Dialogue with Castro: A Hidden History

In late June of 1974, three American journalists traveled from Washington, DC, to Havana to conduct what was, for those days, a rare interview with Fidel Castro. One of them, Frank Mankiewicz, carried a short, handwritten letter for the Cuban premier from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.1 “This is a very serious communication and we will, of course, consider it very carefully,” Castro said, after reading the message in his study. When Mankiewicz returned from Cuba he carried a secret reply from Castro as well as a box of premium Cuban cigars, an official gift for Kissinger.

So began what Castro himself has said was the most serious effort to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba since January 3, 1961, when Washington broke off ties to Havana. Kissinger’s note to Castro said that he was anxious to discuss bilateral issues and that such discussions should be held secretly, through intermediaries. His message set in motion a protracted effort to achieve an “opening” to Cuba comparable to the opening to China; it would extend the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of a détente with the USSR to its Communist ally in the Caribbean. During the next eighteen months, emissaries traveled back and forth between Washington and Havana, and Kissinger’s deputies quietly met with Cuban officials in airport lounges, New York hotels, and private houses to discuss the issues that divided—and continue to divide—the United States and Cuba. “It is better to deal straight with Castro,” Kissinger said to his assistants, taking a position on Cuba that had not been heard before from a high-ranking US policy maker:

Behave chivalrously; do it like a big guy, not like a shyster. Let him know: We are moving in a new direction;…we’d like to synchronize; steps will be unilateral; reciprocity is necessary.

For almost twenty years, the full extent of this initiative was known only to the handful of US and Cuban officials who took part in it.2 Indeed, most histories of US-Cuban relations identify Jimmy Carter’s administration as the first to enter into a dialogue with Castro. It was the secret diplomacy during Gerald Ford’s tenure, however, that prepared the way for formal negotiations between the Carter administration and the Castro government in 1977. Those talks led to the establishment of “interest sections” in Havana and Washington—but fell short of full diplomatic ties and left the US trade embargo intact. “Carter wanted serious talks, but the talks should be about small steps,” said Ramón Sánchez-Parodi, the one Castro official who participated in both sets of negotiations. “Kissinger had something much more dramatic in mind: the full normalization of relations.”3

Why Kissinger’s initiative failed to achieve that goal continues to be the subject of disagreement among officials in the two countries. If concrete answers remain elusive, however, the hidden history of this diplomacy itself raises a number of questions on US policy toward Cuba that now seem more pertinent than ever: Is a serious dialogue with Cuba possible? Does the United States have national interests that would be served by more normal relations with Cuba, even while Castro remains in power? With the end of the cold war, does sustaining a policy of hostility make sense?

Serious consideration of these questions has been rendered virtually impossible by the emotional and often irrational debate over US policy toward Cuba. Twenty years after a Republican administration tried to work out an accommodation with Castro, an atmosphere of confrontation continues to dominate US-Cuban relations. As the Clinton administration changes its tactics from day to day in dealing with the current crisis, the secret history of US-Cuban negotiations may contain clues on how to end what Kissinger once described as the “perpetual antagonism” that still pervades US policy.


In the mid-1970s, when Kissinger invited Castro to take part in a dialogue, Cuba was posing more and more problems for US officials. In Latin America, a number of countries, including Argentina and Colombia, had begun to break ranks with the US policy of isolating Cuba diplomatically; the Organization of American States was moving slowly but unmistakably toward lifting the multilateral trade embargo passed under US pressure in 1964. Several key countries were “quietly going AWOL from the 1964 sanctions—and use our evident intransigence on Cuba to play to the[ir] domestic left,” the assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, William D. Rogers, subsequently reported to Kissinger. “In most of these countries, US movement on Cuba would be a considerable plus in our relationship.”

In domestic politics, Congressional pressure was mounting from both Republicans and Democrats to change what they considered to be an anachronistic, and self-defeating, policy. As early as January 1973, a group of moderate Republicans issued a report entitled “A Detente with Cuba,” which urged the Nixon administration to consider normalizing relations with Castro. Powerful Democratic Senators, including John Sparkman and William Fulbright, took the same position as did a number of US corporations, angry at prohibitions on trade from the United States or through subsidiaries in third countries.

Increasingly the problems caused by domestic and foreign political opposition to the non-recognition policy were seen as outweighing its benefits. A major State Department review of US relations with Cuba concluded,

If there is benefit to us in an end to the state of “perpetual antagonism” it lies in getting Cuba off the domestic and inter-American agendas—in extracting the symbolism from an intrinsically trivial issue…. Our interest is in getting the Cuba issue behind us, not in prolonging it indefinitely.4

The “fetid climate of Watergate,” as Kissinger refers to the scandal in his memoirs, also made a successful dialogue seem more likely. Richard Nixon was an inveterate Cuba hater, whom Castro strongly distrusted.5 By mid-summer of 1974, however, his presidency had, in effect, come to an end, and the Cubans observed that the political scandal in Washington opened up diplomatic possibilities for Havana. Gerald Ford “is not involved with the Cuban counterrevolutionary elements,” whereas “Nixon was personally very much involved with them,” Castro told Mankiewicz and his colleague Kirby Jones just after Nixon resigned. “From the Cuban point of view, we see Ford with a certain hope…that he may, after all, adopt a different policy towards Cuba.”

