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Back Channel to Cuba

The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana

by William M. Leogrande and Peter Kornbluh

Hardcover, 592 pages, Univ of North Carolina Pr, List Price: $35 |


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Back Channel to Cuba
The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana
William M. Leogrande and Peter Kornbluh

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NPR Summary

Challenging the conventional wisdom of perpetual hostility between the United States and Cuba — beyond invasions, covert operations, assassination plots using poison pens and exploding seashells, and a grinding economic embargo — this book chronicles a surprising, untold history of bilateral efforts toward rapprochement and reconciliation.

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Cuban Premier Fidel Castro addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September 1960 in New York. A new book details secret negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba dating back to President Kennedy's administration. AP hide caption

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Secret Talks And Back Channels Pervaded U.S. Relationship With Cuba

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Back Channel to Cuba

Introduction: Rebuilding Bridges

Our relations are like a bridge in war-time. I'm not going to talk about who blew it up — I think it was you who blew it up. The war has ended and now we are reconstructing the bridge, brick by brick, 90 miles from Key West to Varadero beach. It is not a bridge that can be reconstructed easily, as fast as it was destroyed. It takes a long time. If both parties reconstruct their part of the bridge, we can shake hands without winners or losers.

— Raúl Castro to Senators George McGovern and James Abourezk, April 8, 1977

In early April of 1963, during talks in Havana over the release of Americans being held in Cuban jails as spies, Fidel Castro first broached his interest in improving relations with the United States. "If any relations were to commence between the U.S. and Cuba," Castro asked U.S. negotiator James Donovan, "how would it come about and what would be involved?"

Sent to Cuba in the fall of 1962 by President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert to undertake the first real negotiations with Cuba's revolutionary regime, Donovan had secured the freedom of more than one thousand members of the CIA-led exile brigade that Castro's forces had defeated at the Bay of Pigs. In addition to the prisoners, Donovan also secured Castro's confidence. Through trips in January, March, and April 1963, he built on that confidence to negotiate the freedom of several dozen U.S. citizens detained after the revolution. In the respectful nature of their talks, Castro found the first trusted U.S. representative with whom he could seriously discuss how Havana and Washington might move toward restoring civility and normalcy in the dark wake of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. "In view of the past history on both sides here, the problem of how to inaugurate any relations was a very difficult one," Castro observed.

"So I said, 'now do you know how porcupines make love?' " Donovan remembered responding. "And he said no. And I said well, the answer is 'very carefully,' and that is how you and the U.S. would have to get into this."

As Donovan pursued his shuttle diplomacy during the spring of 1963, some Kennedy administration officials sought to use his special relationship with Castro to begin a dialogue toward ending hostilities with Cuba. Within the CIA, however, others saw a different opportunity — an opportunity to use the negotiations, and the negotiator, to assassinate Fidel Castro. Knowing that Donovan planned to bring a scuba diving suit as a confidence-building gift for the Cuban leader, members of the covert "executive action" unit developed a plot to contaminate the snorkel with tubercle bacillus, and poison the wetsuit with a fungus. "They tried to use him as the instrument ... the lawyer who was negotiating the liberation of the Playa Girón prisoners!" Castro exclaimed years later. Only the intervention of Donovan's CIA handlers, Milan Miskovsky and Frank DeRosa, prevented him from becoming an unwitting, would-be assassin.

The CIA's infamous assassination plots — exploding conch shells, poison pens, poison pills, sniper rifles, toxic cigars — are the stuff of legend in the history of U.S. policy toward the Cuban revolution. Washington's efforts to roll back the revolution, through exile, paramilitary attacks, covert action, overt economic embargo, and contemporary "democracy promotion" programs, have dominated and defined more than a half century of U.S.-Cuban relations. What Henry Kissinger characterized as the "perpetual antagonism" between Washington and Havana remains among the most entrenched and enduring conflicts in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

The Untold Story

There is, however, another side to the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, far less known but more relevant today: the bilateral efforts at dialogue, rapprochement, and reconciliation. Every president since Eisenhower has engaged in some form of dialogue with Castro and his representatives. Some talks have been tightly circumscribed, dealing only with specific, narrow issues of mutual interest, such as immigration, air piracy, and drug interdiction. Others have been wide-ranging, engaging the full panoply of issues at stake between the two sides. Some episodes of dialogue produced tangible agreements, formal and informal; others sputtered to a halt with no discernible result. But every U.S. president, Democrat and Republican alike, has seen some advantage in talking to Cuba.

Indeed, both Democratic and Republican administrations have engaged in little-known efforts to arrive at a modus vivendi with the Cuban revolution. After authorizing a paramilitary invasion to overthrow Castro by force and implementing a full trade embargo to cripple the Cuban economy, John F. Kennedy ordered his aides to "start thinking along more flexible lines" in negotiating a state of peaceful coexistence with Castro. During Gerald Ford's presidency, Henry Kissinger directed his aides to "deal straight with Castro and negotiate improved relations like "a big guy, not like a shyster." Jimmy Carter actually signed a presidential decision directive to "achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba" through "direct and confidential talks."

Given the domestic political sensitivity surrounding any hint of better relations with Havana, these talks, and many other contacts with Cuba, have often been conducted through secret, back-channel diplomacy. To maintain plausible deniability, U.S. presidents have turned to third countries, among them Mexico, Spain, Britain, and Brazil, as hosts and facilitators. To limit the political risk of direct contact, Washington and Havana have developed creative clandestine methods of communication — deploying famous literary figures, journalists, politicians, businessmen, and even a former president of the United States as interlocutors. When face-to-face talks have been necessary, Cuban and U.S. officials have met furtively, in foreign cities such as Paris, Cuernavaca, and Toronto, or in private homes, crowded cafeterias, prominent hotels, and even on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. On several occasions, White House and State Department officials have secretly traveled to Havana to negotiate face-to-face with Fidel Castro.

Not surprisingly, this rich history of U.S. back-channel diplomacy with Cuba has been shrouded in secrecy, buried in thousands of classified files that record the internal debates, meetings, agendas, negotiations, arguments, and agreements that have transpired over more than half a century. In the absence of an accessible historical record, scholarship and analysis on U.S.-Cuban relations has largely focused on the more prominent and visible history of antagonism, skewing the historical debate over whether better ties were possible — or even desirable. The dearth of evidence on the many efforts to find common ground has empowered the "anti-dialogueros," as one U.S. official called them, to cast serious diplomacy with Cuba as an oxymoron at best, a heresy at worst. Long after the end of the Cold War, talking with Cuba remained a delicate and controversial political proposition — even as the benefits have become increasingly obvious to both countries.

From Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. Copyright 2014 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of North Carolina Press.