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Onyx reviews: Cuba by Stephen Coonts

Long before Elian Gonzales, his mother and numerous other compatriots departed for the shores of Florida, Stephen Coonts created a subplot in his novel Cuba in which eighty-four people cram into a forty-foot boat and set out for Miami. In another case of life imitating art, this boat will not reach its destination and only one person will survive the stormy seas, the sharks, and days adrift in the open water.

Coonts, a former navy pilot, made his big break when his first book landed on then-president Ronald Reagan's desk the same day that a photographer from Fortune magazine was in the Oval Office to take pictures for a feature article. Suddenly, The Flight of the Intruder was splashed across the country, conspicuously visible on the president's desk.

Coonts creates adventure novels crammed with military intrigue and detail. Like Tom Clancy, he is more of a story-teller than a writer. There is little danger that one of his novels will win an award for style or artistry, but his stories are entertaining and compelling.

Fidel Castro is on his deathbed, finally subdued by cancer. In the wings, several pretenders to the throne are ready to succeed him. Alejo Vargas and his supporters want to continue in Castro's tradition and are willing to take drastic measures to demonstrate their intentions to the U.S. Others, like Hector Sedano, see a chance to normalize relations with America and free the citizens of Cuba from poverty and oppression. Sedano's brother, Ocho, is one of the castaways on the ill-fated Angel del Mar, adrift in the Gulf Stream.

As the novel opens, a shipment of empty biological warheads from Guantanamo Bay is hijacked en route to the U.S. Some of the warheads find their way back to Cuba, where they are loaded and affixed to rockets that were missed during the Cuban Missile Crisis purge. Vargas has them targeted at several southeastern U.S. cities and announces to the world that he intends to use them if his claim to leadership in Cuba is challenged by the Americans.

Enter Jake Grafton, Coonts's illustrious renegade Admiral, the typical thriller hero who, like Dirk Pitt or Jack Ryan, never feels constrained to follow military or political protocol. The ends always justify the means and apologies can be made after the fact when his operation is a proven success. Grafton is charged with dismantling the Cuban biological warfare program in a scheme that recalls the famous Bay of Pigs incident.

It is, perhaps, risky for an author to use a living personality like Fidel Castro as a character in a novel. Coonts shows a Castro who, in his final days, has discovered the love of his life and expresses some regrets for his past decisions. Coonts's political views are thinly veiled and he often gives his characters free reign to air these opinions in heavy-handed scenes that tend to put the action on hold.

Still, once Grafton and his cohorts set the scheme into action, all such matters are swept aside and the story reigns. Coonts knows his equipment and uses this knowledge to full benefit. The V-22 Osprey turboprop, which has been in the news lately after a highly publicized crash, is featured extensively in the novel, along with F-14's, MiG-29's, stealth bombers and cruise missiles.

A pair of enterprising CIA agents assists the military assault team on the ground. Once the full American military force attacks the woefully under-armed Cuban military, there is little doubt of the outcome, but the plot is exciting and thrilling all the same.

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