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Cuba-U.S.: A secret history to rebuild its bridges

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By David Vázquez Abella, Rosa Miriam Elizalde

William Leogrande (izquierda) y Peter Kornbluh, en La Habana. Foto: David Vázquez

Preceded by book reviews in major U.S. and European media, and by notes that two weeks ago filtered their inexhaustible research, the book Back Channel to Cuba (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), by William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, was presented today at 4:00 pm, in the Villena room of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) in Havana.

Today’s event is unique because it highlights not just this media attention that addresses “covert communications, dialogue behind closed doors, secrets extremely relevant for the history of the United States at present and in the future”, as one of its authors has described it. It will also be presented simultaneously with the work of the policy of the United States towards Cuba (Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2014), of the Cuban authors Elier Ramírez Cañedo and Esteban Morales Domínguez.

It is the first time that two versions of the same story, that of Cuba-US relations in the last 54 years, has been presented from the perspective of official documents generated from each country that were extremely well hidden until today. The books prove the comings and goings of secret intermediaries between the two countries, even in moments of intense hostility toward the island by its northern neighbor.

Cubadebate talked with LeoGrande, a professor at the American University in Washington, and Kornbluh, a researcher at the independent National Security Archives, shortly after they arrived in Havana. The dialogue revolves around what Kornbluh has characterized as an “unprecedented opportunity to illustrate the history that could pave the way for a new history” between the two countries to begin.

A project of many years

This is a book that took them ten years of work to complete.

Kornbluh: I wrote the first section 20 years ago when I got a secret document about (former Secretary of State, Henry) Kissinger, and Fidel (Castro). Ten years ago Bill and I met and decided to investigate further, to complete and to better elaborate the context which is reflected in the book.

Why so many years?

LeoGrande: When we started we thought that we would just write a few chapters. We believed that we had only a few stories about the negotiations. These included the history of Kissinger, President Carter, and some things about President Kennedy… However, when we started the research we found that every President from 1959, until today, had maintained contacts through channels with Cuba.

In other words we went from the studying particular administrations to all administrations, starting with Eisenhower. His Ambassador in Havana tried to negotiate with Raúl Roa to prevent the deterioration of relations. We started there and we got to Obama, who sent a message through Miguel Ángel Moratinos, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, to create a “secret communication” between Havana and Washington. We have the collected the story of every President and dialogue that each of them tried to establish with the island. Some stories of course are more complete than others. Even George W. Bush tried to talk and then stopped. Bush discussed such things as cooperation against drug trafficking, Luis Posada Carriles and the fight against terrorism.

How much do you think is left to be known?

Kornbluh: One cannot know what is not known. It is obvious that there is more, but we have made a big effort to reveal as much as possible. That is why it took so many years to complete the book. We looked at everything that we could and not only in the United States. I went for example to a library in Madrid that has information dating back 500 years ago and it keeps the documents of all the Foreign Ministers of Spain. I checked the files of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Franco to find documents from a Spanish emissary who carried a message from the administration of President Johnson to Fidel Castro in 1967. They were in a package tied with a Ribbon, as a gift and in it there was the report of this mission.

The negotiation in which Gabriel García Márquez was the emissary of Cuba before Bill Clinton is best known. Is it true that you spoke about this matter with Fidel?

Kornbluh: The meetings between the Colombian Nobel Prize recipient and Clinton are known, and in the book there is a picture of that historical dinner between President Clinton and García Márquez, that took place during the crisis of the rafters at the end of August 1994. It took place on the famous island in Massachusetts, Martha´s Vineyard. At that meeting were Bill and Hillary, and the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and García Márquez.

When Fidel Castro gave details of this meeting years later we were here in Cuba and we met with him after the revelations were came out at a public event. During lunch at the Palace of the Conventions Fidel told me, “Kornbluh, I know you want all the declassified Cuban documents and I have decided to give you a copy of the original memorandum of García Márquez written by a typewriter, with his handwritten note in the margin. I do this now but because I have already asked permission from Gabo.”

The Helms-Burton Law

You say in the book that the Helms-Burton Act prevents the lifting of the blockade. However, in a videoconference with Havana, U.S. Attorney Robert Muse said emphatically that President Obama has executive authority to put an end to that policy. Is the Helms-Burton an impassable wall or not?

LeoGrande: The Helms-Burton codified the embargo, but it also includes presidential authority to authorize commercial transactions with Cuba through licenses. When the embargo was made into a law and regulations were incorporated they also added the President’s authority to grant business licenses. The President does have authority to grant licenses for humanitarian reasons in the name of national security, to “promote democracy in Cuba”, etc.

All Presidents have used that authority. Obama has authorized exemptions from telecommunications companies to pharmaceutical companies. The logical extension of this authority is that the President can authorize licenses for almost anything, but he cannot remove the blockade entirely because it is law. It is codified. He can facilitate the possibilities of travel to Cuba by authorizing general licenses for People to People trips, but he cannot allow U.S. residents to come here for tourism because that is specifically prohibited by the law.

But if President Obama has authority to drastically limit the sanctions, why has he done just the opposite so far?

Kornbluh: Obama has said that the policy has failed and that they have to be creative to change it. He said it last November. He also said it when he was a candidate for president and went even further when he said he wanted to sit down around a table with Raúl Castro. And now next April, possibly, he will have that opportunity at the Summit of the Americas. We are coming to a very interesting time between our countries, but there are many things that the president has to do to change the current state of relations; release the three Cuban prisoners in the United States and to get the return of Alan Gross, remove Cuba from the list of terrorist countries, and confront Robert Menéndez in the Senate. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Republicans take the Senate in November.

