Book review: Cuban doctor on a mission to Miami in 'Havana Libre'

Correspondent

‘Havana Libre’ By Robert Arellano. Akashic, 224 pages, $15.95

The intrinsically linked politics and culture of Cuba and Miami combine for an unusual spy novel in Robert Arellano’s second novel about Havana pediatrician Mano Rodriguez.

Set in 1997, “Havana Libre” looks at Cuban life during the post-Soviet years and how it affected the exile community in Miami. A talented and caring physician, Mano barely makes a living treating patients even poorer than he is in Cuba’s national medical service.

He would like to attend a medical convention in Tampa, Florida, but knows the chances are slim. Usually, the Cuban government grants exit permits days after such events have long passed. Cuban professionals often use these permits to defect. And Mano knows his request would receive extra scrutiny. “No wife, no dependents. I am what they call an emigration risk,” he believes. But no matter how appealing living in a free country might be, Mano knows his patients would be at risk if he left; the clinic might be without a pediatrician for long time. “I cannot abandon Havana,” he says.

Col. Emilio Pérez of the revolutionary police force has a plan for Mano. The colonel will approve Mano’s travel, but he will never get to Tampa. Instead, Mano will go to Miami, pretending to defect so he can infiltrate a group of Cuban exiles who may be behind the series of bombings at tourist hotels in Havana. Mano’s contact will be a man he has never met — his father who emigrated to the United States, abandoning the family about 28 years ago, when Mano was a baby.

“Havana Libre” is a bit of paean to the old-fashioned spy novel, though the action doesn’t really heat up until the final third section. While 1997 is hardly ancient times, Mano’s Cuba is stuck in the late 1950s and he has to maneuver a modern world with spy craft skills he doesn’t have. A compassionate man, Mano is not impressed with Miami, where he sees a “labyrinth of longing” for Cuba among the exile community.

Arellano, whose debut “Havana Lunar” was an Edgar Award finalist, steeps his novel in the atmosphere of Cuba and Miami, 20 years ago.

Meet the author

Robert Arellano will discuss “Havana Libre,” along with Bradley Spinelli, author of “The Painted Gun,” at noon Nov. 19 during the Miami Book Fair, Room 8302, Building 8, third floor, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami. For details visit miamibookfair.com.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com.

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