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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 4)

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.

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