Back Channel to Cuba:
The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana
University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 544 pp., $350
Given the nearly six decades of mutual suspicion and hostility between the United States and Cuba that ensued from the Cuban Revolution of 1959, it is easy to overlook the brief honeymoon that followed the overthrow of strongman Fulgencio Batista. Initially, the United States genuinely sought to engage Fidel Castro and tolerate him as a sort of Caribbean Tito. Castro’s desires at the time are harder to decipher, but some sort of mutual accommodation was not out of the question. It really did not have to wait until December 2014.
Whatever the case, that honeymoon was a remarkable moment in Cold War history. Castro had seized power only months before, but his April 1959 visit to the United States included, among other things, a 20-minute, closed-door talk with Vice President Richard Nixon. During his visit Castro employed the Madison Avenue public relations firm Bernard Relin and Associates at the sum of $75,000 a year to improve his public image. The Cubans, however, ignored the firm’s advice to shave their scruffy beards and replace their olive green fatigues with business suits.
Castro’s visit did not go unnoticed by Americans. More than 1,500 well-wishers greeted him when he arrived at Washington’s National Airport; 10,000 were waiting at New York’s Penn Station; 10,000 more heard him speak at Harvard. At the Bronx Zoo, the youthful and charismatic Cuban guerrilla leader cum supreme ruler stuck his hand into the tiger cage to play with the cats—a bold move that was quintessential Fidel. At Princeton, Castro met former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who saw this Cuban as someone who “really knows what he is doing” even if he was “going to cause us some problems down the road.” In Cambridge, Castro dined at the Faculty Club with the Dean of Arts and Sciences, McGeorge Bundy. Remarkably, two years later as John F. Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, Bundy helped plan Castro’s overthrow through the Bay of Pigs operation.
The bilateral relationship soured soon after Castro’s historic visit. Few at the time could have foreseen that deterioration, or that it would persist through 11 presidential administrations. How and why the relationship imploded so quickly remains a debated question. For starters, the Eisenhower Administration, displeased by Castro’s removal of moderates from his governing cabinet, increasingly believed that it couldn’t work with Castro at all. This meant that Washington now needed to shift from, as U.S. diplomat Richard Rubottom put it, “the testing phase in which Castro had failed practically every test we had given him to the pressure phase.” Coexistence with Castro was dead.
Castro happily returned the favor. On January 2, 1961, speaking at a rally to celebrate the second anniversary of the revolution, a fiery Castro called the U.S. Embassy a “nest of spies” and demanded that the staff be cut from 87 to 11 within two days. Eisenhower responded the next day by breaking diplomatic relations. This official rupture left Washington and Havana in a state of “undeclared war” with little willingness or way to resolve recently burgeoned differences.
In their timely and painstakingly researched book Back Channel to Cuba, authors and longtime Cuba watchers William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh challenge the conventional wisdom that, as Henry Kissinger put it, “perpetual antagonism” reigned between Washington and Havana after 1960. They don’t deny, however, that the CIA engaged in plenty of dirty tricks—including infamous assassination plots that involved “exploding conch shells, poison pens, poison pills, sniper rifles, toxic cigars”—in addition to Washington’s efforts to “roll back revolution” through “exile paramilitary attacks, covert action, overt action, overt economic embargo, and contemporary ‘democracy promotion.’” Havana’s “revolutionary ideology” and Washington’s “hegemonic arrogance”, they write, conspired against reconciliation.
Yet Kornbluh and LeoGrande convincingly demonstrate that there is another, far less well-known side to the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, one characterized by “dialogue, rapprochement, and reconciliation.” Having dug through the now ample troves of declassified information and scores of interviews with involved former officials on both sides, they assert convincingly that every President since Dwight Eisenhower has engaged in some form of dialogue, both open and furtive, with Castro’s regime. Some discussions have only addressed specific and usually narrow issues such as immigration, air interdiction, and anti-drug policy. Others have been more wide-ranging and ambitious, and some even addressed ways to restore normal diplomatic relations.
