affected its policies toward, and current day relations with, virtually every country in Latin America.
That’s not a criticism. There are other books — from former American diplomat Wayne Smith’s The Closest of Enemies to academics’ Daniel P. Erikson’s The Cuba Wars and Lars Schoultz’s That Infernal Little Cuban Republic — that fill that bill.
Bell does what he does best: weaves a fascinatingly improbable but true tale about a group of crazy Canucks doing “stupid things in the name of their causes,” which, in this case, is America’s Cuba obsession inevitably gone rogue. He does that entertainingly and well. We can connect the rest of the dots ourselves.
Stephen Kimber is a Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College and co-founder of its Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree program. His latest book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, was published in 2013 by Fernwood.
This review originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of the Literary Review of Canada.