In 2014, President Barack Obama began “the Cuban thaw,” taking steps to normalize relations between that island nation and the United States. Travel and trade restrictions were eased and tourists, including Beyoncé and Jay Z, began to stream in. On March 22, 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays played an exhibition game against the Cuban national team. President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro watched the action. The Cuban Embassy opened in Washington, D.C., and the American flag once again flew over the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
How times change. On June 16, 2017, President Donald Trump took steps to undo some of Obama’s actions with regard to Cuba. And after 21 diplomats in the U.S. Embassy became ill, with symptoms including hearing loss and cognitive difficulties, the State Department withdrew nonessential personnel from the embassy and also expelled some Cuban diplomats from Washington.
Nelson DeMille’s new thriller, The Cuban Affair, won’t do much to restore trust between Castro’s Cuba and the U.S. The Cuba depicted in DeMille’s story is still a communist nation waging a cold war against America. Those friendly people that tourists meet? That helpful native might be a government spy. Americans are convenient targets for blackmail. Resist and that visitor might be trading a hotel room for a prison cell.
This time around DeMille’s hero is not former NYPD homicide cop John Corey, but Daniel Graham McCormick – Mac for short – a graduate of Bowdoin College who gave up a lucrative career on Wall Street, moved to Key West and ferries people around on his boat, The Maine. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Mac is no stranger to violence and danger. Neither is his first mate, Jack Colby, a veteran of the war in Vietnam.
Although Mac has a fifty percent combat disability, he also has a quarter of a million dollar loan on The Maine. While his regular business is steady – those wanting to fish or hold parties on the boat – Mac is always looking for new clients. So when Carlos asks to meet with him at a local bar, he agrees. Carlos tells Mac he wants to charter The Maine for a cruise to Cuba, ostensibly to participate in a fishing tournament called the Pescando por la Paz. Fishing for Peace. Nothing is ever that simple, however. Carlos, is heavily involved with anti-Castro groups in Miami. He wants Mac and Jack to help him bring back from Cuba $60 million that has been hidden for decades in a cave. For his trouble, Mac would receive $2 million – if he’s able to make it back from Cuba alive.
Mac is not eager to jump onboard until he meets another member of Carlos’ team, Sara Ortega, a stunning Cuban-American who knows where the money is hidden. With Mac’s share raised to $3 million, and the opportunity to spend time in Cuba with Sara, he signs on. He and Sara will fly to Havana as part of an educational group from Yale University. They are to pretend they don’t know each other, but wind up falling in love during the tour. That’s the easy part for Mac. The tough part is figuring out how he’s going to transport $60 million out of Cuba and meet Jack who will be helming The Maine in the Pescando for la Paz.
Complications abound.“This trip differs from more traditional trips in that every hour must be accounted for,” reads the Yale travel packet. And since Sara is intent on showing Mac where her family once lived in Havana (they lost all their wealth when Castro took over), as well as strategize for their main mission, the Yale professors leading the tour, Tad and Alison, while knowledgeable, freak out whenever Sara and Mac go missing. And when Antonio, the Cuban guide who Mac suspects is a chivato, a spy for the government, joins the tour, things become even more tense. As a Cuban-American with ties to anti-Castro groups, Sara is on the government’s radar the moment she enters the country. Staying one step ahead of so many dangerous people becomes challenging.
DeMille does his homework. In the acknowledgements we learn he actually went on a cultural tour with a Yale group, so what he describes is accurate and interesting. Be prepared for a lot on Ernest Hemingway who spent many years living and writing on the island and whose home and haunts are popular tourist stops. DeMille also is adept at describing what it’s like to be in danger on the high seas. These scenes are thrilling and intense.
While longtime DeMille fans will miss the wise-cracking John Corey, Mac is known for delivering one-liners, too. These humorous asides do much to lessen the tension throughout the book. Nothing, however, can make less horrifying some of the past atrocities by Cuban authorities. Sara reveals these to Mac as another reason she’s in Cuba. And, apparently, what she tells Mac has some basis in facts still being withheld by the American government.
The Cuban Affair is an intelligent page turner. DeMille also seems to have anticipated a turn around in U.S.-Cuba relations. Haven’t heard whether Beyoncé and Jay Z are planning a return trip, but many other Americans might think twice about visiting the island now. Not only would DeMille’s book give pause, but it seems tourists, too, have become ill will the same symptoms plaguing embassy officials.
The Cuban Affair
Top photo: Bigstock – January 15, 2017 – Port of Havana view unto Old Havana from the neighborhood of Regla in Cuba.