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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 5)


Obama will also want to draw from the experiences of Bill Clinton. Unlike Obama, Clinton entered the White House beholden to the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation. The foundation donated tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign in return for his endorsement of legislation to tighten the embargo. Nevertheless, Clinton worked to lower the hostile rhetoric and engage the Cubans on bilateral issues such as establishing modern telecommunications links, U.S. news bureaus in Havana and counter-narcotics collaboration. During his first term, the White House toyed with the concept of "calibrated response"—a synchronized process in which the United States would gradually dismantle the embargo and Cuba would take steps toward democracy until relations were normal. But White House aides abandoned this idea of step-by-step reciprocity as impractical. "We needed a dance not to the same music but to a similar beat," one White House official told us, "where each side pursued interests independently."

Momentum in easing tensions in U.S.-Cuban relations was undermined by the balsero crisis in the summer of 1994. In the midst of a horrendous economic collapse following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Castro unleashed another refugee exodus—and then took back-channel steps to resolve it. The Cubans initially contacted former President Carter to act as an interlocutor, but Clinton preferred to use Mexican President Carlos Salinas to open a direct dialogue with Castro. "The task had to be taken with total discretion," Salinas wrote in his memoirs. "I needed a connection to the Cuban government, someone who would be completely discreet while having direct and immediate access to Fidel Castro.... I telephoned Gabriel García Márquez."

The message that García Márquez carried to Martha's Vineyard set the stage for talks in September to end the massive flow of refugees. But the temporary fix of transforming the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo into a massive detention center for 20,000 rafters intercepted at sea soon became a nightmare for the U.S. military. In April 1995, U.S. and Cuban diplomats met in utmost secrecy in Toronto to hammer out a new accord: the Guantánamo detainees would be brought to the United States. But from then on, Cuban refugees who did not make it to land in the United States would be repatriated to Cuba. This new policy—known as "wet foot/dry foot"—marked a fundamental change in the U.S. immigration posture, which had always welcomed all refugees from communist Cuba. It generated howls of protest from anti-Castro groups furious about the secret talks and worried that further dialogue might lead to normalized relations.

One such group was Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR), led by a militant anti-Castro exile named José Basulto. BTTR pilots began flying planes over the Florida Strait looking for refugees in need of rescue, but soon the planes were buzzing Havana, dropping propaganda leaflets over the city. Along with open diplomatic communiqués, the Cubans used no fewer than three back channels, including then Congressman Bill Richardson, to get the message to President Clinton that they could not tolerate such security breaches of their airspace. All these communications failed. When three BTTR planes flew into Cuban airspace on February 24, 1996, Cuban MiGs scrambled and shot down two of them as they fled, killing four young men and precipitating the worst crisis in U.S.-Cuban relations since the Mariel Boatlift.

Despite the shoot-down, communications continued during Clinton's second term. Castro once again used Gabriel García Márquez as a secret emissary to alert President Clinton to "a sinister terrorist plot," as the writer described it, "which could affect not only their two countries, but others as well." During a secret meeting at the White House on May 6, 1998, García Márquez shared with four of Clinton's top national security aides the details of a threat to blow up airliners flying to Cuba from Central America. "Your mission was one of the highest importance," he was told by a senior U.S. official, "and you have carried it out admirably." Clinton sent the FBI to Cuba to be briefed by intelligence officials; subsequently the FBI arrested a network of Cuban spies in Florida, but not the exiles who were plotting attacks.

The two countries engaged in "béisbol diplomacy"—negotiating arrangements for ballgames in Havana and Baltimore between the top Cuban team and the Baltimore Orioles in early 1999. That year, Clinton took unilateral steps to expand travel to Cuba for U.S. residents and Cuban-American families. The reduced tensions proved useful when a little boy named Elián González became the center of an international tug-of-war between his relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba. Behind the scenes, U.S. and Cuban officials in Havana and Washington engaged in extensive diplomatic talks to bring that crisis to an end, and return Elián to his father.


"After nearly 50 years of failure, we must turn the page and begin to write a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba policy," Barack Obama declared during the presidential campaign. "I will also do what this president has not done: engage in aggressive and principled bilateral diplomacy." As Obama reviews the previous chapters of bilateral diplomacy written by his predecessors, he should take note of some key historical lessons that still resonate today.

The first lesson is that the Cubans have always been interested in normalizing relations. Besides engaging in talks with the Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations, the Cubans held secret meetings with emissaries from Presidents Johnson and Reagan, and negotiated immigration accords with those two administrations. Diplomatic dialogue on resolving the conflicts in Central America also took place during the administration of George H. W. Bush. "We have always been disposed to normalize relations on an equal plane," Raúl Castro reiterated after taking over for his ailing brother in 2006.

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