So when Frank Mankiewicz approached Kissinger in late June 1974 about his pending trip to Cuba, and asked if the secretary wanted to send along a private message to Castro, his offer came at a promising moment. “Frank Mankiewicz was the right contact, easy to disavow,” Kissinger recalled.6 Mankiewicz was a prominent liberal, particularly on the issue of Cuba. If the story leaked, US officials could simply say that he had acted on his own.

In view of its political sensitivity, and of Kissinger’s predilection for hidden diplomacy, this “special project” was shrouded in secrecy, even by Kissinger’s standards. Neither President Nixon nor President Ford, it appears, was fully briefed.7 According to Rogers, who conducted the negotiations along with Kissinger’s deputy Lawrence Eagleburger, the secret contacts were not discussed either by the National Security Council or the State Department. “Only Kissinger, Eagleburger and myself knew about this initiative,” he said. “We were afraid of leaks; we were dealing with dynamite.”

For that reason, Mankiewicz remained Kissinger’s “special channel,” carrying messages to Castro again in October 1974 and January 1975, and setting up the initial meetings between Kissinger’s designated representative, Eagleburger, and Castro’s emissary, Ramón Sánchez-Parodi, then a high-ranking official of the Americas department of Cuba’s Communist Party. For the purposes of communications with the Cubans, Eagleburger assumed the alias of “Mr. Henderson”8 ; Sánchez-Parodi traveled to New York under the pseudonym “José Viera.”

At the first meeting, on January 11, 1975, at La Guardia Airport in New York City, Eagleburger, accompanied by Mankiewicz, met for an hour with Sánchez-Parodi and Nestor García, first secretary at Cuba’s UN mission. In spite of the secrecy within the State Department, this first exchange took place over coffee in a crowded cafeteria at the airport.9

We are meeting here to explore the possibilities for a more normal relationship between our two countries,” stated an aide-mémoire that Eagleburger gave to the Cubans. Drafted by Rogers, but Kissinger’s in “both thought and language,” as Eagleburger told Sánchez-Parodi and García, the two-page document put forward Kissinger’s conception of détente, and set the diplomatic tone for the talks:

The ideological differences between us are wide. But the fact that such talks will not bridge the ideological differences does not mean that they cannot be useful in addressing concrete issues which it is in the interest of both countries to resolve. The United States is able and willing to make progress on such issues even with socialist nations with whom we are in fundamental ideological disagreement, as the recent progress in our relations with Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China has shown.

The Cuban emissaries, Eagleburger reported to Kissinger in a secret memorandum recording the conversation, responded that their task was “to listen and report back to their authorities in Havana.” Sánchez-Parodi did, however, offer what he termed “personal comments” on US-Cuban relations and the need to lift the US trade embargo before other issues could be addressed. All agreed, as the aide-mémoire stated, that

many of these issues must be resolved over time between us for important substantive reasons, while a number of them are essential for Cuba or the United States to settle for symbolic reasons. It would, therefore, be helpful for both sides to identify and define the issues which may be discussed, and in what order we might best discuss them.10


What did the United States want from Cuba? According to a “Secret/Nodis/ Eyes Only” briefing memorandum prepared for Kissinger in early January 1975, a “check list” of economic interests included: compensation for expropriated property of US firms in Cuba, return of ransom money from hijackings, payment on defaulted bonds, and the need “to do something about the US Embassy building” which had fallen into disrepair. Political interests included the release of American citizens held in Cuban jails, improvement on human rights, and the need to “ease up on Cuban political prisoners.” Washington also wanted the Castro regime to permit Cuban exiles to visit their families on the island, “stop its mischievous involvement” with groups supporting Puerto Rican independence, “restrain” Cuban support for “terrorist insurgents” in Latin America, and “preserve the principle that Cuba will not be a base for offensive weapons.” 11

No preconditions were placed on negotiations, however, and Kissinger chose to put forward neither the major demand of his predecessors—that Cuba sever all military ties to the Soviet Union—nor the key demand of his successors, including the Clinton administration, that Castro undertake major democratic reforms before bilateral relations could be restored.

