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Talking with Castro

For most of the last 50 years, nearly every U.S. president has negotiated secretly with the government of Cuba in bids to resolve the two nations' conflicts
Peter Kornbluh, William M. Leogrande
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, January/February 2009

(continued from page 3)

The United States set no preconditions for these talks. Unlike his predecessors, Kissinger did not demand that Cuba terminate its military ties with the Soviet Union, and unlike his successors, he did not make democratization or human rights a prerequisite or even a goal of settling the differences in U.S.-Cuban relations. Sánchez-Parodi, however, suggested that Cuba might have a precondition of its own—lifting the trade embargo. He promised to report back to his government.

To underscore Washington's commitment to negotiations, the State Department immediately undertook a series of diplomatic gestures. In mid-January, Assistant Secretary Rogers quietly arranged for the 25-mile travel restriction on Cuban diplomats to be expanded to 250 miles, so that Cuba's U.N. officials could travel to Washington for secret meetings in the future. The United States lifted prohibitions on American corporations making sales to Cuba through third-country subsidiaries. And Kissinger sent another secret message to Castro through Frank Mankiewicz alerting him that these measures reflected U.S. interests in continuing to explore more normal relations and suggesting another meeting. But Cuba did not respond to a request for another meeting until June, when U.S. officials again approached the Cuban delegation at the U.N. and requested a "further government-to-government exchange of views" before the OAS convened in San José, Costa Rica, in late July to vote to lift multilateral diplomatic and trade sanctions. At a meeting at Eagleburger's home in Washington, D.C., on June 30, the two sides planned a major secret negotiating session at the Pierre Hotel in New York.

On July 9, Eagleburger, Rogers, Sánchez-Parodi and Garcia quietly gathered in a private room at the Pierre for what, at that point, would be the most significant and serious negotiating session in U.S. relations with Castro's revolutionary government. According to a declassified transcript of the meeting, Assistant Secretary Rogers laid out the U.S. proposal for a series of steps by both countries culminating in normal relations. Washington was prepared to lift the embargo piece by piece if Cuba reciprocated by: releasing American citizens in Cuban jails; allowing family travel to and from the island; restricting military relations with the Soviet Union; committing to nonintervention in Latin America; settling U.S. property claims from seizures after the revolution; and tempering support for Puerto Rican independence movements.

But, with the exception of family travel, the Cubans were not willing to yield on any of these points. Sánchez-Parodi pointed out the irony of Washington demanding that Cuba commit itself to nonintervention in the region amid recent revelations of CIA covert intervention in Chile contributing to the September 11, 1973, overthrow of the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. On Puerto Rico, he said, Cuba believed in the "need for independence and self-determination." Once again, he indicated that lifting the embargo was a precondition for Cuba to engage in serious negotiations. "We are willing to discuss issues related to easing the blockade but until the embargo is lifted, Cuba and the United States cannot deal with each other as equals and consequently cannot negotiate." The meeting ended rather abruptly with Eagleburger rushing to catch the Eastern Airlines shuttle back to D.C. The momentum for any progress in future talks came to a complete halt in September. First, Castro convened a special conference on Puerto Rican independence in Havana, casting the United States as a neocolonial imperialist power. Then, in November, Cuba deployed thousands of combat troops into Angola to support the MPLA government of Agostino Neto, who had requested assistance against CIA- and South African—backed rebels fighting to control Angola's post-colonial future. The Cuban deployment marked Castro's first major military foray into Africa and established Cuba as a leading player in the Third World. The audacity of a small island nation in the U.S. sphere of influence challenging U.S. geostrategic aims in Africa left Kissinger apoplectic. "I think we are going to have to smash Castro," he told President Ford according to a recently declassified memorandum of conversation. "We probably can't do it before the [1976] elections." For the final meeting with the Cubans held at Washington National Airport on January 12, 1976, Kissinger sent Assistant Secretary Rogers with a somewhat more diplomatic message: "Cuba's dispatch of combat troops to take part in an internal conflict between Africans in Angola is a fundamental obstacle to any far-reaching effort to resolve the basic issues between us at this time."

The major legacy of Kissinger's initiative was that it took place, thereby setting the stage for the next president. When Jimmy Carter won the November 1976 election, Frank Mankiewicz briefed his secretary of state designate, Cyrus Vance, on the secret dialogue during the Ford administration. The Carter administration came into office prepared to pick up where the Kissinger team had left off.


More than any other of his presidential predecessors, Jimmy Carter shares Barack Obama's perspective that the United States should talk to its adversaries. Indeed, Carter took that philosophy beyond a commitment to dialogue, deciding that Washington should strive toward normal bilateral ties with hostile states. "I was determined to work for peace and the resolution of problems that the United States had with other countries," the former president told the authors in 2004. That commitment included Cuba, he told us. "I felt then, as I do now, that the best way to bring about a change in Cuba's communist regime was to have open trade and commerce, and visitation, and diplomatic relations."

In office less than eight weeks, Carter became the first, and to date the only, U.S. president to order the normalization of relations with the Castro government. "I have concluded that we should attempt to achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba," stated Presidential Directive/NSC-6, signed by Carter on March 15, 1977. "To this end, we should begin direct and confidential talks in a measured and careful fashion with representatives of the government of Cuba. Our objective is to set in motion a process which will lead to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba...." This clear presidential mandate set in motion a process that moved quickly. First, Carter lifted the travel ban, not just for Cuban Americans but for all Americans (a ban subsequently reimposed by Ronald Reagan). Freedom to travel was a constitutional right, Carter believed, and having ordinary citizens visit Cuba would help reduce tensions between the two countries—a strategy of engagement that President Bill Clinton would later dub "people-to-people."

Next, Carter dispatched a State Department team to negotiate maritime boundaries, fishing rights and Coast Guard cooperation, all issues of mutual interest that Havana had offered to discuss. After just two rounds of talks, they reached agreements in all three areas. Shortly thereafter, the two governments agreed to reestablish direct diplomatic communications by opening diplomatic missions, called "interests sections," in each other's capital. The interest sections functioned as de facto embassies (even locating in the old embassy buildings), a step just short of the reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations.

But toward the end of 1977, discord within Carter's foreign policy team killed the momentum. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski viewed Cuba as a Cold War pawn of the Soviet Union, and worried that normalizing relations would enhance Soviet power and prestige. Despite Secretary of State Vance's continued desire to at least partially lift the embargo, Brzezinski began to sway Carter after Cuba deployed troops to Ethiopia.

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