While clearly none of the would-be killers interviewed in the 2006 British documentary 638 Ways To Kill Castro succeeded in their errand, it’s fascinating how many of them, speaking years or even decades after the fact, are almost blasé about the prospect of blotting out a world leader. If only the protagonists of Roland Merullo’s paint-by-numbers thriller Fidel’s Last Days approached their assignments related to Cuba’s former president and forever figurehead with such an original perspective; instead, their drive to succeed never steers into unfamiliar territory.
Fidel’s Last Days follows two people who wind up assisting an international modern-day conspiracy to assassinate Castro using an untraceable topical poison. Carolina, a Cuban-American former CIA agent, has spent five years on surveillance errands for the mysterious White Orchid organization on what she believes is an international assassination; now that she’s been asked to introduce the potential plot to her uncle, a prominent Miami businessman whose antipathy toward Fidel Castro is almost as strong as his desire to protect her, Carolina becomes convinced that her next assignment will take her into Havana under the nose of Cuban intelligence—unless a high-level infiltrator has tipped them off first. Meanwhile, Carlos, the Cuban minister of health and Castro’s personal physician, struggles with his duty when a colleague he trusts asks him to join a secret plot to kill his prime patient. Already under the scrutiny of his torture-happy boss Olochon, one of Castro’s oldest comrades, Carlos must weigh his responsibility to improve the lives of millions of Cubans through his ministry work against the potential of a violent strike that could change their lives at the cost of his.
Merullo’s two pat protagonists—the beautiful, lonely agent who has put aside her personal life for work, and the patriot whose faith in the establishment has been shaken—operate well on a scene-by-scene basis, but become tiresome to spend time with in the long run: They’re often required to participate in activities whose significance is lost on them, but once their roles are ultimately illuminated, the grand scheme doesn’t seem nearly as clever or well-orchestrated as its planners declare. Merullo’s portrait of Castro in his few scenes seems to own up to this narrative lethargy: Where the author might have the most leeway to create an interesting character—a world leader, seen behind closed doors—he falls back on a lazy cynicism that betrays both conspirators and plot.