US actions to establish “good faith” in negotiations with Cuba began almost immediately following the January 11 meeting. On January 16 Assistant Secretary Rogers called the Justice Department’s Committee for Internal Security “on HAK’s [Kissinger’s] behalf,” according to Rogers’s notes, to request that the twenty-five-mile travel restriction on Cuban diplomats at the United Nations be expanded to a radius of 250 miles, and that “this request be handled as quickly and quietly as possible.”12 Several days later, the State Department arranged a multiple-entry visa for one “José Viera” so that Sánchez-Parodi could travel to the United States for future meetings. At the same time, Rogers ordered that US prohibitions against trade with Cuba by US corporations through foreign subsidiaries be reconsidered. That review led to a decision, announced February 12, to license Litton Industries of Canada to export $2 million worth of furniture to Cuba—“a gesture of good will,” as US officials informed their Cuban counterparts.13

To make sure that the Cubans understood the diplomatic significance of these actions,14 in late January Kissinger, again using Mankiewicz as his private courier, sent a secret message to Castro which said, “The United States is taking these steps as an expression of its interest in exploring the normalization of relations.” The January 11 meeting “was useful,” the diplomatic note continued, “and a further meeting of officials is now appropriate.”

For reasons still unexplained, the Cuban government did not respond to the request for another meeting. But Castro evidently noted the significance of these early US gestures, and responded with gestures and signals of his own. When Mankiewicz raised the issue of family visits Castro responded that he would consider the issue positively. (Rather than make this an official US demand, Mankiewicz was instructed to raise the possibility of family visits as his own idea. In doing so he would, as a memo from Rogers to Kissinger put it, “emphasize to the Cubans the importance of the human rights issue to the normalization process, in a way that will permit Castro to move” without feeling Washington was intervening in Cuba’s internal affairs.) The Cubans also publicly modified their longstanding demand that the trade embargo be lifted before any bilateral talks could take place.

In an interview with Le Monde, Deputy Premier Carlos Rafael Rodríguez made conciliatory remarks about the Ford administration, noting that while ending the US embargo remained Cuba’s condition for normalizing relations, lifting it “could comprise various phases and assume various forms.” In January Cuba also offered to exchange their most famous American prisoner, Larry Lunt, an anti-Castro mercenary with CIA ties who had been captured in 1965, for the Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron. (The exchange never took place, but Lunt was subsequently released anyway.) In addition, Cuban intelligence officials contacted CIA station chiefs in several countries indicating that Havana was prepared to consider a rapprochement.

Several months later, in May of 1975, Castro made a more substantive gesture, telling Senator George McGovern, who was visiting Havana, that Cuba would return two million dollars in ransom money that had been paid to three American hijackers who had commandeered a Southern Airways plane to Havana in 1972. “Castro is reaching out to improve relations with the US,” McGovern reported to Rogers in a confidential telephone call when he returned to Washington. His “primary objective at this time is to normalize relations with the United States.”

But Washington did not interpret Castro’s position that way. Indeed, following the first secret meeting in New York, Kissinger’s aides perceived a lack of serious Cuban interest and response to US gestures, particularly in view of the failure of the Cubans to respond to the US call for another meeting. “This may be due to the stickiness of our communications techniques,” Rogers observed in a memorandum dated February 13. Two months later, he expressed clear frustration over the stalled talks: “It is evident that our earlier effort with the Cubans is dead in the water,” Rogers reported to Kissinger on April 25, 1975, recommending another “special channel” meeting with the Cubans. “We would say that we took several symbolic steps but that we have seen no response. Is that intended?”

Looking back now, Kissinger is unperturbed by the slow process of his secret diplomacy with the Cubans. “That is not unusual,” he says. “In the case of China it took one-and-a-half years, with Sadat three years.” But in the spring of 1975, his aides were preoccupied with the lack of momentum after only a few months. As a series of classified memos and option papers reveal, they were particularly concerned by developments which, Rogers and Eagleburger believed, would weaken their hand in future negotiations with Castro. In July 1975, the OAS was scheduled to meet in San José, Costa Rica, and, with Washington’s acquiescence, it was expected to end Castro’s political and economic isolation by lifting the multilateral trade embargo against Cuba. That move would inevitably provoke other governments and US business interests to put pressure on the Ford administration to change its restrictions on trade. In Washington, Congressional leaders were set to conduct hearings on legislation requiring the government to lift the US trade embargo and move toward restoration of diplomatic ties.

Rogers argued that Kissinger should authorize his aides to quickly revive the secret contacts with Castro’s emissaries in order to move toward normal relations with Cuba. “If the administration’s policy can be effectively characterized as intransigent and frozen by the Democrats and the liberals, then they will try to use that characterization against you, and contend that you have forfeited your credentials as the architect of détente,” he wrote in one Secret/Nodis/Eyes Only report. The “US Domestic Scene,” he wrote in another, was auspicious for action on Cuba:

The ending of multilateral sanctions will be widely supported in the Congress and among the American people…. There will be increasing efforts by American firms to trade with Cuba, and for expanded travel. Some strong conservative opposition will emerge, and perhaps some demonstrative Cuban exile terrorist acts, because of the apprehension that the US will then begin to improve its bilateral relationships. But opposition will be isolated; the recent Harris survey indicates that 53% of the American people, and 84% of what Harris calls the national leadership, favor full bilateral normalization with Cuba.

