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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

  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.”

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