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Reviews of 1959: The Year That Inflamed the Caribbean

“Bernard Diederich is an acclaimed journalist who built his reputation first in Haiti – where he reported from until arrested and expelled in 1963 – then the Dominican Republic, and finally from Mexico City where, as [country] chief of Time magazine, he was able to cover and experience first-hand the legacy of U.S. foreign involvement in Central America during the 1970s and early 1980s. Not surprisingly, his previous books have tended to concentrate on the strong figures that shaped the histories of the Caribbean and of Central America in the form of a number of biographies about Rafael Trujillo, Anastasio Somoza, and ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.

“Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Diederich’s latest book essentially traces a year in the life of the author who, at that time, was the editor-in-chief of the Haiti Sun, the island’s only English-language weekly newspaper. The book is organized into 21 chapters that recount all manner of events, arranged in chronological order, that provide a flavor of life and politics in Haiti during 1959. The intrigue, assassinations, disappearances, rumors of invasion, coup attempts, and late-night visits to the presidential palace to brief Duvalier about the author’s own impressions of Castro and of his revolution all provide a first-person account of life in another, perhaps more charmed, but certainly more personally dangerous era. ”

— Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 31, No. 1

“Bernie Diederich saw 1959 in a way few others have. As Caribbean foreign correspondent at large, he covered Fidel Castro’s victory over Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista firsthand; as journalist and publisher of the Haiti Sun newspaper, he also bore witness to the havoc it caused in Cuba’s closest neighbor. 1959 recounts the events of this ‘Caribbean Cold War’ and the lengths to which Haitian despot François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier went to safeguard his power. Diederich supplements this otherwise personal memoir with ample excerpts from the Haiti Sun, the country’s first English-language weekly and beneficiary of ‘more leeway as it was seen as an instrument in the promotion of tourism.’ He concludes with a nostalgic sketch of Haiti’s sacred Saut-d’Eau (p. 119).

“Diederich begins describing the ‘brewing regional war of political ideologies’ launched by the events of 26 July 1953, when Castro and others attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago (p. 13). Carlos Prío Socarrás, the Cuban ex-president turned arms dealer and Castro financier, was providing Duvalier with ‘terrorism expertise’ on the condition that Haiti be a silent partner in the upcoming revolt. But Papa Doc, always the opportunist, had also accepted money from Batista, and ‘reneged on his promise to Prío,’ double-crossing the rebels, who were now in command (pp. 21-22). Eager to save face, Papa Doc took the advice of future ambassador Antonio Rodríguez Echazábel, and released eight fidelistas held for murdering a Haitian tour-boat captain. Diederich accompanied them to Cuba in a Haitian air force C-47, along with a token gift of medicine. During his five days in Cuba, Diederich interviewed legendary barbudos Manuel Piñeiro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and the Castro brothers themselves. On return to Haiti, his experiences in Cuba were also the subject of a lengthy ‘impersonal chat’ with Duvalier (p. 36).

“The ‘Castro effect’ forced Duvalier to placate the Communist threat until he could make arrangements of his own, ultimately turning him into a dangerously paranoid dictator with unwavering American support (p. 39). Papa Doc’s dirty war overtly began January 9, when the manager of Port-au-Prince’s international casino vanished amid a scandal that, we learn, was cooked up by Duvalier henchmen Clément Barbot and Herbert ‘Ti-Barb’ Morrison in a bid to commandeer the establishment. Meanwhile, Cuba became a hotbed for anti-Duvalier hopefuls; on February 24, exiled politician Louis Déjoie started incendiary broadcasts on Havana’s radio Progresso and, together with ex-Col. Pierre Armand, Major Maurepas Auguste, and ex-President Daniel Fignolé, launched the Haitian revolutionary front, which, despite the guidance of Che Guevara, would later implode from infighting. And in spite of Duvalier’s growing war of attrition against his own people, which brought famine, particularly to the regions of Jean-Rabel and Bombardopolis, U.S. officials threw $6 million into the Haitian budget in March alone – ‘it was a time when anti-Communist ideology excused many sins’ (p. 76). Diederich’s best writing is found in the sections narrating the events before late June, when L’Etat bullied the Haiti Sun into a five-month ‘forced eclipse,’ including the April 7 hijacking of a DC-3, Duvalier’s brush with death on May 24, and the pro-Déjoie coup attempt in Jacmel on June 12 (p. 115).

“Diederich took up with foreign media during the hiatus and continued reporting domestic affairs in Haiti, specifically what would be the last invasion effort by Haitian exiles before Papa Doc broke all diplomatic ties with Cuba on August 22. He also covered the saber-rattlings between Rafael Trujillo’s Dominican Republic and Castro’s Cuba, detailing ‘one of the most incredible geopolitical plot-counterplots in Caribbean history,’ the mid-August faux invasion orchestrated by Castro’s frontman William Morgan (p. 159). Escalating tensions between the Catholic Church and Duvalier also came to a head in mid-August, when Papa Doc expelled several prominent priests, namely Etienne Grienenberger and Joseph Marrec, over Communist allegations. August 18, just days after the outrage, Clément Barbot and the tontons macoutes terrorized hundreds of mourners in Port-au-Prince’s cathedral, again alleging a Communist plot: ‘such charges worked time and again for Duvalier since Cold War ideology was the main concern of the day in Washington’ (pp. 172-73).