There is, in short, a momentum for improving relations,” Rogers concluded. “If the Executive does not take the initiative, Congress, which has already grabbed for it, will keep it.”15

At a meeting with Kissinger on June 9, Rogers and Eagleburger presented their case: they wanted to be authorized to meet with the Cuban emissaries before the OAS met in San José, Costa Rica—in order to have as strong a bargaining position as possible. As in the memorandums, they took account of Kissinger’s dislike for congressional meddling in US foreign policy making. According to notes on the meeting, the following conversation took place:

Rogers: “The point is that our position is being continually chiselled away by Congress.

Kissinger: Don’t let them. This should be easy.

Rogers: A Kennedy bill to abolish all the sanctions could pass.

Kissinger: That would be a great one to veto.

Eagleburger: Or you could hold your nose and let it go through.

Kissinger: I find it intriguing that Kennedy would let his name be attached to “soft on communism.” Let us find out:

—Who is in favor of it?

—What do we lose by it?

—Is this statesmanship?

By the end of the meeting, however, Kissinger recognized the diplomatic logic of meeting with the Cubans before the OAS vote. “I favored a probe with Cuba last year but there was no answer; what new now can be said?… But since all these things are going to happen, we might as well start a dialogue.” He told Eagleburger and Rogers, “Do a message to Castro, but get it up to me before it leaks; as it usually does before I get it.”16

The message to Castro stated simply that the United States believed “it would be highly useful, before the San José meeting takes place, to reestablish our confidential bilateral meetings in order to permit a further government-to-government exchange of views.” Eagleburger and Rogers passed it to Cuba’s first secretary at the UN, Nestor García, during a 9:00 AM meeting at Washington’s National Airport on June 21. They agreed that the next formal meeting would be at the Pierre Hotel in midtown Manhattan (chosen because it was near Cuba’s UN mission, and because “it could be entered without going past the desk,” as Rogers wrote in an internal memo). Nine days later, the three met again, this time at Eagleburger’s house, to make the final arrangements.

On July 9, Eagleburger, Rogers, Sánchez-Parodi, and García negotiated during lunch in a hotel room at the Pierre. They discussed what Rogers describes as “a series of ideas for a reciprocal, across-the-board improvement of relations” leading to full bilateral ties—a “package deal” was the phrase the Cubans remember him using. The United States, as a major gesture, would support lifting multilateral sanctions. The Americans suggested reciprocal gestures: for example, Cuba might open its door to visits from exile families in the United States—as many as one hundred people per week. A series of reciprocal steps would continue until the atmosphere was right for restoring formal relations. Hostility toward Cuba was not “a permanent and organic element” of US foreign policy, Rogers and Eagleburger said; if the Castro government manifested “respect and mutual regard for other nations”—i.e., stopped supporting leftist insurgencies in Latin America—and took steps on human rights and other outstanding issues, diplomatic ties could be normalized. The meeting ended with an agreement to meet again within a few weeks or so.17

In the weeks that followed the Pierre Hotel meeting, the momentum for improved relations appeared to build on both sides. After the OAS vote on July 29, 1975, to lift multilateral trade sanctions against Cuba, the State Department announced publicly that the United States was prepared to open “serious discussions” with the Cubans on normalizing relations. On August 9, the Cuban government returned the $2 million in ransom money to Southern Airways—a move praised by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Sparkman, as “solid evidence that the Cuban government is genuinely interested in pursuing a policy of improved relations with the United States.” And on August 19, in a secret memorandum to President Ford, Kissinger recommended lifting the sanctions on countries in which subsidiaries of US companies were carrying on trade with Cuba. “These steps will be recognized as constructive ones by Castro,” Kissinger told the President, “and will put the onus on him to take the next conciliatory gestures towards us.”18 In a National Security Decision Memorandum issued that day, Ford authorized three changes in the embargo law: the licensing of subsidiaries of US companies in foreign countries to do business with Cuba, abolition of foreign aid penalties on countries trading with Cuba, and allowing ships engaged in Cuban commerce to refuel in US ports.19

The summer of US-Cuban détente, however, gave way to disagreement and tension in the fall. During an increasingly contentious political campaign in the United States, in which Ronald Reagan was challenging Ford for the Republican nomination by attacking détente, Cuba made two decisions that US policy makers perceived as deliberately undermining the process of normalization.

First, Cuba took a very public position on Puerto Rico, introducing a resolution calling for Puerto Rican independence at the United Nations in August and holding an international conference reiterating the same demand in Havana in early September. Privately, US officials informed the Cubans that the “talks couldn’t go on” because of Cuba’s actions. “We were neuralgic on Puerto Rico,” recalls Eagleburger. Publicly, Secretary Kissinger stated that the Havana conference on Puerto Rico could “only be considered by us as an unfriendly act.”

