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Posted  December 28, 2008
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Target: Castro
castro days
A decade ago, Cuba was paradise for a certain kind of young, hip American. Cuba was Puerto Rico, with fewer bachelorette parties and more propaganda posters. Cuba was exotic without being dangerous, Communist without being gray, illegal without being . . . well, illegal. Federal laws barred Ameri­cans from traveling there, but under the Clinton administration, immigration agents wouldn’t look for passport stamps from Cuba or make a fuss if they accidentally saw one. In a word, Cuba was cool. But with the arrival of the Bush administration, the door to Cuba slammed shut. Today Americans can go just about anywhere else in the world, including Pyongyang and Tehran, but Havana is out.


FIDEL'S LAST DAYS               

By Roland Merullo
268 pp. Shaye Areheart
Books. $23.
So, at least for the time being, those of us who would like to visit Cuba must make do with secondhand sightseeing — which includes books like “Fidel’s Last Days,” a pulpy thriller by Roland Merullo about an effort to kill Castro that gets nearly as complicated as the Bay of Pigs invasion. The plot is led by a privately run, super-­secret organization, the White Orchid, which believes in the power of assassinations to make the world a better place for democracy. Or something like that. Merullo keeps the details of the White Orchid’s structure and finances vague, a decision that’s probably for the best since the group can, at times, sound more like a parody than a fearsome clandestine network.

To assassinate Castro, the White Orchid relies on Carolina Perez, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative who turned out to be far too qualified to work at Langley. “She spoke five languages almost without accent. . . . She could put five pistol rounds into the chest of a body-target from 60 yards. At 5-foot-5 and 121 pounds, she could incapacitate a man twice her weight with one kick.” Great for a résumé, not so great for a novel, where the rule is “Show, don’t tell.”

Perez is ordered to deliver a poison to Cuba, hidden in a tube of lipstick. (“She had to remember: dark red was deadly.”) But first she must lie to her uncle — who in turn will lie right back to her — and meet the vice president of the United States while disguised as a 70-year-old, twice her actual age.

Why must she do all this? Well, why not? Merullo belongs to that category of thriller writers who delight in putting their characters through mirrored mazes while withholding crucial information. In theory, such tricks build suspense while demonstrating intricate knowledge of the way spies work. (See Le Carré, John.) But, as in the case of Carolina Perez’s adventures, they can also destroy any pretense of realism, leading reasonable readers to shake their heads in disbelief.

Fortunately, the plot to take Castro down doesn’t rely on Perez alone. Carlos Gutierrez, the Cuban minister of health, who doubles as Castro’s personal physician, is intimately involved in the assassination attempt. When the novel shifts focus to Gutierrez and Havana, it gains new life.

Merullo imagines Fidel holding court in government meetings as his ministers struggle to stay awake — and to fawn over him. “Fidel, as always, did almost all the talking. Carlos kept statistics in his head: the record was seven hours and 14 minutes, in his speech to an international youth group at the Plaza de la Revolución; second place was six hours and two minutes, in this very room.”

Throughout “Fidel’s Last Days,” Merullo portrays Cuba as a country stifled by fear and an oppressive secret police — a nation ripe, even desperate, for revolution. Perhaps Americans will soon have the chance to find out for themselves if he’s right.

Alex Berenson is a reporter for The Times. His third novel, “The Silent Man,” will be published in February.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, December 28, 2008.
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