(Reviewed by JD Jung)
“…now that doctors are malnourished malcontents while dropouts driving tourist taxis are relative millionaires.”
Twenty -eight year old Dr. Manolo Rodriguez, a pediatrician for the national medical service in Havana, Cuba, resents how most of the medical resources go to tourist hospitals. He is also afraid that the family clinic that he runs will be closed. It’s the summer of 1997 and living conditions are rapidly getting worse in Cuba.
In fact since the fall of the Soviet Union there have been massive food, clothing and medical shortages. Tourists are treated royally while Cuban citizens are barely getting by.
What repulses him just as much is that his estranged father never had to experience any of this. He left Cuba before Manolo was born and is now living in Miami.
Still, it sickens him when he witnesses an anti-Castro terrorist attack where an Italian tourist was killed. There will sure be more of these, financed by Cubans exiles living in Miami.
So when the chief homicide investigator tor the National Revolutionary Police—who he is in constant odds with already– demands he take on an assignment to try and find out who has been financing these terrorists, he initially resists, but eventually complies. This will entail that he fly to Miami with the initial intention of attending a medical conference. He is instructed to contact the father that he never met with the pretense of trying to defect.
Havana Libre takes us on a journey of political intrigue and espionage, with twists and turns until the very end. I do feel that the ending was rushed though and wished it could have lingered a little longer.
I appreciate that the Cuban political situation is not handled in black and white, neither are the exiles living in Miami. Author by Robert Arellano is pretty even-handed on both sides, though the terrorism is strictly condemned.
What I also enjoyed about this novel is that it is a very personal, human story. Though most of the novel is from Dr. Rodriguez’ s perspective, there are also chapters from those of the paid terrorist and one of his patients that the doctor has taken a particular interest in. I don’t understand why the particular cover image was chosen though, as it doesn’t have anything to do with the story.
Still, Havana Libre is an enticing novel that is a must-read for those who enjoy political history and intrigue mixed with diverse culture. I understand that there are more in this series featuring Dr. Manolo Rodriguez, and I am looking forward to exploring them.