Cuba Libre, by Elmore Leonard

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Historical fiction from Elmore Leonard may seem a surprising change of direction from his thrillers set in the present, but in a sense it is a return to his roots writing cowboy pulps.  His 1998 Cuba Libre is set in Cuba precisely a century before it was published, just prior to and during the Spanish-American war.  A Cuban peasantry suffering under brutal Spanish oppression and a United States eager to turn the situation to its own advantage constitute the backdrop to an adventure story as Ben Tyler arrives with his business partner Charlie three days after the US battleship Maine sank in Havana Harbour to sell horses to wealthy sugar baron, landowner and entrepreneur Rollie Boudreaux.

Ben had spent a summer on the island when he was nine because his father had managed a sugar mill, so he feels some connection to the place.  For his part, it is useful to Charlie having someone along who knows Cuba and can use his initiative.  That is because horses are not all that Ben and Charlie are importing; Ben works out that Charlie must have a side-line in smuggled guns hidden with the livestock, intended for Cuban insurgents fighting for their independence.  Horseflesh can make a better price in Cuba than in the US, but only if corners are cut on the import duty.  It’s a small margin and the guns achieve a bigger one, as long as one doesn’t get caught.

Tyler is an archetypal Leonard character, a basically decent man who reacts strongly to situations he deems unfair.  Such had been the case when he could not collect money owed to him by a mining company, so he stole, or in his eyes withdrew by force, what he was owed from the company’s bank.  The simplicity of the transaction had rather gave him a taste for robbing banks, though as he discovered there was a downside as it led to a prison term in Yuma.  In Cuba he finds himself in a similar position to the one with the mining company when Rollie, woefully underestimating him, cheats on the horse deal.  Making life further complicated, Ben and Rollie’s mistress, Amelia, fall deeply in love.

Then Ben comes up against brutal Spanish colonialists, the Dons.  He manages to cross ruthless officer Lionel Tavalera, who has been fighting the insurgents and doesn’t have much time for American gun-runners either.  To add to Ben’s problems he finds himself in prison after shooting a trouble-seeking Guardia Civil in self-defence.  While he and Charlie are conveniently incarcerated the authorities vainly try to locate the ship with the guns.  The execution of Charlie does not sweeten Ben’s temper, however he is sprung from prison, falls in with the guerrillas, and becomes part of a hoax kidnapping of Amelia to collect $40,000 from Rollie with which to supply the rebellion.  If possible the plot gets thicker as everybody decides they want the money for themselves while the inevitable war between Spain and the vastly superior US military looms ever-closer.

The characters are fairly standard Leonard fare.  With the possible exception of Ben everyone is mercenary about money – Amelia, members of the business community, the military, even Cubans fighting the Spanish.  Ben is more principled but still happy to go along with Amelia’s plans for her sake.  Their sudden falling in love doesn’t ring quite true; there is a hint that she is enthralled by his bank-robbing past, but the depth of her sudden attachment is hard to credit.  The villains, notably Tavelera, are drawn with greater depth, and the ambivalence of the Cuban patriots towards the coming war, hating the Spanish but mistrustful of the Americans, torn between a desire for independence and self-interest, is nicely brought out.

The historical background is well researched though Leonard often cannot resist shoe-horning slabs of it in, as if to display his credentials as a serious novelist, using Neely of the Chicago Tribune as his mouthpiece.  He does try to set right some of the myths, such as showing that Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were not quite the efficient military machine of legend but in fact a bunch of hapless amateurs who had to be rescued at San Juan Heights by a regiment of black regular soldiers.  Above all he tackles American cynicism in taking on for its own enrichment a feeble Spain in a fight it couldn’t lose, such as airing the modern-sounding conspiracy theory that the Americans blew up the Maine themselves to provoke the war and take control of Spanish overseas interests.  Whether it was an accident, the Spanish were exceptionally stupid, or it was a false flag operation, it all worked out well for the US, as it does for Ben and Amelia.

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