Yesterday I finished reading two books on Cuba, now added to my library of more than 500 titles about the island. Write a book about Cuba and I’m sure to read it. Here’s a review of the first…
Havana Odyssey: Chasing Ochoa’s Ghost (ISBN 9781-952483-127) is a self-published autobiographical novel by Stephen E. Murphy. And it’s the degree to which the novel is based on autobiographical fact that sustains the plot and, in the end, my interest (although that perhaps had more to do with my fascination in the real-life Ochoa story).
In the 1980s, President George H.W. Bush appointed Murphy as director of the U.S. Information Agency’s short-lived Worldnet Television. There, in 1989, he met and had a romance with exiled Cuban dissident Ana Sánchez, niece of General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez—a revolutionary stalwart and Cuban Hero of the Republic whose brilliant military campaigns in Angola are taught at the U.S. and Russian War Colleges. That year, Ochoa was implicated by Fidel and Raúl Castro in drug trafficking and after a swift military trial—widely regarded as a “show trial”—he and three others were taken to a quarry at the military airfield at Baracoa, just west of Havana, and executed on July 13, 1989.
The event remains highly controversial. At the time, Cuba was facing instability as the Soviet Bloc (the country’s benefactor) collapsed. Ochoa was among the most vocal advocates for economic liberalization, which Fidel adamantly resisted. He was also a hugely popular figure with the masses. As Murphy notes, “Cubans spontaneously rose from their seats to applaud the Hero of the Republic wherever he went. Fidel and Raul [sic] Castro took note. The brothers reveled in the limelight. They granted none to anyone else, unless it served their purpose. Then the international press highlighted drug-running by Cuba, and the Castros looked for a scapegoat. Ochoa and close associates fit the bill.”
The Ochoa story is well documented—beginning, not least, with Andres Oppenheimer’s Castro’s Final Hour (1992)—and there are few unknowns remaining, except that Cuba aficionados remain divided as to whether he was framed or was guilty.
Then one spring morning in 1990, Ana Sánchez disappeared. In the novel, she and the protagonist, Luke Shannon (Murphy), are walking together in Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin when five Hispanic men suddenly cause a violent ruckus that enmeshes Shannon (although not explicitly stated, one assumes this is more or less how it happened in real life with Murphy). When he extricates himself, Ana is gone… Forever! He speculates that she was abducted back to Cuba. “Her memory haunted me for years,” says Murphy.
Apparently, Murphy had made a promise to Ana “to tell General Arnaldo Ochoa’s story to the world.” However, the TV program he tried to film about her famous uncle got sidetracked by budget cuts.
In an email to me requesting a blurb (a short description of a book, usually by someone well known, that is written for promotional purposes), he stated “I didn’t keep my promise then but am doing so by tell [sic] the backstory of why the Castros had him, Cuba’s Hero of the Republic, shot against the infamous wall.” (The “infamous wall” was actually in La Cabaña fortress, not at Baracoa airfield, and has been used as Cuba’s principal execution place dating back almost three centuries.) “Though it took me 31 years, Havana Odyssey: Chasing Ochoa’s Ghost redeems my promise made to Ana and to the Ochoa family,” claims Murphy.
In 2015, Murphy–by then a professor at Seattle University—met a member of the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) at a seminar. Talk turned to Ochoa. The CANF exile told him that he knew of Ana, that she was alive and living in Holguín, Cuba, and was in failing health.
In 2018, Murphy finally visited Cuba to represent Seattle University on an educational mission. He used his time (and two subsequent visits) to track down Ana, who he discovered has just been killed in a traffic accident. That’s Murphy’s reality and also the premise for the novel and Luke Shannon’s mission… which is ill-received by the Cuban government and its highly efficient intelligence apparatus. “Though the powers-that-be try to sweep his memory away, isolating family members, Ochoa still casts a long shadow.” Inevitably, Murphy/Shannon are tracked and interrogated by secret police.
(Anyone who has read my own literary travelogue, Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba, knows that as a journalist I came under constant surveillance, was taken to the provincial Ministry of Interior headquarters in Holguín—ironically—for questioning by secret police, and also had secret police come to read my notebooks and interrogate me literally as I was preparing to sail from Havana to Key West at the end of my three-month motorcycle journey in 1996. Once my Cuba Handbook –now Moon Cuba–guidebook and Mi Moto Fidel  were published, I officially became a “person of suspicion” based on some of the savory home-truths I wrote, and I was thereafter denied a journalist visa. In 1999, while researching the second edition of my guidebook, I realized I was being tailed after witnessing secret police take away a couple I had befriended in Trinidad’s Casa de la Trova. Next day, I identified and confronted a spook who was tailing me. His Rolex watch, ill-fitting with his faux campesino dress, was a give-away. My “spooking” him was a comic moment and delight! Thereafter, several Cuban friends told me that they had been questioned by secret police about my activities. Despite which, I do not define Cuba simply by these experiences. It has far more positives than negatives, and most of those positives are a direct consequence of the Revolution.)
