Illustration by Jordin Isip

READING ANN LOUISE BARDACH'S ACCOUNTS OF life among the Cuban elites of both Miami and Havana, you reach one major conclusion: that arbitrarily stuffing all Cubans into one of two categories — either pro-revolutionary Fidelistas on the island or counterrevolutionary gusanos (worms) in Miami exile — no longer tracks with a much more complicated reality. While it's a neat configuration that might serve the purposes of both the ossified ideologues that the Bush administration has appointed to oversee Cuban policy and the die-hard true believers on the left who continue to venerate and apologize for Castro, it is nevertheless a paradigm as obsolete as the '57 Buicks and Oldsmobiles that still chug and smoke through downtown Havana.

Instead, a growing number of Cubans on both sides of the straits strain to find some sort of reconciliation, some sort of joint future, if not now, at least for the next generation. In Miami, there are important — if not yet dominant — dissident voices that want to ratchet down the screechy rhetoric and elaborate some sort of U.S.-Cuban policy that goes beyond the simple vilification of Castro. Bardach digs them all up and brings them provocatively to life on the page. And in Cuba itself, as more and more foreign tourists flock in, with the U.S. dollar now completing a decade as the official currency, and with a tenuous and uneven cultural opening under way, more and more Cubans can dare to dream of some sort of “normalization” of their lives. And once again, Bardach, with a from-the-ground approach, transmits to us a number of compelling first-person accounts of hope and disillusionment.

But in the twin Cuban capitals of Havana and Miami, that search for common ground is still impeded by hard-line leaderships that cling to a blind, blood enmity that — as Bardach rightfully claims — threatens to make the shattering of Cuban families the prime legacy of the revolution.

The overwhelmingly white exile community of Miami continues to be lorded over by a group of thuggish extremists that — with strong links to succeeding American presidents and with a firm foothold in the U.S. Congress — sabotages any move to bridge the 43-year-old gap opened up by the victory of Castro's revolution. As recently as two weeks ago we were all witness to the feverish denunciations by this faction of an agricultural trade fair that brought 300 American companies into Havana, all anxious to sell food to some fairly hungry Cubans.

On the other side, the 76-year-old Líder Máximo seems intent on taking his tenure right to the grave. And for a guy who boasts of knowing so darn much about just about everything (I once heard Castro give a three-hour talk on the artificial insemination of livestock), Fidel is obstinately and conspicuously mum on how his beloved Cuba should make the transition out of a system that is collapsing — if not already collapsed — all around him.

BARDACH DEFTLY UNPACKS ALL THE DETAILS, nuances, contradictions and surreal juxtapositions of the Elián González psychodrama of two years ago and distributes them among several long chapters of the book as her way of highlighting the dysfunctions and divisions within this Cuban family (and its often-loony Uncle Sam). And for the most part, this device works to get her points across. That the wacky Miami relatives of the shipwrecked youngster — and their feverish hordes of supporters who would come out nightly into the street, sweating, panting, screaming, throwing themselves in front of police, swearing that to return Elián to his own loving father in Cuba was akin to sending him off to Dachau — got such reverential initial consideration from the U.S. government and from then­presidential candidates Bush and Gore speaks volumes.

Common sense in this case eventually prevailed, and Elián was sent back home where he belonged. It was a distasteful, and unprecedented, defeat for the big-mouth bullies who dominate exile politics. Their humiliation at the hands of then­Attorney General Janet Reno's federal troops — who conducted the raid that restored Elián to his dad — for a brief historic moment threatened to provoke a major thaw with Cuba.

But only for a moment. For no sooner had Elián been rescued from his cousins' clutches than the exile leadership zealously recommitted itself to vengeance by redoubling its efforts to give Florida to Dubya Bush. We all know how that turned out. And for their successful efforts in helping him win office, Dubya has returned the favor by packing his foreign-policy apparatus with the most twitchingly anti-Castro claque of Cuban-Americans. (Veritable werewolves like Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs Otto Reich, whose eyes roll back into his head with the very mention of Fidel Castro.)

Bardach made her journalistic name not as a foreign-policy wonk or button-down diplomatic correspondent, but rather as a gritty true-crime reporter turning out a sometimes-lurid string of murder stories — including some for this publication back in the 1980s. First sent to Cuba a decade ago, she tenaciously made the island her territory, returning a dozen times and interviewing Castro at length on two occasions and churning out glossy profiles for Vanity Fair and other national publications. But throughout she has maintained her unflinching police reporter's view of things. And rather than emitting gassy lightweight essays, Bardach does things the old-fashioned way; she reports the hell out of her subjects, filling what are no doubt countless notebooks and then sorting it out and reassembling it all in entertaining narratives that daringly and shamelessly flirt with the tabloid.

This approach accounts for both the overwhelming strength and the nagging weakness of this book. Bardach doggedly tracks down, corners and interviews just about every major player in this half-century-old drama: Castro, his exiled sister, his brother-in-law (now a right-wing U.S. congressman), the father of one of Castro's once-most-trusted aides who was purged and executed a dozen years ago, the gangsters who monopolize exile politics, both sides of Elián González's family, dissidents here and in Havana, policymakers, the cronies of Jeb Bush, the self-congratulating terrorists who in the name of anti-Castroism blew up an airline two decades before anyone heard of Osama, and dozens of others who make up this schizophrenic historical mosaic.

She never hesitates to ask the most uncomfortable questions, and the end product is a steaming pot of curdled personal ambitions, rivalries, jealousies and betrayals stewed with the volatile intrigue of international geopolitics. It's hard to get any closer to either Fidel or his now-deceased archrival Jorge Mas Canosa than Bardach does.

THE ONLY REAL FLAW IN THIS WORK IS THAT THIS decidedly non-political, non-ideological approach to matters tends to downplay, well . . . the politics. Plumbing the psyche of policymakers can give us valuable additional insight into their politics, but almost never serves as a full explanation. There are compelling economic, social and (in Cuba's case) security factors that also shape such tormented histories as that between the U.S. and Cuba over the last five decades, and many of these are simply overlooked in Cuba Confidential.

On the other hand, scholarly and not-so-academic treatments of this subject abound and continue to reproduce with no letup. Since the summer nearly a half-dozen major books have appeared on things Cuban, and some — like Julia Sweig's Inside the Cuban Revolution — offer valuable glimpses back into just how Cuba came to revolt in the first place. But of all these newest entries on the Cuba shelf, Bardach's book stands out as the one that gets us closest to the heart — if not the mind — of the matter.

The Cuba specialist Saul Landau, upon returning from a recent visit to the island, remarked that Cuban society today is like a big airliner that circles and circles and circles some more. Can it find a way to safely land, and if so, where? Or will it simply and horribly crash? Bardach grabs our hands and ushers us right into a front-row first-class seat. To paraphrase Bette Davis: Fasten your seat belts — it's going to be a bumpy flight.

CUBA CONFIDENTIAL: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana By ANN LOUISE BARDACH | Random House | 417 pages | $26 hardcover

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