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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

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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.

The Cubans remained eager to jump-start the normalization process and chose a private emissary of their own—Cuban-American businessman Bernardo Benes. In August 1977, Castro's agents tracked Benes down on a vacation in Panama and invited him to come to Cuba and discuss a rapprochement between Cuba and the Miami exile community. After several visits with Fidel over the ensuing months, Benes traveled to Washington to report on these secret talks. As a gesture towards Carter's commitment to human rights, Benes told Vance and Brzezinski, Castro was willing to release thousands of political prisoners in hopes of resuming the diplomatic dialogue.

The Benes initiative led to the most sustained secret talks between U.S. and Cuban diplomats to date. During 1978, senior U.S. officials met covertly with Cuban counterparts on six separate occasions in venues ranging from New York City, Washington, and Atlanta, to Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Havana. The United States quickly agreed to accept any Cuban prisoners who wanted to emigrate, but the talks stalled when they turned to wider issues.

The Cubans wanted to discuss lifting the embargo; the U.S. negotiators, under strict instructions from the White House, insisted no progress could be made on the trade sanctions and other bilateral issues until Cuba withdrew its troops from Africa. The Cubans replied that they were in Africa at the request of legitimate, recognized governments. They would not desert their friends to curry favor with Washington. Although the talks explored the full range of bilateral issues, the negotiators could never cut through the Gordian knot of that disagreement.

"My personal feeling was that there might have been a chance to make some progress on other issues if we had been permitted to take a somewhat different tack," U.S. negotiator David Newsom said in an interview with the authors. "But our hands were pretty well tied."

These negotiations, all held in the strictest of secrecy, culminated in a face-to-face meeting with Fidel in Havana. Vance's special assistant, Peter Tarnoff, and Brzezinski's assistant for Latin America, Robert Pastor, presented Washington's position to the Cuban leader. Over the course of a five-hour conversation, Castro reiterated Cuba's position so vehemently, "I felt like I was being run over by a train," Pastor recalled.

"The impression I have of the United States is that it has the wrong approach toward Cuba," Castro told the U.S. officials. "There should be no mistake—we cannot be pressured, impressed, bribed or bought." His stern lecture highlighted two important components of Castro's position for any future negotiations: the demand that Cuba be treated as an equal and Cuba's grievance over the embargo. "I do not understand the United States' enormous concern about Cuba in Africa," Fidel declared:

We have never discussed with you the activities of the United States throughout the entire world. Perhaps it is because the United States is a great power, it feels it can do what it wants and what is good for it. It seems to be saying that there are two laws, two sets of rules and two kinds of logic, one for the United States and one for other countries. Perhaps it is idealistic of me, but I never accepted the universal prerogatives of the United States.

On the embargo, Fidel voiced Cuba's anger at having the "blockade" that he viewed as unjust and illegal used as Washington's main bargaining chip: We understand that it is a tangled ball of yarn that has been formed around the blockade and that it will be very difficult to unravel.... We are the victims and cannot be asked to help you find ways to let us stop being victims.

There was no give on either side, and talks did not resume for over a year. The negotiators reconvened in Havana in January 1980, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets had not warned Havana of the impending invasion, despite Cuba's role as chair of the Nonaligned Movement. Just as Fidel's anger over the Soviets' disregard for Cuban sovereignty during the 1962 missile crisis led him to seek an opening to Washington in 1963, his anger about Afghanistan now prompted him to explore his options with Washington. The conversation ranged widely for more than 10 hours. Fidel offered Cuba's good offices to help free U.S. hostages in Iran, he declared his desire to get Cuban troops out of Africa as soon as the host governments were safe and stable, and he insisted that Cuba's support for revolutionaries in Central America was not aimed at causing problems for the United States. The Carter administration, however, remained unconvinced.

A few months later, the migration crisis known as the Mariel boatlift hijacked the diplomatic agenda. U.S. negotiators returned to Havana twice to try to resolve the crisis—they finally succeeded in September. Washington promised Havana that the dialogue would continue and future sessions would return to issues of central concern to Cuba, especially the embargo. But plans to put Cuba on the agenda for the second term fell through when Carter lost his bid for reelection.


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.

But the second lesson that each president has learned is that while the Cuban government's interest in improved relations has been unwavering, so, too, is its unwillingness to give in to U.S. demands that it alter its domestic politics and sacrifice its international principles. The sanctity of Cuba's socialist system, as Che Guevara made clear in 1961, is nonnegotiable. The Cubans, as the new administration will discover, are no more willing to negotiate their constitution with us, than we would be to negotiate ours with them.

Third, the quid pro quo approach has never worked because it drags out the process and allows time for complicating circumstances, such as Cuba's involvement in Africa, or the shoot-down of planes from Brothers to the Rescue, or U.S. electoral politics, to torpedo progress.

These lessons suggest a final one—that moving quickly and unilaterally to lay the groundwork for better ties is likely to produce the best results. To the extent that the Obama White House can treat normalization as a starting point, rather than the endgame of changing the U.S.-Cuban equation, concrete advances in bilateral relations will be made. Indeed, that is the conclusion that Jimmy Carter draws from his own failed experience: "I think in retrospect, knowing what I know since I left the White House," he told us, "I should have gone ahead and been more flexible in dealing with Cuba and establishing full diplomatic relations."

That is good advice for President Obama as he settles into the Oval Office. Like Kennedy, who saw the potential for changing the dynamic of relations in the aftermath of the missile crisis, Obama faces a true period of change on the island as Cuba moves firmly into a post-Fidel—and eventually a post-Castro—era. As was the case in the mid-1970s, there are growing domestic and international pressures on the White House to finally unravel "the tangled ball of yarn" that is Cuba policy. With a solid Democratic majority, Congress is moving toward lifting key elements of the U.S. embargo, particularly the prohibitions on travel. The last United Nations vote to condemn the trade embargo was 185-3 (Israel, Palau and the United States), reflecting the condemnation of the international community of U.S. policy as archaic, ineffectual and counterproductive. Finally, Obama's solid victory in Florida, with 35 percent of the Cuban-American community, frees him from the domestic political constraints that plagued so many of his predecessors. Drawing on this advantage and utilizing these pressures, the Obama administration is well-positioned to reconfigure a stagnant, Cold War—era policy that has failed for five decades to meet U.S. goals.

Given the intractable nature of 50 years of hostile U.S. policy toward Cuba, and the sharp political sensitivities surrounding the issue of a dialogue toward better relations, the new president will no doubt be advised to approach this problem like porcupines make love—"very carefully." But the historic candidate who ran on a platform of "change you can believe in" should move quickly to apply that philosophy to a policy problem that has bedeviled no fewer than 10 occupants of the Oval Office before him. With their history as his guide, Obama now has the best opportunity to succeed.

Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive; William M. LeoGrande is Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University. This article is adapted from their forthcoming book: Talking With Fidel: The Untold History of Dialogue Between the United States and Cuba.

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