When the two protagonists of Telex from Cuba begin their narrative in early 1950ís Cuba, their families reside in the American enclave. KC Stitesís father heads The United Fruit Company in Oriente Province. Everly Lederer, newly arrived with her family, heads for Nicaro, where nickel mines are proving a profitable venture for the Nicaro Nickle Company.
KCís family enjoys a luxurious home, many servants, the Stites family and their neighbors luxuriating in superior conditions to anywhere else on the island. Those on Nicaro suffer the rust-colored mist that is a by-product of the industry but also live according to the tenets of class and privilege. Cuba has just been taken over in a military coup, Batista cooperative with American interests. Meanwhile, the rebels gather in the mountains, planning insurgencies against the occupiers that steadfastly preserve the status quo of social inequity.
Over the years, the numbers of the revolutionaries increase, the working Cubans, Haitians and other islanders toiling to survive horrible conditions quickly won over by the promises of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul. Yet the American families, secure in their status, remain oblivious to changing conditions. KC and Everly reflect the minutiae of daily life, their fathersí importance and the many benefits accrued by virtue of nationality.
And then there is Rachel K, a cabaret dancer who flirts with rebels, heads of state and enigmatic Frenchman Christian de la Maziere. Christian manages to infiltrate every level of politics, from Batista to the rebelís secret enclaves and in Haiti, where he negotiates deals to further the peopleís causes - and line his own pockets with profit. Like a snake, Maziere glides from place to place, agitating, while the increasingly nervous Americans cling to their rituals and ignore the dark clouds on the horizon.
The beginning of the end is initiated by a massive fire on the 300,000-acre sugar cane plantation, the Americanís efforts frustrated by a lack of water to fight the spreading flames. The rebels, with inside help - KCís older brother - have cut off the water supply at each critical juncture. KCís father stands by, helpless, watching his years of careful administration burn to the ground. And who is to fight the fire, the dark-skinned workers nowhere to be found?
The exercise of power dominates this novel even as revolution is fomented in the jungles, a corollary to wealth and government influence. Exploitation is endemic to corporate philosophy, laborers without fair wages or decent conditions while the planters enjoy freedom from taxation. The Cuban government accommodates the United States until Castroís interference, rewards for all in the spirit of cooperation.
Even after the revolution, the Americans grapple with the impossibility of coming to terms with the revolutionaries, clinging to false hopes of a return to the massive sugar cane operation that has produced enormous profits for company officers and government for generations. Instead, like lemmings, the Americans are herded onto Navy ships, returned to their roots and left only with memories, often bitter, of a tropical paradise, endless celebrations, a dark-skinned workforce invisible in a world of excess and entitlement - vague remnants of ďthe ugly American.Ē
For a few generations, a brief moment in time, the island paradise is filled with the voices of American children, the clinking glasses of their parents at cocktail parties, servants moving soundlessly through the background, serving the white faces that take that service for granted. After the violence, after the island shakes off the capitalists, the corruption of past years is banished. Years later, those same children have only photographs to remind them of their Cuban sojourn, the rarified world of privilege relegated to a colorful history.