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Review: 'Without Fidel' A Compelling Cuba Primer

"Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington" (Scribner Books, 278 pages, $28), by Ann Louise Bardach: This fast-paced primer on Fidel Castro and the future of Cuba by veteran journalist Ann Louise Bardach offers a handful of new details into the communist leader's illness, his wives and youth. But the book's strength lies in Bardach's ability to weave together a host of diverse sources, past and present, to create a compelling narrative for even a neophyte to all things Cuban.

Among the new tidbits: the former cigar-chomping Castro has frequently used an oxygen chamber; a doctor present the day Castro underwent a lifesaving colostomy said the Cuban leader cried several times after the operation; and Castro's first wife Myrta Diaz-Balart (whose fervently anti-Castro nephews represent South Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives) has frequently visited him since he fell ill in 2006.

The book includes much speculation on both Fidel Castro's health, as well as the island's future. Unfortunately, many of the juiciest details are provided by anonymous sources or unattributed altogether. Such is often the case with Cuba, where offering outsiders insights into the personal life of the Castros has sometimes been met with severe punishment, but it nevertheless weakens the impact of those sections.

"Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington" is divided into three parts, focusing on the life-threatening stomach illness that nearly killed Castro; an insider's view on the U.S. case against Cuban exile and accused terrorist, former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles; and finally a look at Cuba's new president, Castro's brother Raul.

Among the most interesting sections are Bardach's description of the U.S. government's attempts to force her to testify against Posada, whom she has interviewed extensively and who confessed to her that he was behind a string of 1997 hotel bombings in Havana. He later recanted but is still wanted in Venezuela and Cuba for those attacks, as well as a 1976 airliner bombing that killed 73 people.

Bardach insists "the Founding Fathers of the Constitution were quite clear that they did not intend for the government to be allowed to raid the news media for their work files. Most especially after they had bungled a case and destroyed crucial evidence. And that is exactly what happened in the case of Luis Posada."

But Bardach adds: "For my part, it raised a peculiar pickle: contemplating how far one should go to protect the civil liberties of an accused terrorist."

Bardach eventually turned over tapes of the Posada interviews to the federal government, and an FBI analysis captured incriminating statements he'd made that had previously been inaudible. Bardach is still hoping to avoid testifying in Posada's trial next year on immigration fraud charges.

Followers of Bardach's work may be disappointed to find much in the book a recap from previous articles and her acclaimed "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana," in which she traced the hostilities between the Castros and the Diaz-Balarts. This time, Bardach adds in the feud between the Castros and the Bush clan, who were major shareholders of a sugar company in Cuba before it was confiscated during the island's 1959 revolution.

Still, Bardach, like few other Cuba-watchers, is able to weave together the personal and the political, bringing to life the complex history of the tiny Caribbean Island and its decades-old feud with the world's superpower.