For example, after authorizing the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation and implementing a full trade embargo, President Kennedy instructed his aides to “start thinking along more flexible lines” in U.S. dealings with Cuba. During the Ford presidency, Secretary of State Kissinger instructed his aides to “deal straight with Castro” and negotiate better relations like “a big guy, not like a shyster.” Jimmy Carter even signed a presidential decision directive to “achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba” through “direct and confidential talks.” Most of these efforts failed, ultimately because isolation and embargo actually helped Castro keep his grip on Cuba. If anything constitutes the ironic secret behind the recent restoration of diplomatic relations, that’s got to be it.
Of course, U.S. policy was not always conciliatory. On October 16, 1962, the CIA briefed President Kennedy on the just-discovered evidence of the installation of Soviet nuclear-capable medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) on the island. The President convened a group of senior advisers known as “ExComm” (Executive Committee) to determine how the United States should respond.
While the internal ExComm deliberations are well known, LeoGrande and Kornbluh use the declassified documents to reveal that Kennedy also pursued a “complicated clandestine” approach to Castro through Brazilian intermediaries. Kennedy approved sending Castro a message disguised as a Brazilian communiqué, asking Brazil’s Ambassador in Havana to transmit the message as if it were a Brazilian initiative. This veiled message was to have told Castro that the presence of the Soviets’ offensive nuclear missiles had put the Cuban nation in extreme danger. The Brazilian would then offer the diplomatic carrot of warmer ties with Washington if Castro would kick out the Russians and stop supporting revolutionary movements in Latin America. However, overshadowed by the Washington-Moscow bilateral correspondences over the missile issue, this simultaneous Washington-Havana (via Brazil) track went nowhere.
Only a few days before his assassination, on November 18, 1963, Kennedy gave a speech in Miami in which he claimed that Cuba had become “a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics. This and this alone divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible.” Kennedy’s trusted White House aide, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., helped draft the speech and later claimed that its language was intended to show Castro that normalization was possible. Yet this putative olive branch was so well disguised that the following day the Los Angeles Times ran a headline reading, “Kennedy Urges Cuban Revolt.”
Around this time Kennedy also met privately with French journalist Jean Daniel, who was en route to Havana. More explicitly than in his Miami speech, Kennedy told Daniel that he was willing to lift the trade embargo if Castro would cut support for revolutionary movements in the region. According to Daniel, Kennedy also expressed some empathy for Castro’s virulent anti-Americanism, stating that Washington had committed a “number of sins” in Cuba, not least having turned the island into “the whorehouse of the U.S.” After conveying Kennedy’s message to Castro a few days later, Daniel reflected that both leaders “seemed ready to make peace.”
A bit more than a decade later, in February 1974, Democratic Party operative Frank Mankiewicz and two colleagues, Saul Landau and Kirby Jones, traveled secretly to Cuba to deliver a “short, handwritten, unsigned note” from Secretary of State Kissinger to Castro. “This is the way I did it with Chou En-lai”, Mankiewicz recalls Kissinger telling him. The exceedingly unofficial letter indicated that Kissinger was eager to discreetly discuss bilateral issues through intermediaries. LeoGrande and Kornbluh believe that this note catalyzed an effort to create an “opening” to Cuba similar to that which it had achieved with China.
Remarkably, Kissinger picked the final weeks of the Nixon presidency to initiate the contact. “I don’t think I even told President Nixon . . . since [he] disliked Castro intensely.” Kissinger being Kissinger, his “special project” was shrouded in “extreme secrecy.” He even kept the operation away from the National Security Council and his own State Department. As Kissinger’s deputy, William D. Rogers, recalled, “Only Kissinger, [Lawrence] Eagleburger, and myself knew about this initiative. We were afraid of leaks; we were dealing with dynamite.” Apparently, not even President Ford was briefed. Kissinger’s back-channel outreach to Castro set the stage for a series of secret talks in 1975 and into 1976 geared toward restoring the relations severed in 1961.