“Diederich’s political drama then shifts to the social events that took place in Haiti once the Sun returned to print on November 8, including the arrival of notable tourists (an incognito Marlon Brando, French actress Martine Carol, and others) and the U.S. Marine Corps birthday celebration thrown by Col. Robert Heinl. He also recounts economic- and business-related news regarding foreign investments. The book’s closing chapters then move from melodrama — a vivid story about pilgrimages to the Saut-d’Eau sprinkled with Diederich’s personal musings about vodou lwa — to confessional, revealing his romantic tryst with vacationing actress Anne Bancroft and the sticky situation with an old flame that ended it.

“Diederich writes with an old-school journalistic savvy that makes the brutal history of the early Duvalier era at least mildly bearable. While Diederich raises the specter of the ‘Caribbean Cold War,’ which is both implied in the subtitle and scattered throughout the book, he tends to focus narrowly on the Haitian side of things. The lack of both reference materials and index is frustrating, and the low-quality, pixilated images are regrettable. Despite these blemishes, 1959 is a recommendable year-in-review for those interested in the details of Duvalier’s megalomania or the false-starts of what could have been, fitting somewhere between Herbert Gold’s travelogue, Best Nightmare on Earth (1991), and the Heinls’s history, Written in Blood (1978).”

— Landon Yarrington, New West Indian Guide, Vol. 85, No. 1 & 2

“Bernard Diederich is a legendary journalist of the Caribbean who has been finishing off his many decades of reporting for American magazines and news agencies by revisiting his cutting books to enliven accounts of historical events in which he was a participant observer. In 1959, the year of the book under review, Diederich, by origin a New Zealander, was the owner and editor of the Haiti Sun, a weekly paper in Port-au-Prince during the initial years of the presidency of ‘Papa Doc’ François Duvalier, first elected two years earlier.

“The chief thrust of the book is an examination of the impact of the Cuban Revolution on the countries of the Caribbean, notably Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the way in which it led the United States to support the dictatorships of Duvalier and Rafael Trujillo against the perceived menace of Castro-communism. Yet in practice the book’s value lies more in its portrayal of Duvalier in the process of becoming the maniac that history recalls. Diederich had a grandstand seat at the Cuban Revolution, flying in to interview Raúl Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos in January 1959, a trip enabled by his friendly local butcher in Haiti who happened to be a Cuban exile and subsequently became the Cuban ambassador.

“On returning to Haiti, Diederich was summoned to see Duvalier, who was clearly anxious to have a first-hand account of what was going on in the island next door. Diederich gave the president an upbeat account of what he perceived to be a genuinely popular revolution, commenting that he couldn’t help feeling that Duvalier ‘was hearing news he did not wish to hear’ (p. 37). Duvalier’s initial concern was that Cuban-based rebels from the Dominican Republic, bent on overthrowing Trujillo, would use Haiti as a springboard. But within a few weeks, Haitian exiles in Cuba, with the assistance of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, had formed rival liberation forces that sought to overthrow Duvalier himself.

“Duvalier’s first tack was to try to befriend and recognize the new Cuban government. Then, fearing an invasion, he began to clamp down seriously on his own internal opposition; some were killed, some were imprisoned, while others sought asylum in foreign embassies. The Caribbean ramifications of the Cuban Revolution soon provoked the attention of the international press, conjuring up the possibility of a chain reaction of uprisings against other dictatorships. The United States was also soon alerted and provided budgetary support and a training force of U.S. Marines. These were soon nicknamed the ‘white tontons macoutes’ by sections of the population hostile to Duvalier. The real ‘tontons macoutes’, a fearsome private security force commanded by Clément Barbot, had already grown larger than the Haitian armed forces.

“The eventual Cuban-backed invasion materialized in June 1959 when more than 50 potential guerrilleros flew in from Havana to the Constanza valley in the Dominican Republic, while a further 138 attempted to land near Luperón. Two months later, a smaller group of Haitian exiles with a handful of Cubans landed in southwest Haiti. Both groups had hoped to emulate the success of Fidel Castro, yet both were destroyed within days of their landings.

“Diederich has little to add to the existing accounts of these rather minor international events; the value of his book lies more in its anecdotal musings on the early development of Duvalier’s career — his attempt to be viewed as a popular black nationalist and his quarrels with the Catholic Church — as well as on his account of the extensive U.S. backing for the fledgling dictator (subsequently to be somewhat reduced in the era of John Kennedy). There are entertaining sightings in the book of the late Aubelin Jolicoeur, the airport correspondent immortalized by Graham Greene as ‘Petit Pierre’ in ‘The Comedians,’ who wrote the society column for Diederich’s weekly. Among the string of American celebrities welcomed to Haiti by Jolicoeur in the late 1950s was the film star Anne Bancroft, with whom Diederich had a brief and delightful affair. ”

— Richard Gott, International Affairs

“Diederich, a correspondent for Time magazine, draws from his weekly newspaper the Haiti Sun to provide an account of the impact of Fidel Castro’s victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zalvidar in Cuba in 1959 on the rest of the Caribbean. He describes how Haiti’s dictator François Duvalier was caught in the middle while Dominican Republic dictator Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo Molina saw him as a dangerous Communist. He recounts events from Castro’s first press conference and his interview with Duvalier to plane hijackings to Cuba and other upheavals, and even visits to the islands by Hollywood stars. This is the third book in a series recounting events reported in the Haiti Sun.”

— Book News