Secret Talks And Back Channels Pervaded U.S. Relationship With Cuba The new book Back Channel to Cuba reveals how U.S. presidents, from Kennedy on, have held secret talks with Havana, even though the public stance was silence toward Cuba.
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Secret Talks And Back Channels Pervaded U.S. Relationship With Cuba

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

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

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear a little play acting. We've been looking at a phrasebook used to send covert messages by phone. Whatever you say means something else. It was used for secret diplomacy between the United States and Cuba. It was uncovered by Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande. They read the dialogue here, which I translated into the actual meaning.

PETER KORNBLUH: How is your health?

INSKEEP: We want to meet.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: I have a slight headache, but otherwise I am well.

INSKEEP: Agreed.

KORNBLUH: I don't feel well.

INSKEEP: I will report on this and call you back.

LEOGRANDE: How is your sister?

INSKEEP: Where?

KORNBLUH: How is your wife?

INSKEEP: Washington at Eagleburger's home.

LEOGRANDE: How is your brother, Henry?

INSKEEP: Or we can meet at New York at LaGuardia.

Apparently there really were such conversations. Peter Kornbluh works for the National Security Archive, which collects declassified documents. Documents are the basis for the book he wrote with William LeoGrande, who is a specialist on Cuba. Their book is called "Back Channel To Cuba." It includes that phrasebook set up for Cuban phone calls with the United States in 1975 when Henry Kissinger was secretary of state.

KORNBLUH: They were worried that either the Soviets would be spying on their telephone conversations or the NSA would be spying on their conversations. And so they worked out a way to communicate with each other without anybody else knowing.

INSKEEP: Woah, woah, woah - why would they be worried? This is the United States government. Why would they be worried that the United States government might be spying on the United States government?

KORNBLUH: Well, this is a theme that runs of the entire history that we've recorded, that Cuba issues are so sensitive that when high-level policymakers wanted to have a dialogue with Cuba, they wanted to keep it secret from the other parts of the bureaucracy that might object.

INSKEEP: But there's another side to this. It is that despite the extreme political sensitivity, the two sides have in fact talked almost from the moment the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1961. Sometimes emissaries have arranged the release of prisoners. Sometimes they have traded information. Other times they've grown angry. The authors find that Henry Kissinger was upset that Cuba sent troops to join a civil war in Angola. Kissinger declared it was time to, quote, "clobber" Cuba.

I'm sure that lots of people in private meetings say things like, we've got to clobber them, that they don't really mean. Did he mean this?

KORNBLUH: The National Security Archive has obtained the memorandum of conversations of Kissinger and Ford in which Kissinger raises the issue of smashing the Cubans, of punishing the Cubans and keeping them from becoming a military influence. He never got the opportunity to implement those plans. And Cuba actually did send troops into a country outside of Angola, into Ethiopia.

INSKEEP: But you don't think he was just talking. You think he was serious.

KORNBLUH: What I'm saying to you is there is no doubt from the documents that we obtained that Kissinger took this very seriously.

INSKEEP: Well, as you two looked through the documents that you obtained, is there a back channel that you had no idea about that was particularly useful?

LEOGRANDE: I can think of one in particular, and that is that Peggy Dulany, David Rockefeller's daughter, carried a message from Fidel Castro to George Schultz during the Reagan administration.

INSKEEP: So this is a third party carrying a State Department message in effect to Cuba?

LEOGRANDE: Yes, exactly right. And we actually have a Cuban document in which Fidel was talking to the president of Angola and explaining why he used Peggy Dulany as opposed to just going through normal, diplomatic channels. And he says to the president of Angola, you know, when you send a message through the intersection, it takes months before you hear anything back. And sometimes you never hear anything at all.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's the nonofficial embassy, the intersection, that there's one in Havana; there's one in Washington and they look after their interests...

LEOGRANDE: Exactly right.

KORNBLUH: Steve, the book is filled with colorful characters - private sector individuals, lawyers, politicians, businessmen, the chairman of Coca-Cola was used by Jimmy Carter to carry secret messages to Fidel Castro, to an ex-president of the United States, Jimmy Carter himself, being recruited by the Cubans.

INSKEEP: So given the political realities on both sides, when you read these documents of these secret talks, do you end up thinking that actually things worked out in a way that made sense?

LEOGRANDE: I think they made sense in that during the Cold War, it was going to be difficult to find a formula that would have led to a real normalization of relations. I think now that the Cold War is over, however, the core interest of the two sides are not really that much in conflict anymore.

INSKEEP: William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh are co-authors of "Back Channel To Cuba: The Hidden History Of Negotiations Between Washington And Havana." Thanks to you both.

LEOGRANDE: Thank you.

KORNBLUH: Thank you, Steve.

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