Any chance at a Kissinger-orchestrated opening to Cuba was thrown into chaos in April 1975 with Cuba’s “bold foray” into Africa, when Castro sent hundreds of military advisers to Angola to back a group that had led the fight for independence from Portugal. With Angola’s independence looming, this group came under siege from two rival anti-colonial movements sponsored by South Africa and Washington. By July, aided by Soviet logistical support, Cuba had launched a massive operation to land 36,000 troops to prevent the capital, Luanda, from falling into South African hands. The authors describe an “apoplectic” Kissinger complaining to President Ford that this “pipsqueak” called Fidel Castro could challenge American might. By December, Havana’s Africa expedition meant that President Ford had “effectively closed the door” on better relations with Cuba.
As LeoGrande and Kornbluh tell it, Kissinger remained furious with Castro for not sacrificing his Africa policies in return for normalization with Washington. In a February 25, 1976, Oval Office meeting the President and Secretary of State discussed the need to “smash Castro.” In another West Wing conversation a few weeks later, Kissinger contended, “I think that sooner or later we are going to have to crack the Cubans. . . . I think we have to humiliate them.” “What if they don’t [fold]?” responded Ford. “I think we could blockade.” For LeoGrande and Kornbluh, this was anything but “idle saber rattling.”
On March 24, Kissinger convened the small, high-level “special action group” that included Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters, and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Kissinger used the meeting to lay out a “veritable domino theory” of why Cuba had to be checked in Africa. “If the Cubans destroy Rhodesia then Namibia is next and then there is South Africa. It might only take five years.” Kissinger added, “If we decide to use military power it must succeed. There should be no halfway measures—we get no reward for using military power in moderation.” These officials considered plans to hit Cuban ports and military installations and to send Marine battalions to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay. While keeping a very close hold within the foreign policy bureaucracy, Kissinger was nonetheless eager to rattle the Cubans: “They should know we plan to do something.”
While Kissinger’s special action group’s deliberations never had the chance to move forward, given that Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election, LeoGrande and Kornbluh conclude that by the end of the Ford Administration U.S. relations with Havana had returned to “the dark, mutual hostility” that had characterized them since the early 1960s.
Needless to say given the response to the Obama Administration’s move to normalize relations with Cuba, the issue of U.S.-Cuba relations is a deeply emotional and still controversial foreign policy topic. LeoGrande and Kornbluh are to be applauded for wading into these murky waters; their analysis certainly contains something to offend everyone’s sensibilities on this delicate topic. At the same time, a skeptical reader might wonder if they are not a bit too quick to take Cuban officials’ comments at face value. Time and again, they explain why and how Castro and Cuban officials were reluctant to sacrifice internal or external policies for an end to hostilities with the Colossus to the North. For example, they tell us that during secret talks over normalization with the Carter Administration “Castro stood on principle” and “was not prepared to sacrifice his global aspirations.” To their credit, LeoGrande and Kornbluh point out that Cuban action in Africa, undertaken in conjunction with Moscow, had “real consequences for U.S. interests.” Yet it appears that the authors are still inclined to conclude that Havana’s justifications were more genuine than Washington’s.
Similarly, LeoGrande and Kornbluh might have gone too far in writing that, even though the United States would never accept Cuban socialism, “every time a new president took office, Castro held out an olive branch to see if the administration—no matter how conservative or antagonistic—might be open to better relations.” Later, they describe how Washington’s “long trail of broken commitments” reveals that “if anything, the historical record suggests that the Cubans have been too eager to negotiate and too gullible in believing U.S. promises.” This is most doubtful. LeoGrande and Kornbluh seem to have conflated their analysis with what Havana has long contended in public, without asking whether other motives came to play.
They might also have spent more time explaining what appears to be their implicit assumption that warmer ties are the goal in the bilateral relationship. They cite one Cuban official lamenting the George W. Bush Administration’s aggressive “democracy promotion” efforts, which included the chief U.S. diplomat in Havana handing out shortwave radios to dissidents she met with regularly. “This is sheer intervention in our internal affairs. They did that in Eastern Europe, and they think they have a right to do it in Cuba. We won’t allow it.” LeoGrande and Kornbluh then explain how “rather than strike at the diplomatic mission, Castro struck at the [Cuban] dissidents”: 75 of them were found guilty of working with the United States and sentenced to long prison terms.
