If you’re interested in understanding the broader context of the story behind the Cuban Five and the reasons Cuba sends spies to Florida to infiltrate and disrupt militant anti-Castro exile groups, you should read Keith Bolender’s new book, Voices From The Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba (Pluto Press).
Cuba has publicly documented what it claims have been more than 800 terrorist attacks against it since 1960—resulting in 3,478 dead and 2,099 injured—most organized and carried out, with impunity, by exile groups based in South Florida.
“It is hard not to find someone (in Cuba) who doesn’t have a story to tell of a relative or friend who has been a victim of terrorism,” explains Bolender, a Canadian journalist with 20 years experience in Cuba. Which is why, when he decided he wanted to write a book about terrorism against Cuba, he chose to look at the issue from “a different perspective—that of the victims. There are many books written about the history of terrorism in Cuba, but from the political viewpoint of Cuba-America relations. There had never been a coverage of the topic from the victim’s experiences, not even in Cuba, so I felt it was a valuable and unique way to approach the subject.”
Voices is both a sampler of terrorist acts against Cuba—from Pentagon plots to “contaminate Cuba’s food supplies,” to Alpha 66 commando attacks on Cuban villagers, to the infamous 1976 bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455 that killed 73 people—and also a compelling oral history of how those attacks affected individual Cubans.
Jorge de la Nuez, for example, was just five when his father, a fisherman, was killed in the airline bombing. Though that was nearly 35 years ago, Bolender says, “he still carries the pain and memory as if it happened a few days ago.” Nuez tells Bolender that when he thinks of the crash today, he imagines his father’s final moments, “the total confusion, the panic, then death. Why did that happen? Because someone has another point of view? For politics? These were not military men or top government officials on that plane. They were average people, young, old, with brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, children. It was filled with athletes of the fencing team. They were celebrating winning the championship in Venezuela. That’s who they were.”
“The idea of the book,” Bolender explains in an email, “is to let those affected tell their stories in their own words, to make the victim more important than the act.” At the same time, he adds, many of those he interviewed “are getting older, so it was a way to preserve their memories.”
The book includes chapters on the 1997 Havana hotel bombing campaign, which the Cuban Five were in Florida to try to stop, as well as on the Five themselves. Bolender interviews the wives of two of those in jail, including Olga Salanueva, the wife of René González, who has not been allowed to visit her imprisoned husband for more than a dozen years. Being denied a visa to visit her husband, Olga tells Bolender, “has been used as a tool for additional torture.”