Murphy/Shannon succeed in finding Ana’s gravesite. But, lo and behold… in so doing, Shannon also discovers that he has a son by Ana! (This, dear reader, appears to be purely fiction.)
In his Acknowledgements, Murphy recognizes the Catholic clergy who were a main source of assistance and information on his “find Ana” mission. Every priest he meets in the novel, and seemingly every second Cuban, warns him to beware of practitioners of Santería, the syncretic Afro-Cuban religion that is ubiquitous and entirely benign (…unless you’re a chicken or goat). Santería features frequently in Havana Odyssey and is always presented as evil (Murphy truly does appear to be a man on a mission). And it is at one such “scary” ceremony full of “uncanny screams and ululations” that father meets son: “’You’ve come at last,’ escaped the young man’s lips. He dropped to his knees before Luke…. [Luke] had finally found his son, of the Ochoa clan, bred by passion 30 years ago with Ana… He could only utter ‘My son.’”
Shannon then contrives to smuggle his son, Lucas, out of Cuba. This he does by buying himself passage, and paying a bribe for his son to become a stow-away, aboard a MSC cruise ship departing Havana. Safely outside Cuba waters they are accosted onboard by an evil Cuban intelligence officer (another stow-away!) out to nail Shannon. In a struggle, they all tumble into the Florida Straits (the ship sails on!) and father and son are saved by dolphins–uuurgh! I kid you not!–and safely brought to shore in the USA for a happy ending.
I wrote to Murphy, telling him why I couldn’t provide a book blurb.
First, as Director of Worldnet Television, Murphy worked with the prominent Cuban exiles, Jorge Mas Canosa (founder of CANF) and Tony Navarro, to bring Radio/TV Martí on air. (Radio/TV Martí is a corrupt USAID-funded, anti-Castroite boondoggle that wastes millions of taxpayer dollars; has always been effectively blocked by the Cuban government; and these days serves no other purpose than to keep the right-wing anti-Castro flame alive in Florida. GAO audits have found “an excess of Godiva chocolates and cashmere sweaters,” millions of dollars unaccounted for, plus illegal transfers of money to Cuban-American media companies related to members of the purely Cuban-American board of directors.)
In Havana Odyssey, Murphy leads off his acknowledgments effusively with thanks to Mas Canosa and Navarro and their “objective programming.” Ironically, his own lack of objectivity and less than rosy view of contemporary Cuba–clearly a result of this liaison, and of being interrogated by secret police in Cuba–permeate Havana Odyssey. Anyone who knows Cuba well will surely shake their head at this tired description of the “police state” as the singular reality. Cuba’s beauty at every level is entirely absent. The unipolar political perspective clearly reflects the position of the Cuban-American National Foundation. As a result, the quasi-novel comes across strongly as propagandist.
Second: “Your profiles of Santería are also propagandist and naïve in presenting this syncretic religion as a dark force,” I wrote him. “They reflect the ‘holier-than-thou’ perspective of the U.S. Catholic church and bear little relationship to the reality of Santería as practiced in Cuba, or to the more accepting position of the Catholic church on the island. It’s the most blatant example in Havana Odyssey of what I find to be only a cursory understanding of Cuba’s complexities.”
Next, although coincidental meetings are a staple of novels to move a plot forward, the Havana Odyssey plot is far too reliant on this technique, The most unlikely chance encounters repeat themselves ad nauseum.
And the robotic and wooden dialog, so unlike the spoken word, is almost comic. Mostly it elicits groans. Murphy also constantly uses dialog as a vehicle for extensive and frequently gratuitous profiles on history, politics, etc., in contexts in which they would never occur in daily parlance as portrayed. Again, this is an established technique for providing factual background and detail, but here it is not done effectively and causes head-shakes.
Finally, in my closing comment to Murphy explaining why I was unable and unwilling to provide a blurb, I wrote that although his stated intent was to “tell the backstory of why the Castros had [Ochoa] shot against the infamous wall,” I didn’t think he’d come anywhere close to that mission in Havana Odyssey, which provides very little background to the Ochoa story, and absolutely nothing revelatory.
That said, the plot is creative, tenable, and–yes–even enjoyable in its broad strokes. The devil, as they say, is in the details.