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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 2)


As Obama's foreign policy aides review the actions of his predecessors to engage Castro in a dialogue toward better relations, they will note the bipartisan nature of this history. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have talked with Castro. At the end of the Nixon administration and throughout the short presidency of Gerald Ford, the United States pursued a secret effort to negotiate normal relations.

This initiative began on April 24, 1974, at 2:32 p.m., with a phone call to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger from Frank Mankiewicz, a longtime Democratic Party operative and former press secretary for Robert Kennedy. "That trip I told you about is now on … to the Caribbean," as Kissinger's secret taping system recorded Mankiewicz's cryptic remarks. "I told you that I might be doing a television interview with…." Kissinger replied immediately: "Yes, yes, I know exactly—of course. Good. Then I want to see you…. I must see you before you do that." Six weeks later, when Mankiewicz traveled to Havana along with two other journalists, he carried with him a handwritten note from Kissinger to Castro. The secret communication stated that Kissinger was interested in initiating bilateral talks on mutual interests but that such a dialogue needed to be conducted discreetly, through intermediaries and unofficial meetings. Castro deemed the note "a very serious communication" and sent a message back with Mankiewicz, along with a box of premium Cuban cigars. (When a U.S. Customs guard attempted to confiscate the cigars, Mankiewicz issued a stern warning: "Son, this box of cigars is a personal gift for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Are you sure you want to take them away?")

So began the first serious dialogue aimed at fundamentally changing the framework of U.S.-Cuban relations—a dialogue that holds significant lessons for the new Obama administration. As is the case today, in the mid-1970s the domestic and international controversy over the hostile nature of U.S.-Cuba policy was proving to be a greater headache for the executive branch than the regime in Cuba itself. In the U.S. Congress, there was a growing bipartisan consensus that the trade embargo should be lifted. In the Organization of American States, the Latin American nations were pushing to lift the ban on diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba that Washington had strong-armed them into approving in 1964.

Given these domestic and international pressures, a secret State Department review of Cuba policy, titled "Normalizing Relations with Cuba," recorded the clear advantage to moving toward better bilateral ties:

If there is benefit to us in an end to the state of "perpetual antagonism" it lies in getting Cuba off the domestic and inter-American agendas—in extracting the symbolism from an intrinsically trivial issue.… Our interest is in getting the Cuba issue behind us, not in prolonging it indefinitely.

Negotiations to change the hostile nature of U.S.-Cuban relations should take place as quickly as possible, the report concluded, before Congress and the OAS took away Washington's bargaining leverage. "We have a poor hand to play and should ask for a new deal before we lose our last chip."

It was in the context of these political realities that Kissinger initiated contact with Castro. He authorized his top deputy, Lawrence Eagleburger, and William D. Rogers, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, to undertake half a dozen furtive meetings with Castro's representatives in airport cafeterias, swanky New York hotels and personal homes. Kissinger made his negotiating philosophy clear: "It is better to deal straight with Castro," he told his aides. "Behave chivalrously; do it like a big guy, not like a shyster. Let him know: We are moving in a new direction; we'd like to synchronize…; steps will be unilateral; reciprocity is necessary."

At the first meeting, held in a public cafeteria at LaGuardia Airport on January 11, 1975, Kissinger's aides came well prepared. An aide-mémoire Eagleburger read to Cuba's U.N. ambassador, Ramón Sánchez-Parodi, and his deputy, Nestor Garcia, was explicit in the goals of the dialogue: "explore the possibilities for a more normal relationship between our two countries." Kissinger made clear the potential for a U.S.-Cuban détente:

The ideological differences between us are wide. But the fact that such talks will not bridge the ideological differences does not mean that they cannot be useful in addressing concrete interests which it is in the interest of both countries to resolve. The United States is able and willing to make progress on such issues even with socialist nations with whom we are in fundamental ideological disagreement, as the recent progress in our relations with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China has shown.

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