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JFK and Che

The Man Who Drafted the Order for the Cuban Embargo Recalls Puffing Cigars in the Kennedy White House, and a Not-So-Chance Meeting with the Famed Revolutionary
Richard Goodwin
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 2)

At a rambling, somewhat dreary apartment in a nearby residential section of the Uruguayan capital, about 30 people--I was the only American--were celebrating the birthday of a Brazilian official with an array of heavy pastries and rather dispirited samba music. As I talked with hopeful animation to a young Argentine woman in a tight-fitting flowered print dress--my choice of companion identifying me as a true Kennedy man--Che Guevara, wearing his combat fatigues, entered the room. He had, I later discovered, been telephoned by a fellow guest, a journalist in search of a story, and told where he could find me.

Uncertain, I debated whether to leave immediately and thus avoid a forbidden encounter, or remain and let events take their course. "I will not run out of a room just because a communist has decided to enter," I told myself, the patriotic bravado concealing my true reason for remaining: curiosity about this already legendary revolutionary and what he wanted of me. I was never to regret the decision, although, later, when a Senate committee investigated my encounter, I had some doubt of its wisdom.

After circulating for a few minutes, Guevara's eye caught mine and he approached, indicating that he wanted to talk. I told him I couldn't negotiate anything but would, of course, report what he said to "the right people." Gesturing toward the partygoers around us, Guevara motioned to the rear of the apartment where we could find some privacy. We walked to a small sitting room, accompanied by two young Latin diplomats, acquaintances of mine, who could interpret. I knew some Spanish, but not enough for this conversation.

At a distance the bearded Guevara had looked rugged, his bearing strong. But seated across from him in this small room, I saw that his features were soft, gentle, almost feminine, and he seemed uncertain, even anxious, as I waited for him to begin. "I would like to thank you for the Bay of Pigs," he said, his arms sweeping out in an expansive gesture as if motioning toward distant beaches. "Our control was incomplete. It rallied the people behind us, and allowed us to overcome the middle-class opposition."

What could I reply? It was all true. "You're welcome," I responded, adding, "Now maybe you'll invade Guantánamo."

The almost grim intensity of his expression was dissolved in a broad grin. "Never. We'd never be so foolish."

"Too bad," I said, then was silent waiting for him to begin. The conversation was not to end until dawn had lightened the Montevideo skies. He began by lecturing me on the inevitable failure of Kennedy's new Latin American policy, which called for large social reforms to accompany economic development. "It comes too late," he asserted. Having told me of America's difficulties, he then turned to his own, describing with dignified candor the economic difficulties of a Cuba cut off from its natural market and source of supply. In addition, since most of the production facilities had been imported from the United States, a supply of spare parts was essential to operation. Cuba badly needed a resumption of trade, he concluded, and perhaps, although admittedly this was doubtful, some inclusion in the new programs Kennedy had proposed.

What did I say? Very little. An occasional quip, a question or two. My position was already hazardous--for me--and any appearance of negotiation had to be avoided. We must not make the mistake, he told me, of thinking Castro was some kind of a moderate who had been transformed into a radical "by others." He was always a communist, but had concealed it to keep the United States from obstructing the Revolution. "Clever, even brilliant," I thought, for had we known what was coming, it is unlikely Castro would ever have reached Havana. But it did not seem wise, especially in the presence of two Latin diplomats, to state what we both knew to be true.

Still, he said, if we--Cuba and the United States--could reach, if not an "understanding," then a "modus vivendi," Cuba would pay for the expropriated properties. Cuba would also agree not to be involved in the export of revolution, he told me, speaking in guarded and general terms while looking toward the Latin diplomats whose governments Cuba was busily trying to subvert. And though his country's natural sympathies would be to the East, he informed me, gesturing vaguely toward a distant Soviet Union, it would establish no formal ties or alliances with any other power.

It wasn't a bad deal, if he meant it, and given what was to come later, a detached analyst might urge that it be pursued. But the mood in America was not one of detachment. The emotion that had always surrounded the "problem" of Cuba had, if anything, been heightened by our defeat at the Bay of Pigs. To make a deal with Castro, any kind of deal, would have been politically difficult, perhaps impossible. But we will never know, since Guevara's proposal was never pursued; at least not until the last days of the Kennedy Administration when the president, emboldened by his success in the missile crisis, began preliminary negotiations with Castro's Cuba, discussions abruptly terminated in Dallas.


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