FOR THOSE WHO enjoy brisk narrative and eclectic prose, Humberto Fontova’s The Hell Divers’ Rodeo is a must read. Subtitled "A Deadly, Extreme, Scuba-Diving, Spear Fishing Adventure Amid the Off-Shore Oil-Platforms in the Murky Waters of the Gulf of Mexico," Fontova integrates anecdotes of aquatic combat with Jose Ortega y Gasset, equally at home discussing phytoplankton, Fleetwood Mac, or Philip Caputo.
Fontova is an émigré from Communist Cuba, as well as an expert spear fisher. Not only an engrossing celebration of oceanic warriors, The Helldivers’ Rodeo includes a primary account of a totalitarian regime in its infancy.
Fontova’s portrait of Cuba in 1961 when he was seven shows a country well on its way to Sovietization. Milicianos (militiamen) carried Czech-made machine guns of seeming ubiquity: "Those Czech machine guns were all over 1961 Cuba." (The foreign machine guns are an apt metaphor for the ideological imperialism attendant upon Fidel Castro’s ascendancy.)
A crucial method by which the new regime consolidated power was firearms confiscation, a trait common to all totalitarian regimes (See Richard Poe’s The Seven Myths of Gun Control.) Fontova recounts how he and a friend were confronted by milicianos while they played with BB guns. Labeling them "munchkin counter-revolutionaries," the milicianos seized their beloved Christmas gifts "Para la Revolucion!" ("For the Revolution!" Fontova observes, "That was a famous phrase back then. Every time the Reds stole something, confiscated something, every time they abolished another right, it was: "Para la Revolucion!")
Fontova again experienced traumatic proximity to the Czech machine guns when he was about to leave Cuba with his family. (They had applied for exit in March 1960 and gained approval in October 1961; prohibitive emigration was already in place.) "Senor Fontova — gusano!" exclaimed four milicianos. "They’d gotten a full-grown counter-revolutionary this time," he writes. (Fontova’s father had been a classmate at the University of Havana with Osmani Cienfuegos — Castro’s first Minister of Public Works — and rejected an offer to be his second in command. This, coupled with relatives’ participation in the Bay of Pigs, did not endear him to the Communists.)
The family went to Miami and then New Orleans, and Fontova’s father was sent to La Cabana — "firing-squad central" where Che Guevara presided over fatal injustices that await public appreciation. He was miraculously released after three months and reunited with his family.
Apologists for leftist revolutions often argue that these regimes begin in goodwill but deviate from benevolence. It is a dubious proposition to begin with, and, as Fontova shows, certainly inapplicable to the Cuban Revolution. Castro’s vision was despotic from its inception.
At the end of The Helldivers’ Rodeo, Fontova describes a recent conversation with his nanny, Tata. Still in Cuba, her son Evelito attempted to escape on a raft off Cojimar, the place slightly east of Havana where Fontova fished with straightened coat hangers as a child.
Nearly 100,000 Cubans have made the same perilous decision through the decades. Pascal Fontaine notes in The Black Book of Communism, "It is estimated that approximately one-third of all balseros [rafters] have died while at sea."
Evelito told his mother he would contact her upon reaching Key West, but the phone call has not arrived. Fontova envisions the tragic likelihood: "When those waves started cresting around him, as the raft started unraveling, when those Tigers and Whitetips started circling…who knows? Evelito would have much preferred to hop on a plane like Pelayo [his childhood friend] and I and our families."
But for Cuba’s ruling class, Evelito would not lie in the Atlantic Ocean’s cemetery of balseros. Remembrance of Evelito, the thousands among him, and those responsible for their demise is incumbent upon the living.