Something big has to happen.

You talk in the book that “something big” has to happen, because the small steps are always aborted by the provocations of fanatics of Cuban origin in the United States, that prevent any approach for even minimal change.

Kornbluh: Yes, that is a lesson that history teaches us in the relations between the two countries.

LeoGrande: The problem of doing “little things” is that each time those who oppose better relations respond just as strong to small changes as they do to large changes, because they know that small changes can lead to other larger ones. All you have to do is win a single battle, stop small changes and thus the whole process comes to a halt. The effort to improve relations step by step always has eventually failed. But U.S. Presidents have been afraid to do something dramatic, like the trip of President Nixon to China. They have been afraid to change the policy. To lift the embargo completely Presidents would have to repeal the Helms-Burton Act and must obtain the majority of votes in the Senate and in the Congress, which Republicans typically oppose.

Kornbluh: But while this doesn’t happen the President can do many things, for example removing Cuba from the list of terrorist countries.

Never has there been so much consensus in the United States that the blockade is an antique that has failed to meet its objectives.

Kornbluh: There is not a complete consensus. We can read things like what was published Sunday by The New York Times editorial against the blockade. The important thing is not whether there is consensus or not but that there is a moment so special that exists between now and next April. There is an opportunity in Florida, as was recognized by Hillary Clinton, who spoke in favor of the lifting the blockade, did so because she knows that will earn her money and votes in that State, in contrast to what her husband did who tightened the blockade to find money and votes. The policy is changing, slowly. Obama now has a chance. He has two years left in the Presidency, but in my opinion he has only a year to change the policy towards Cuba.

Regional Imperative

The book reviews 50 years of secret negotiations, of which we are finding out long after. Is there any sign favorable to indicate that these dialogues will begin to openly?

LeoGrande: When you have complicated negotiations like these, with so many elements involved, it is difficult to do it openly, because domestic politics interfere. And Presidents almost always start quietly and in private negotiations to see if they can begin to build agreements before making them public.

But they have done this with other countries. Why is the relationship with Cuba more difficult than with say with Vietnam or with Iran?

Kornbluh: Relations between those countries and the United States happened in the same way as they now are with Cuba. Before opening up the possibility of changes of relations in the public sphere it passes first through secret negotiations. With Iran they were talking secretly for a year.

This is precisely the mission of the book, to demonstrate that there is a historic platform passing through these negotiations and that they can reach a point of open dialogue. It favors the fact that is not something new to US Presidents to ‘talk with the Castros’. The “anti-dialogueros” – as he called the Assistant to the Secretary of State for inter-American Affairs, Alex Watson, in a secret memorandum – have opted to avoid the dialogue with Cuba, but what we are saying is that all of them have done so. Therefore Obama can do it, and maybe even openly.

With all the problems in foreign policy that Obama face, is Cuba a priority?

Kornbluh: Cuba does not have nuclear weapons, and therefore may not be a priority for Obama. But there is a regional imperative. Obama is a smart man, like many who surround him, who know perfectly well that the blockade is a ridiculous policy, and then there is the issue of the promise and of the legacy of his administration.

LeoGrande: The traditional obstacle in the U.S. – the political power of the Cuban American community – has changed. The majority is in favor of a change in policy, and even the majority of the voters in that community support the change. So then that traditional obstacle in Florida is gone. Obama doesn’t have to worry about re-election, and because Hillary Clinton has already said that the embargo makes no sense he does not have to worry that lifting the embargo will affect her politically

In addition to that, the pressure of Latin America to change the policy towards Cuba is the largest that it has been in 30 years. It seems to us that all these forces aligned gives the President many reasons to change the policy, which he himself has said makes no sense and doesn’t work.

At UNEAC

Kornbluh and LeoGrande have high expectations of what will happen Monday at UNEAC. The researcher of National Security Archives of George Washington University, admits that “for the first time a book with documents of Cuba is coming out in the book of Elier Ramírez and Esteban Morales. We are here to put together the two books that contain US and Cuban documents. It is very important to compare the documents and prospects at a time when common history is more relevant than ever”.

Also, “we want to present the book to historians and Cuban researchers and thank them for their participation in this research”.

LeoGrande added that even if the main sources of Back Channel to Cuba were in the United States, “it was important for us from the beginning to tell the story from both sides. The point of view of Cuba had to be present in the book and the Cuban diplomats who participated in these negotiations were very generous talking with us and giving us the Cuban version of the different rounds of talks helping us to reach the right balance.”

Raúl

Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande came to Havana with all the books that they could bring but there are not enough to bring a copy to all those who, on the island, collaborated with the researchers.

They admit that the Spanish edition will take a while and until more copies make it to Cuban readers, people will have to accept the media accounts of the book. Or borrow a book from someone who has already read it.

That is what we did, and we found that the first pages open with a statement by the Cuban President Raúl Castro:

“Our relations are like a bridge in time of war. It is not a bridge that can be reconstructed easily, nor as fast as it was destroyed. It takes time, and if both sides reconstruct their part of the bridge we will be able to shake hands without winners or losers.”

Peter Kornbluh explains, “The surprise is that Raúl said this in a private meeting in Havana with Senators George McGovern and James Abourezk back in 1977. It is very nice and proof that he has been speaking about rebuilding bridges for a long time. It is a phrase which, without discussion, goes to the essence of the relations between Cuba and the United States.”

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