The obstacle to talks raised by Cuba’s position on Puerto Rico was followed by a major clash over Angola. In the summer of 1975 both the United States and Cuba decided to escalate their involvement in the civil war in newly independent Angola. In July, President Ford approved a significant increase in the CIA’s covert paramilitary operations—which had been going on since the 1960s—in support of the pro-US National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (known as UNITA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA)—the two political armies fighting to overthrow Angola’s dominant political party, the Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA), which was supported by the USSR. In response to a request for help from the MPLA leader, Augustino Neto, after South African forces began crossborder incursions in support of UNITA and the FMLN, Castro authorized the deployment of Cuban troops—Cuban military advisers were already there—in August. On October 10, the US embassy in Luanda cabled Washington with the first reports that Cuban soldiers had landed.

In November, Castro passed a message to Kirby Jones—who had now replaced Mankiewicz as a courier to Havana—that Cuba was ready to permit a limited number of family visits on a humanitarian basis, and that arrangements could be made through the “special channel.” By then, however, events in Angola overshadowed the possibility of establishing normal US-Cuban relations. Cuba’s large military deployment in Angola—36,000 troops, equipped with heavy Soviet weapons, by late December 1975—clearly concerned US policy makers, and they said so publicly. When a reporter asked Kissinger “when you might deliver us a Cuban cigar” as a symbol of a successful rapprochement, he replied:

We were making progress earlier this year in improving relations with Cuba. But in recent months, Cuba has taken some actions, such as their pressure for the independence of Puerto Rico…and by its interference in conflicts in areas thousands of miles away, such as Angola, that have given us some pause.

On December 20, a day after Congress passed the Clark Amendment ending all CIA covert operations in Angola, President Ford declared that “the action by the Cuban Government in sending combat forces to Angola destroys any opportunity for improvement of relations with the United States.”

In fact, Kissinger continued to keep the door open. On December 24, Eagleburger and Rogers sent him a memorandum and draft talking points for another meeting with their “special channel.” Castro’s message to Kirby Jones in November provided the opportunity, they said, to deliver a “strong message on Angola”; Rogers and Eagleburger recommended that the US deliver an ultimatum stating that “there is no basis for such reciprocal conversations until Cuba is prepared to withdraw its troops.” Somewhat to the surprise of Rogers and Eagleburger, however, Kissinger vetoed that message as “much too strong.” Instead, he requested a communiqué that “expresses appreciation re: Kirby Jones message and asks for clarification, [and] indicates that no fundamental improvement is possible in our relations under present conditions.” In other words, diplomatic conversations could continue, but Cuban intervention in Angola impeded full normal ties.

This message was passed to the Cubans on January 12, 1976, during a forty-five-minute meeting between Rogers and García at Washington’s National Airport. García took notes as Rogers “slowly and deliberately” read Kissinger’s authorized talking points, writing down, word-for-word, the final paragraph. It read:

Cuba’s dispatch of combat troops to take part in an internal conflict between Africans in Angola is a fundamental obstacle to any far-reaching effort to resolve the basic issues between us at this time.

According to a memorandum of the conversation prepared for Kissinger, the Cuban emissary told Rogers that Castro had recently stated Cuba’s position on Angola, and García “would not have much to add to that.” Rogers replied that “the advantage of our special channel was that it was free of polemics. If Cuba had something to add, or some favorable news on Angola not conveyed through the public media we would be delighted to hear it.”

That García was not ready, or instructed, to discuss Angola, Rogers noted in his report on the meeting, was a cause for surprise and chagrin. “There was nothing in his manner or in his words which betrayed a sensitivity to the recent developments in Angola, and Cuba’s admittedly decisive role. For my part, I admit, the irony hung heavy. Not, evidently, for him.”20

The US and Cuban officials found common ground, however, on the issue of Cuban family visits to the island. “Cuba [is] ready for family visits now,” García informed Rogers. The two discussed how visitors would be selected and what kind of public announcement would be made. The Cubans preferred an early announcement, García said, but they understood it might be delayed because of US domestic politics. “He is sensitive to the March 9, Florida primary,” Rogers reported to Kissinger.

Family visits were also the subject of the final formal meeting during Kissinger’s détente initiative, which took place between Eagleburger and García on February 7, 1976. Reading from a typed set of talking points, García presented the Cuban government’s position on the visits: up to sixty people, from ten families in the United States, would be permitted a ten-day visit to the island. Preference would be given to the aged or ill, or to family members visiting older or sick parents or grandparents. No one involved with activities against the Cuban government would be permitted to come. Contrary to US hopes, this was to be a one-time-only arrangement because “conditions are not favorable to starting a continued flow of visits to Cuba, much less the establishment of a regular airlift,” García told Eagleburger.

This is our stand,” the Cuban talking points concluded: “It constitutes a gesture which indicates that, on the part of Cuba, there is not an attitude of permanent hostility toward the United States.” 21


Cuban records contain several more informal communications with US officials in the spring of 1976, but in effect Kissinger’s initiative came to an end after the February 1976 meeting. Why did it fail?

