Power in the Caribbean in the 1950s and early ’60s was taken by a knife at the throat. “Political life in Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic was a cockfight,” writes Alex von Tunzelmann. “For any politician landing in the dust, the only thing that mattered was to survive for as long as possible.” Her book “Red Heat” depicts the swaggering, corrupt, erratic and often violent years of rule by Fidel Castro of Cuba, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Francois Duvalier of Haiti. Suitcases full of cash, torture chambers, gunboats, coups, dictatorship and revolutionary fervor spill out of these pages.

The story would be action-packed enough on its own, but as von Tunzelmann shows, the region was also buffeted by the Cold War, transformed into an arena of mistrust and dangerous gambles, the largest of which was the Cuban missile crisis. The author is particularly critical of diplomats, spies and others in the United States who, in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, failed to grasp the essence of various strains of nationalism and anti-Americanism in the region, and instead labeled it all communism.

The ruthlessness of Trujillo and Duvalier is mind-numbing. Von Tunzelmann concludes that their regimes were “among the most kleptocratic, sadistic, repressive, and murderous in the entire twentieth century.” But the author sets Castro apart. “From any point of view, Castro’s Cuba was less murderous, less violent, less corrupt, more economically and socially egalitarian, immensely healthier and better educated, and less racist than either Duvalier’s regime or Trujillo’s.”

She finds in the younger Castro “a patriot, a man with a profound sense that it was his mission to save the Cuban people.” His first manifesto, in 1956, had “nothing in it that marked any development toward communism, or even socialism.” The 1957 manifesto of Sierra Maestra “was marginally left of center, but a long way from being communist.” His brother Raul and Che Guevara certainly were communists, but Castro was more of a charismatic nationalist and opportunist. His small band of revolutionaries plucked power from the corrupt dictator Fugencio Batista in 1958. “Our revolution is neither capitalist nor communist!” Castro insisted the following May. “Our revolution is not red, but olive green.”

Von Tunzelmann, whose earlier work, “Indian Summer,” chronicled the British transfer of power to India and Pakistan, spots the larger forces at work and identifies the point in 1959 when Castro shifted toward Moscow. She concludes he was motivated not by ideology but pragmatism, to counter-balance the United States. “Since the day of his victory, he had been dancing around Uncle Sam: one minute whispering private entreaties, the next slinging public insults.” Castro was “unpredictable, fiercely puritanical, and controlling,” the author writes, but “not the crackpot that many in the United States government assumed he was.” To support his own narrative as the liberator of Cuba, she writes, “Fidel needed a villain willing to persecute him until the bitter end. Into that role, quite unwittingly, stepped the United States.”

In the next two years, Cuba formally allied itself with the Soviet Union, John F. Kennedy was elected president, and the CIA came up with imaginative ways to assassinate Castro, including a cigar death trap, with the leaves soaked in botulinum toxin. In 1961, at the outset of Kennedy’s term, the CIA launched the ill-fated invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The author says the invasion attempt led directly to a deepening Soviet involvement in Cuba.

Enter Nikita Khrushchev, who, “Like the fragile lizard that puffs out a frill to scare off predators,” had a habit of exaggerating Soviet strategic weaponry in order to keep the United States off guard. He came up with the idea to secretly deploy nuclear weapons to Cuba, perhaps to defend the island against a U.S. invasion, but also to huff and puff. The discovery of the weaponsby the United States led to the most harrowing crisis of the nuclear age. Von Tunzelmann claims that the missile crisis “was provoked by a band of bearded guerrillas, mostly in their twenties and early thirties,” but that seems an overstatement. The book shows that it was Khrushchev who proposed to Castro that the missiles be sent. And when the Soviet leader decided to back down, he did so hastily, without informing the bearded guerrillas until later.

Von Tunzelmann packs a lot into these pages, sometimes more than a reader can absorb, including a flock of minor characters. Much of her tale has previously been told elsewhere. The storytelling carries a distinct, admonishing voice, disdainful of the errors made by the United States, outraged by the brutality of the island bosses. The author is also harsh on Kennedy. But she captures the missile crisis as a frightening and real dance of knives in a dusty Caribbean cockfighting square.

David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor to The Post and the author of “ The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy ,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2010.


Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean

By Alex von Tunzelmann

Henry Holt.

449 pp. $30