The Mustache that Roared, the Giga-Bolton of Belligerence, has done a reverse pivot. The US war industry, Donald Trump’s national security adviser has declared, has lost interest in George W Bush’s Axis of Evil. Now the big guns are aimed at a “Troika of Tyranny” – three socialist semi-basket cases in Latin America that have somehow not only survived decades of demonization by their giant neighbor to the north, but evolved into a threat to the Empire.

The choice of the word “troika” is interesting. It’s Russian, which must have perked up Robert Mueller’s ears when an adviser to “Putin puppet” Trump uttered it. Derived from the word for “set of three,” the тройка was originally a transportation set-up whereby three horses were harnessed abreast to draw a cart.

While John Bolton’s announcement is bad news for Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, even when emanating from a warmongering blowhard. For this writer, it restores some personal relevance.

As I had never been to any of the three members of Bush’s original Axis, I always felt a bit left out. But I have been to all three members of Bolton’s “triumvirate of terror.” Those visits happened a long time ago, but the memories of all three remain pretty vivid in an aging brain that has trouble remembering my daughter’s birthday.

Venezuela

My visit to this South American country predated the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez that provoked America’s ire. Back then, no one in Washington cared about Venezuela except for its energy resources, over which US oil companies maintained an unchallenged grip. For me, it was just a vacation destination. I had no political interest in the place.

One day I was lying on the beach in front of a resort near the city of Barcelona when a young tout approached. Normally I tell people like that to get lost, but he had a pretty good pitch, and I ended up signing up for what he was flogging: a plane trip to the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls. For the equivalent of about US$100, it was one of the best travel experiences of my life.

It was a light, single-engine plane, with only four passengers plus the pilot, that soared across the stunningly beautiful Orinoco rainforest to the vast, 30,000-square-kilometer Canaima National Park. There we took a riverboat tour to a spot where we could swim under warm waterfalls before enjoying an excellent meal (included in the cost) and then the pièce de résistance: Salto Ángel, a cascade nearly a kilometer high. Fortunately neither I nor my companions suffered from airsickness or fear of flying, as our highly competent pilot took us deep into the canyon below the falls, then soared above them, then whisked us near enough to the waterfall itself that we felt we could reach out and touch it.

An unforgettable experience in an unforgettable country populated by lovely, friendly people who, I believed then and still do, deserve much better than the intrigues of local and international politics have given them.

Cuba

This fascinating island has been popular with us Canadians since the 1959 Revolution not because we know or care much about its politics, but because it was until recently one of the few places in the Western Hemisphere we could go to that was not crawling with Americans. We like Americans, but in groups they can be a bit too much of a good thing. Probably they feel the same about us.

Cuban authorities like to look stern and forbidding even when they’re not, including the passport stampers at Varadero Airport, the usual tourist destination for Canadians. I arrived without a resort reservation, which raised a couple of stern and forbidding eyebrows, but my passport was stamped anyway, and I jumped on a bus to a resort town on the north coast I’d read about that was little known to Westerners. There I was quickly able to secure accommodation in a then-illegal home-stay run by a friendly señora.

Once I’d secured my obligatory beach sunburn and consumed sufficiently excessive quantities of cerveza at the local bars, I moved east to Havana, and another home-stay. Such a fascinating city; the Museum of the Revolution, in the former Batista presidential palace, is alone worth the trip.

Too often, frightened Westerners who read about “police states” but never actually go to them rob themselves of the chance to see different ways of life, to see how ordinary folks adapt to, even laugh at, a theoretically overbearing system.

My Spanish is very poor, but in Havana I was surprised at how easy it was to be drawn into political chats with people I’d never laid eyes on before. I came away impressed by such people’s yearning for democracy yet contempt for the right-wing Miami exiles who dreamed of a return to a Batistaesque kleptocracy, and sadness at the deprivations caused by the US embargo.

Nicaragua

By the time I went to this Central American country I was in the early years of my journalism career and taking more of an interest in politics. The persecution of the fledgling Sandinista regime by the Reagan administration was a hot topic among some of my colleagues, and for the first time (but far from the last) I was finding myself frustrated by the failure of mainstream media to provide intelligent analysis of the upheavals then (and still) ravaging Central America.

Not only could I not understand why the US Empire felt so threatened by this tiny, poverty-stricken nation and its rejection of dictatorship, I could not understand why so-called journalists were not asking questions that seemed obvious even to me, a relative novice in the field.

A photographer colleague who had been to Nicaragua but had been unable to slash through the red tape to acquire authorization to snap the photos he wanted, had arranged to go back and try again. Like many photogs, he was great with a camera but not so great with the written word, so when I asked if I could tag along and handle the writing for a photojournalism package, he happily agreed.

Though we worked for a provincial paper with no purview for international coverage, our editor grudgingly agreed to give us press credentials that looked good enough that they would likely satisfy Nicaraguan bureaucrats. All expenses, however, would be ours to bear.

One reason my photographer buddy had had trouble securing approval from the Nicaraguan authorities on his first trip was that he wanted to document the Sandinista army itself, specifically its youth. In a newly emerged socialist regime fighting a terror campaign backed by the feared US Central Intelligence Agency, suspicions weren’t surprising. But in my halting Spanish I was able to persuade the “stern and forbidding” Defense Ministry officer that he should feel free to specify in his letter of approval anything he wanted us to steer clear of.

And so, officially stamped government approval and provincial Canadian press credentials in hand, we hitched a ride in an army truck across the spine of the Central American isthmus to a Sandinista boot camp in the east of the country, accompanied by a young Canadian woman who had gotten bored with the human-rights group she was traveling with and decided to tag along with us. As the only member of our team who spoke any Spanish, I secured a meeting with the camp’s commanding officer and presented our letter from the Defense Ministry, reiterating our intention to stay away from anything he deemed sensitive.

He shrugged and said that the stern and forbidding officer in Managua had written in the letter that we were to be given every courtesy, and that nothing was off-limits to our eyes, or our cameras. And so the camp CO assigned a junior officer to show us around, and set us up with accommodations including a separate facility suitable for our female companion. The CO even gave us souvenir Sandino hats.

There’s a lot more to the story and in the end our photojournalism spread won my friend some well-deserved awards, but the bottom line was not all that surprising. The American Empire’s fear of these people was utterly unwarranted, and the CIA-backed Contras’ burning of schools and sabotage of the electrical system utterly unjustifiable.

Triskaphobia

So, do bad things really come in threes? Is John Bolton right to worry that at the same time as a “caravan” of Latin Americans is about to “invade” the US homeland, another bunch of brown people are wielding “the destructive forces of oppression, socialism and totalitarianism”? Perhaps; things change, innocence wanes, evil blossoms where we do not expect it.

About the only thing we can count on prevailing is political mendacity.