For the American participants, the answer lies in Castro’s intervention in Angola, which, they contend, revealed a basic lack of interest in fundamentally improving US-Cuban relations. It was inconceivable to them that Castro simply miscalculated the destructive effects of his decision. “There was absolutely no possibility that we would tolerate the Cubans moving into a new theater, becoming a strategic base in the cold war, and still improve relations,” Kissinger told us. Eagleburger took the same view: “If it was politically difficult before, it became impossible after Angola.”

In retrospect, according to Rogers, “Angola was fatal. But I also believe that the Cubans were never serious about this.” The American side, in his view, had developed a clear concept of a diplomatic process that could lead to normal relations; it had been authorized by the secretary of state and communicated to the Cubans. But, to the consternation of the US officials, the Cubans did not reciprocate in significant ways. Cuba’s behavior reminded Kissinger of the North Vietnamese: “I felt that the Cubans had gone to school in Hanoi in their way of dealing with the US,” he said, “which is to ask for ninety percent of what you want at the start. They simply didn’t understand our position; they didn’t go to school in Beijing.”

In a summary of his own final meeting with the Cubans, Rogers gave Kissinger a “personal comment” that cast Cuba’s negotiating strategy in a more pragmatic light. “We must assume, on matters of such gravity as Cuba’s relationship with the United States,” he argued, “that it is acting coherently, rationally and in single-minded fashion.” Cuba’s gesture on humanitarian family visits in the midst of its Angola intervention, for example, could be seen as a calculated political move, made with the US presidential elections in mind:

Cuba may have decided…that there is little possibility of doing anything fundamental with the United States until after November. By then, it may reckon, the Angolan game will have been played out, one way or another. In the meanwhile, if it can symbolically demonstrate to the American people that Angola does not slam the door on improved relations, at least as far as Havana is concerned, it may think it will make life easier for Ford’s Democratic successor come January 1977.22

From the Cuban perspective, it was Gerald Ford’s sensitivity to the politics of the 1976 presidential election—not Cuba’s—that killed the initiative. Cuban records, according to Sánchez-Parodi, contain explicit statements from Rogers and Eagleburger suggesting that the talks would have to be put on hold, so that Ford would not have difficulties with the hard-line anti-Castro voters who were leaning toward Ronald Reagan in the March 1976 Florida primary. “The first excuse was Puerto Rico. Later it was Angola,” says Sánchez-Parodi. “But the main reason, we have always believed, was the fear that if the secret talks were revealed during the election campaign, Ford would have been severely damaged.”

As Rogers implied they would, the Cubans entered into secret talks with the incoming Carter administration in January 1977, with Frank Mankiewicz once again acting as a secret intermediary. These negotiations eventually resulted in a moderate improvement in relations, including permission for more people to travel to and from the island. Their continuing pursuit of better relations with the United States, Cuban officials argue, demonstrated that they were indeed serious about the Kissinger initiative—and were ready to come to an agreement if they could meet their own security concerns without compromising their national sovereignty. For them to abandon, or even modify, their interventionist foreign policy abroad, it appears, was too much for the United States to expect. At a January 15, 1976, press conference Castro said:

It is not that Cuba reject[s] the ideal of improving relations with the United States—we are in favor of peace, of the policy of détente, of coexistence between states with different social systems. What we do not accept are humiliating conditions—the absurd price which the United States apparently would have us pay for an improvement of relations.

More concrete evidence about US efforts to negotiate a détente with Cuba await access to Cuban archives and the opening of Gerald Ford’s still classified presidential papers. What can be said now, however, is that the initiative to normalize US-Cuban relations failed because neither side apparently needed it to succeed. Besides pressures from the right in a tough election campaign, the Ford administration faced other urgent domestic and international issues, in Vietnam and the Soviet Union, for example, and dealing with them successfully was more important than the longer term benefits of a détente with Castro. From Castro’s perspective, Cuba gained more from its involvement in Angola than it lost by failing to improve ties with Washington. Cuba’s popularity in the third world quickly rose after its troops landed, and military intervention in Africa restored an aura of heroism—lacking since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—to Cuban public life.23 Cuba’s political and economic relations with the USSR prospered as a result of their joint Angolan venture. For both the United States and Cuba, normalizing relations appears to have been a serious concern during the mid-1970s, but a secondary one.


Since 1976, almost everything relating to Cuba has changed. The cold war has ended; the Soviet Union has collapsed; Cuba has been left in a state of political isolation and economic desolation. Only the US policy of diplomatic hostility and heavy economic pressure remains unchanged. Indeed, with the passage of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo, and President Clinton’s recent decision to restrict travel to Cuba and to stop both family visits and the flow of cash remittances, US policy has regressed to the days before the efforts of the Ford and Carter administrations to achieve a modus vivendi with Castro.

