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Cigar Diplomacy

By Gregg Sangillo

Over the years, U.S. and Cuban diplomats have held extensive secret negotiations.

Over the years, U.S. and Cuban diplomats have held extensive secret negotiations.

The acrimonious relationship between the United States and Cuba has a strange undercurrent. Amidst legendary tales of assassination plots and paramilitary operations, it turns out that the two enemy nations never really stopped talking to each other. The negotiations were mostly secret—until now. American University School of Public Affairs Professor William LeoGrande and National Security Archive Senior Analyst Peter Kornbluh reveal the extensive diplomacy in their new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. LeoGrande is a former SPA dean and an expert on U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. In an edited interview, he spoke about Cuba, Cold War politics, and cigar diplomacy.

GS: Why did you want to write a book about U.S.-Cuba relations?

LeoGrande: "Cuba and the United States have been in confrontation with one another for more than 50 years. And that's a fairly well-known story, from the Bay of Pigs to the Missile Crisis and other events. What's not well-known is that Cuba and the United States have been talking to one another and engaging diplomatically throughout that entire period. It's a part of the story that gets ignored because the hostility has been so visceral and so public, whereas the diplomatic dimension has been much more behind the scenes and secret. Particularly on the U.S. side, talking to Cuba has always been a political hot potato. Presidents have wanted to do it very quietly, very discreetly. But there's a long record of it. From President Dwight Eisenhower to the present, every president has found some reason to negotiate with Cuba. We felt like this was a story that needed to be told."

GS: How did the negotiations remain secret? Even close followers of U.S. foreign policy don't necessarily know this story.

LeoGrande: "In most cases, knowledge of these negotiations was restricted to literally four or five people. So, for example, when Richard Goodwin, John F. Kennedy's special assistant, was talking to Che Guevara at the Alliance for Progress founding conference in Uruguay, the only people who knew about it were Goodwin and Kennedy. Years later, Henry Kissinger held things very close. Only his deputy, Lawrence Eagleburger, and one or two other people knew the details. Kissinger didn't even fully brief the president, because he wanted to keep it secret until he could see whether it would pay off."

GS: What was the U.S. trying to accomplish with these secret negotiations? During the Cold War years, were U.S. officials actively trying to move Cuba into the noncommunist camp?

LeoGrande: "It varies from administration to administration. During the Cold War, there were a number of occasions when the United States was really hoping to normalize relations. They tried to create a greater degree of Cuban independence from the Soviet Union. U.S. officials talked about turning Cuba into a Yugoslavia, making Fidel Castro the Western Hemisphere's Josip Tito."

GS: What surprised you while researching this book?

LeoGrande: "The most surprising thing was the extent to which the negotiators developed a real human affection for one another over time. This could be very important at critical moments in avoiding confrontations, because they could literally pick up a telephone and talk to one another."

GS: Can you describe your interview with Castro?

LeoGrande: "We had a brief interview. Well, there's no such thing as a brief interview with Fidel Castro."

GS: He does have a reputation for being loquacious.

LeoGrande: "He is indeed. We had a lunch, which turned into an informal interview. And we just began to chat with him about the history of relations with the United States, and that went on for about three hours. He's a narrator. You'll ask him a question, and he'll begin to answer, and the narration will take off in a particular direction. And something he says will remind him of something else, and he'll go off in that direction. And after a long, circuitous narrative, he'll come back and finally answer the question that you were originally asking."

GS: In the U.S., Castro was initially viewed as a nonthreatening figure, correct?

LeoGrande: "Interestingly, at first, he was quite popular in the United States. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show. When he came to the U.S. in April 1959 on sort of a goodwill tour, he was met by about 1500 people when he flew into Washington, D.C. He was on Meet the Press, and he met Richard Nixon on Capitol Hill. Of course, he was young, charismatic."

GS: What was the closest the U.S. ever came to normalizing relations with Cuba?

LeoGrande: "It was with the Carter administration, I think. President Carter decided at the very beginning of the administration that he would normalize relations, and he set a process in motion to do it. And it got derailed, principally, because of Cuba's involvement in Africa."

GS: Did you examine some of the cultural ties between the two countries? Now we have an interest in Cuban baseball players. And Cuban cigars have attained an almost mythic status.

LeoGrande: "There's a whole leitmotif that runs through the book about cigars and cigar diplomacy. Right from the Kennedy administration to at least the Clinton administration, the Cubans have always used cigars as a kind of diplomatic icebreaker."

GS: During the Cuban Missile Crisis, there's a record of U.S.-Soviet communication, but you don't hear much about a U.S.-Cuba back channel. Did that exist?

LeoGrande: "It did. The United States, late in the crisis, opened a back channel through Brazil. Officials sent a message to Castro, basically saying, 'Look, the Soviets have put you in this terrible position where you're going to be blown to smithereens. And the United States could live with you if you would kick the Soviets out, but time is really running out.' Now what was interesting was the Brazilians were not allowed to tell the Cubans that this was a message from the United States. They were only allowed to mention this as sort of their friendly suggestion. So that was one problem with it: The United States wasn't committing itself to anything. The other problem was it came at the very end of the crisis, and by the time the message got to Castro, [Soviet leader] Khrushchev had already announced that he was pulling the missiles out."

GS: Were there negotiations during the 2000 Elián González controversy?

LeoGrande: "Oh, daily. We actually have a long account of the negotiations. It was an unusual situation because the two governments were, more or less, on the same page. Both governments felt like the father was a good parent, and therefore had the right to retain custody of the child. And it was just a matter of working through the legal process to achieve that."

GS: For more than five decades, virtually everything was discussed in secret. Are aspects of this relationship just baffling to you?

LeoGrande: "The thing that's baffling is why we've never been able to get over the hump. There are all these efforts to try to move the relationship forward, and a lot of successes on small issues like migration and counter-narcotics cooperation. But on the basic conflict between Cuba and the United States, we've come close, but we've never normalized relations. That's surprising and baffling given the fact that the main reasons for the conflict between the two countries have all really receded. And there's no sensible reason for the conflict to still be there."

GS: Are there some colorful anecdotes that you can recall from the book?

LeoGrande: "One negotiation lasted four or five hours, and they finally reached agreement on a migration treaty. The hotel room they were negotiating in was full of stale cigar smoke, old cigarette and cigar butts, and carry-out food containers. And two women in the delegations—the legal adviser on the Cuban side and the translator on the U.S. side—couldn't stand the idea that they were going to sign this important document amidst the filth. And so they took it upon themselves to clean up the room, so that the document could be signed with a greater measure of dignity. There are just a lot of really good stories like that about the basic humanity of the people on both sides."