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JFK and Castro

The Secret Quest For Accommodation Recently Declassified U.S. government Documents Reveal That, at the Height of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro Were Exploring Ways To Normalize U.S.-Cuba Relations
Peter Kornbluh
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

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Castro has indicated, sometimes vaguely, sometimes rather clearly, through various channels, public as well as private, that he is interested in an accommodation with the United States. His immediate disillusion over the Soviet missile crisis posture probably prompted him to grope for a policy which would diminish his dependence upon the Soviet Union.1 In March 1963, Cuban minister Raul Roa Garcia sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General U Thant hinting that Cuba was interested in friendly relations with the United States. European businessmen returning from Havana told CIA sources that Castro wanted to deal with Washington. By June 5, the CIA had accumulated a half-dozen intelligence reports, according to a secret summary by Deputy Director Richard Helms, "suggesting Cuban interest in a rapprochement with the United States." 

The first private channel through which Castro directly transmitted this message was James Donovan, a New York lawyer negotiating the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. In the late fall of 1962, Donovan became the first American emissary to gain Castro's ear, and his trust. Secretly representing the Kennedy brothers, Donovan arranged a trade of $53 million in food and medicine for the Bay of Pigs captives; in early 1963, he continued his trips to Havana to secure the release of two dozen American citizens, including three CIA operatives, held in Cuban jails.  

Debriefed by U.S. intelligence officials after each trip, Donovan described his meetings with Castro as "most cordial and intimate." In late January 1963, as he was boarding his plane to return to the United States, Donovan reported, Castro's physician and aide-de-camp, Rene Vallejo, "broached the subject of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S." Vallejo also extended Castro's invitation for Donovan to return to Havana for further talks "about the future of Cuba and international relations in general."  

In early March, a State Department official suggested that Donovan be instructed to tell Castro that breaking Cuban relations with the Sino-Soviet bloc was a nonnegotiable U.S. demand for improved relations. But Kennedy overruled him. "The President does not agree that we should make the breaking of Sino/Soviet ties a non-negotiable point," stated a Top Secret/Eyes Only memorandum recording Kennedy's instructions to security adviser Bundy. "We don't want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines."  

Kennedy's surprising position "must be kept close to the vest," the memo advised. "The President, himself, is very interested in this one."  

The "Special Group"--the highest-level interagency committee responsible for Cuba policy--did not evaluate the issue of Donovan's talks with Castro, and the other intelligence reports on Cuba's interest in better relations, until June 6. According to minutes of their meeting, Bundy, CIA Director John McCone, State Department Deputy Undersecretary U. Alexis Johnson and others "discussed various possibilities of establishing channels of communication to Castro," and the group agreed that this was "a useful endeavor."

The CIA sources indicated that the Cubans would probably accept Donovan as a back-channel negotiator, but they also indicated that the United States would have to take the first step. The CIA's Helms quoted one Cuban source as stating that "Latin pride" would not permit Cuba to humiliate itself in the eyes of the world by making the first overture, but that the United States could "afford to be charitable and take the initiative."

Which country initiated the secret dialogue in the fall of 1963 remains a subject of historical dispute. The feelers toward a rapprochement "originally came, one might say, from their side," testified William Attwood, the key U.S. official involved in the subsequent talks, in a top secret deposition in 1975. In an interview, Cuba's former ambassador to the United Nations, Carlos Lechuga, insisted that "this was a Kennedy initiative, not Cuba's."  

In fact, the immediate catalyst for the talks appears to have been a reporter for ABC News named Lisa Howard. A onetime actress and soap-opera star--in the late 1950s she was a regular on CBS's "Edge of Night"--Howard emerged on the media scene in 1960 as a correspondent for Mutual Radio Network. Covering the United Nations, she became the first journalist to score an interview with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. After ABC News hired her to cover the 1961 Vienna summit between Khrushchev and Kennedy, she became one of the first women to anchor a television news program--"The News Hour with Lisa Howard."  

In 1962, Howard began peppering Cuba's U.N. mission for permission to go to Havana. "I am the woman who interviewed Khrushchev," she reminded Cuban officials in her correspondence. The American public wanted to know more about the Cuban revolution, she wrote; an ABC interview with Castro would serve the interests of both countries.   In April 1963, she finally received permission to bring a TV crew to Cuba. To meet Castro, however, she had to prevail upon James Donovan to make the introduction. Castro granted her an exclusive televised interview--his first with a U.S. network since 1959, and a major journalistic coup for Howard and ABC.  

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Comments   2 comment(s) October 23, 2013 5:03pm ET

Even though it's from 1999, this is an excellent, timeless article which I just came upon today. It's too bad this extremely important bit of JFK history is not more widely know. It needs to be published by the MSM! Thank you Mr Kornbluh!

David Savona October 24, 2013 11:49am ET

I'm glad you enjoyed this article by Peter Kornbluh. He has returned to the pages of Cigar Aficionado with an intriguing piece on the JFK Assassination. The story is in our December issue, which is heading to newsstands soon.

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