The underlying premise of the Kissinger initiative—that the US has a national interest in having diplomatic relations with Castro—seems all the more valid today. Cuba can no longer intervene in distant continents as it did in Africa in the 1970s; nor can Castro challenge the US in the Western hemisphere. But what happens in Cuba clearly has serious consequences for the US, as the recent attempt of thousands of Cubans to cross the Florida Straits has shown. Not only is support for human rights and democracy in Cuba high among declared US concerns, but the US has a fundamental national security interest in avoiding an outbreak of violent turmoil on the island. Civil upheaval, which President Clinton’s policy of economic strangulation seems designed to promote, would produce an even larger flow of refugees than the mass exodus of the past few weeks. Violent strife would also produce strong domestic political pressure for military intervention from the hard-line anti-Castro groups whose cues Clinton has tended to follow.

In view of the dangers of a Cuban cataclysm, there is growing agreement among both liberals and conservatives that the US should abandon its primitive cold war policy of antagonism and encourage a peaceful political and economic transition in Cuba. Editorials in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, among others, have called for an end to the trade embargo. USAToday wants to end as well the “travel restrictions, naval blockades, and all the other confrontational tactics [that] have failed to nudge Cuba one inch closer to democracy.” A Washington Post editorial stated that the US “should be contributing to freedom in Cuba, not to misery and not to the possibility of an explosion,” and went on, “Certainly the embargo should be on the [negotiating] table.”

In his posthumously published book Beyond Peace, moreover, Richard Nixon advocated changing US policy to an “open door” approach to Cuba. The Republican Senator Richard Lugar said on Meet the Press that he was for “accelerating direct negotiations.” In a joint article for The Washington Post, “The Embargo Must Go,” Claiborne Pell, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote, “The Cuban people need an invasion of people, ideas and information, not a tightened embargo…. The United States should open the door for a positive, rather than punitive, influence on Cuba’s future….” With President Clinton restoring diplomatic and economic relations with Vietnam, and pursuing “a broader strategy of engagement” in China, his policy of escalating pressure on Cuba appears anomalous, quite aside from its harsh and punitive effects on Cuban citizens.

Détente, Kissinger wrote in his memoirs, was not a concession to communism; it was an effort “to discipline [the ideological struggle] by precepts of national interest.” Détente with Cuba need not be a concession to Castroism. The same considerations of national interest that prompted Kissinger to explore an opening with Cuba twenty years ago suggest that the Clinton administration should now “deal straight with Castro” and conduct American policy “like a big guy, not like a shyster.”

September 8, 1994


Talking to Cuba: An Exchange January 12, 1995

  1. 1

    Mankiewicz, a former Peace Corps official and press secretary to Senator Robert Kennedy, was accompanied by Kirby Jones, who had also been an official in the Peace Corps, and the documentary film maker Saul Landau. Subsequently, Mankiewicz and Jones published their lengthy interviews in With Fidel (Playboy Press, 1975; Ballantine, 1976).

  2. 2

    On March 30, 1977, The Washington Post published a brief story about secret talks between US and Cuban officials, based on an interview with William D. Rogers, who had served as Henry Kissinger’s assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs. Drawing on that article, in early 1992 a team of researchers—including the authors, Boston University professor Janet Lang, American University professor Philip Brenner, and Harvard University professor Jorge Dominguez—arranged a series of meetings with the key people involved in both countries, among them: Kissinger, his then special assistant Lawrence Eagleburger, William D. Rogers, and Frank Mankiewicz; and in Cuba, Ramón Sánchez- Parodi, who served as Castro’s special emissary during the talks, and Ricardo Alarcón, then Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations, whose office served as Cuba’s headquarters for the negotiations with Washington. Through the Freedom of Information Act, we obtained the declassification of a “special projects” file kept by Rogers, which contained top-secret documents recording the process by which Kissinger formulated policy, as well as the furtive negotiations with Cuban officials and the diplomatic maneuvering designed to set the stage for a dramatic change in US-Cuban relations. For the memorandum containing Kissinger’s quotation beginning “Behave chivalrously,” see footnote 16.

  3. 3

    Sánchez-Parodi was interviewed in Havana on the Kissinger initiative in December 1992 and May 1993. His comments cited here are drawn from transcripts of those meetings.

  4. 4

    Normalizing Relations with Cuba,” a comprehensive policy paper prepared for Assistant Secretary Rogers by his deputy Harry Shlaudeman in March 1975.

  5. 5

    Nixon became personally antagonistic to Castro soon after the revolution. They met in April 1959, when Castro made his first, and only, semi-official visit to Washington, DC. To avoid seeing him, President Eisenhower decided to leave town for a golfing vacation; instead, Nixon held a three-hour meeting with Castro at the then vice-president’s Capitol Hill office. Nixon found the Cuban revolutionary leader to be “intelligent, shrewd, at times eloquent,” but, as he reported to Eisenhower, “incredibly naive about Communism or [already] under Communist discipline.” Nixon left the meeting, as he later wrote “the strongest and most persistent advocate of CIA covert efforts to overthrow Castro.”

  6. 6

    Dr. Kissinger made these comments, and others cited here, at a private conference with the authors and several other scholars on August 23, 1993. Former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger and former assistant secretaries William D. Rogers and Harry Shlaudeman also attended the meeting, which was organized by the Center for American Policy Development at Brown University’s Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies and held at the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, New York.