Once again, LeoGrande and Kornbluh provide only a face-value explanation: “Castro’s crackdown reflected his fear that Washington planned to foment disorder on the island as an excuse for intervention.” This begs the obvious question, which the authors never really address: What if Castro used the Bush Administration’s “belligerence” as an excuse to justify the crackdown, as a microcosmic example of the longstanding Cuban reluctance to formally improve the relationship? Asking this question does not automatically justify Bush’s hardline policies. But one must wonder whether, despite their years of studying Cuba and their acknowledgement that Castro could be a wily negotiator, LeoGrande and Kornbluh might have had the wool pulled over their eyes as well.
Maybe part of the problem here is that, rightly or wrongly, Cuba’s totalitarian system does not seem to matter much in LeoGrande and Kornbluh’s analysis. They open Back Channel to Cuba by vaguely acknowledging that Castro’s “preeminence and dominance” meant that scripting policy in Havana was less difficult than in Washington, but other than that the lay reader acquires little sense of Cuba politically. To be sure, the United States has long maintained normal relations with a host of autocratic and hostile governments, and few would argue that severing ties is the best way to promote America’s interest in those cases. I suspect that Fidel and Raúl Castro would be the first to agree that warm bilateral ties are but one more means to serve the end of a state’s national security, or of its elite’s own interests.
Take another example. In June 2009, at the 39th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), some Latin American governments moved to repeal the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba’s membership. The Obama Administration initially opposed the move, but, when faced with the prospect of a “humiliating defeat”, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brokered a last-minute compromise. Washington would support the repeal of Cuba’s suspension in return for language that required Cuba to accept “the practices, purposes, and principles of the OAS”, implicitly including the democratic principles in a OAS declaration signed in 1991. LeoGrande and Kornbluh tell us that Havana thus promptly “foreswore any interest in rejoining the OAS.” This is technically accurate, but we are not told why the Cubans resisted the compromise. Given their other analysis, I suspect the authors would respond that it was simply Havana’s unwillingness to be humiliated by an imperious Washington and its OAS lackeys. Maybe; but maybe Hillary Clinton simply called their bluff.
In June 2014 Hillary Clinton stated in an NPR interview that she would support normalizing relations with Cuba, a move that could lead to lifting the embargo. But she added, “I’ve been down this road both in the ’90s and with President Obama where we make a move toward Cuba and, in my opinion, the Castros do not want the embargo lifted. It’s their best friend.” Of course she’s right.
Clinton’s shrewd caveat reveals vastly more skepticism than LeoGrande and Kornbluh seem capable of. After reading Back Channel to Cuba, one inclines to conclude that somewhere along the way LeoGrande and Kornbluh fell for the David-versus-Goliath narrative. This results in an uncanny ability to explain the behavior of the weaker party as a reflection of the stronger party’s actions—and never the other way around. If so, they are not the first given that the Cuban Revolution (and Fidel’s personal story) often seems more romantic to American and other Western academics, journalists, and movie directors than to Cubans living out the reality of that revolution every day.
That the authors include a photograph of Kornbluh meeting in Cuba with a famed and since-released American prisoner, democracy promoter Alan Gross, suggests that their scholarship might have been well received by the Cuban regime—at least until the Cubans swallowed the bitter pill and agreed to restore relations. And why not soak up the royal treatment from Havana? It falls into a category that used to be reserved for “useful idiots”, revisionist idealists easily gulled because they want to be.
Even so, Back Channel to Cuba remains a valuable book despite the fact that it seems to get the big picture quite wrong. Now that the whole context has shifted beneath our feet, what remains hidden of this remarkable bilateral story is likely to come to light. Certainly, a restored U.S.-Cuban relationship will have a major impact on the antique automobile market and professional baseball. It remains to be seen what it will do for diplomatic history.