  7. 7

    Kissinger is not even sure whether he told Nixon about the Mankiewicz message. “There is a high probability that I’d told Richard Nixon,” he recalls. “Ford knew for sure though I might have said I’d wait on details until something came back. Certainly Nixon had other things on his mind at that point.”

  8. 8

    Eagleburger does not remember why he chose this particular alias, but he does recall that his failure to inform his wife almost ended the diplomacy before it began. “My wife came to me and said, ‘Larry, a strange man has called three times tonight asking for a Mr. Henderson. First I told him he had the wrong number; then I told him that no such person lives here; then I hung up on him.”’

  9. 9

    The four officials were supposed to meet in a more isolated airport restaurant, but when the wait for a table proved too long, they ended up at the cafeteria. At one point. Sánchez-Parodi remembers, a blind man approached the table selling ballpoint pens. “Here we were in a fast-food joint, muttering in hushed tones about how to normalize US-Cuban relations, and a supposedly blind guy leans over our table and starts flashing pens around,” he said. “Maybe he taped that meeting.”

  10. 10

    Eagleburger to Kissinger, Secret/ Sensitive “Meeting in New York with Cuban Representatives, January 11, 1975,” with aide-mémoire attached.

  11. 11

    Rogers to Kissinger, Secret, “The United States and Cuba: A Balance Sheet,” January 2, 1975. Rogers also advised Kissinger that the Cuban government would want the US, among other demands, to halt surveillance overflights, crack down on violent exile activities, return Guantánamo, release frozen Cuban assets, and end trade restrictions.

  12. 12

    This small gesture was not so simple to carry out, however. “Unfortunately, the Byzantine bureaucratic structure passed down from an earlier age requires the approval of a State-Defense-Justice Committee for the move,” Rogers informed Eagleburger. “It can be done quickly, but too many people will know about it. There will be some gnashing of teeth here. EUR [the European bureau] will want the same for Albania—EA [East Asia] for Mongolia.”

  13. 13

    In fact, the Ford administration made this decision under pressure from the government of Canada. On January 28, Canadian embassy official Vernon Turner told Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canadian Affairs Richard Vine that his government considered a change in US policy on this issue “to be a matter of highest importance in US-Canadian relations.”

  14. 14

    One gesture that was repeatedly considered but ruled out was “base-ball diplomacy”—authorizing Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn to take a professional team to Havana for an exhibition game with the Cubans. Kuhn first proposed the idea to Kissinger in a letter dated January 14, 1975, and requested permission to set up a series of games in late March. Rogers supported the proposal, pointing out to Kissinger the inevitable parallels with “ping-pong” diplomacy: “The Chinese ping-pong players were accepted by the US public as a good way to break the ice between countries separated by decades of hostility. Baseball with Cuba would serve a similar purpose in bridging the gap between the Bay of Pigs and a new relationship with Castro.” But Kissinger vetoed his recommendation because it would call too much attention to the secret diplomacy. Kuhn unsuccessfully proposed the idea again in May, June, and July of 1975 and was still pursuing the possibility of taking a group of All-Stars to Havana in November. “Basically, [Kuhn] wanted to be the ‘ping-pong diplomat’ of Cuba,” Rogers recollects.

  15. 15

    Rogers to Kissinger, “Cuba Policy: After the OASGA [Organization of American States General Assembly],” May 17, 1975.

  16. 16

    This dialogue is based on verbatim notes taken by Culver Gleysteen, one of Rogers’s deputies, which were transcribed in a secret “Memorandum of Conversation on Cuba Policy: Tactics Before and After San José,” June 9, 1975.

  17. 17

    Sánchez-Parodi’s recollection of the Pierre Hotel meeting was that it was a rushed affair where the Americans discussed the US agenda, but the Cubans were unable to broach theirs. “I had come from Havana with a long list of issues to discuss,” he recalls. “Eagleburger was obviously in a hurry. It seemed to me that he was more interested in not missing his shuttle flight than in discussing issues standing in the way of normalization of US-Cuban relations.”

  18. 18

    Kissinger to the President, “Third Country Sanctions against Cuba,” August 19, 1975.

  19. 19

    NSDM, “Termination of US Restrictions on Third Country Trading with Cuba,” August 19, 1975.

  20. 20

    Rogers and Eagleburger to Kissinger, Secret/Nodis/Eyes Only, “Cuban Family Visits,” January 12, 1976.

  21. 21

    Eagleburger to Kissinger, Secret/ Nodis, “Memorandum of Conversation,” February 7, 1976.

  22. 22

    Rogers and Eagleburger to Kissinger, Secret/Nodis/Eyes Only, “Cuban Family Visits,” January 12, 1976.

  23. 23

    On Cuba and the missile crisis see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “Four Days with Fidel,” The New York Review, March 26, 1992, pp. 22-29; Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, editors, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 (The New Press, 1992); and James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse (Pantheon, 1993).