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Talking to Cuba: An Exchange

In response to:

Dialogue with Castro: A Hidden History from the October 6, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

The authors of “Dialogue with Castro: A Hidden History” [NYR, October 6, 1994] reveal that in the early 1970’s top US policy makers, Henry Kissinger among them, were secretly trying to bring about the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba (the authors might also have mentioned the secret, and now forgotten, exchange of messages between President Kennedy and Castro in 1963). At the end of the article, the authors conclude that if normalization could have been considered in Washington during the cold war, now that the war is over and with the Cuban economy in shambles, and Cuba no longer presenting a threat to the US or any part of the western hemisphere, it is thus logical that the US should no longer oppose normalization with the Castro regime.

Actually, there was considerable logic in the attempt to negotiate with Cuba during the cold war, perhaps more than at the present time. It came under the heading of “realpolitik,” i.e., its objective was to modify the close ties between Cuba and the USSR by offering Castro the opportunity of becoming the Tito of the Caribbean, although it was not explicitly put in these terms. It was similar to Nixon’s later opening to China which was aimed to widen the split between China and the USSR.

One element of the current normalization logic which was not mentioned is the fact some large American business firms are eager to get into the Cuban market. The main justification, as stated in the article, is to “encourage a peaceful political and economic transition.” The explanation as to how normalization, including the lifting of the trade embargo, would achieve this aim, is not convincing. As long as Castro is, in effect, the government of Cuba, he remains a formidable obstacle to any peaceful transition, which would require adopting an open economy and a democratic political system. He is utterly opposed to such changes and can be expected to thwart any measure, by any means, which diminishes his power.

Concerning the trade embargo, and related economic sanctions, Castro maintains that it is the main cause of Cuba’s economic crisis. He has had some success in persuading Cubans, and even Americans, that the embargo is to blame. If fact, it plays only a small role, probably no more than 10 percent at most. The US has been singularly unsuccessful in persuading other developed capitalist countries, such as Canada, Spain, the UK, and Japan, to join the embargo. But trade with these countries has also been sharply reduced because Cuba has little to export except diminished amounts of sugar, and its credit has collapsed. Cuba’s current debacle, practically speaking, is the result of the same systemic failures which undermined the command economies of its former European communist benefactors, the source of Cuba’s life-sustaining subsidies.

Lifting the embargo would, of course, give Castro a political boost but bring only marginal and temporary economic relief, given the near total collapse of the Cuban economy and its infrastructure. The only solution to the Cuban crisis is the complete dismantling of Castro’s dictatorship. Maintaining the embargo could hasten the solution. Lifting the embargo would only delay it.

Finally, another issue is involved in considering the normalization of relations with Cuba. It is a policy issue not dealt with in this article. The Castro regime has been and continues to be a major violator of human rights and democracy in the western hemisphere. Since the end of the cold war, American foreign policy has given considerable importance to the promotion of human rights and democracy, whether as a member of the United Nations, the Organization of American States or unilaterally. Some examples that come to mind are Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti. Normalizing relations with the oppressive Castro government at this juncture would send a discouraging message to reform-minded Cubans, and others, that the United States has abandoned principle.

Maurice Halperin

Professor Emeritus

Department of Political Science

Simon Fraser University

Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

To the Editors:

Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, the Communist leader who became Cuba’s vice president, once said to me that there were two times in the Castro years when Havana felt that Washington was interested in the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States: during the Kennedy administration in 1963 and during the Ford administration in 1974-76. “Dialogue with Castro: A Hidden History,” the article by Peter Kornbluh and James G. Blight in your 6 October issue, provides an excellent account of the second episode. It may be of interest to recall the first.

William Attwood, the former editor of Look, was serving as Kennedy’s ambassador to Guinea in 1963 when he suffered an attack of polio. Convalescing on home leave, he was seconded to work with Adlai Stevenson, our ambassador to the United Nations. As a journalist, Attwood had interviewed Castro in 1959. At the UN he received reports from Guinean sources that Castro was unhappy about Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet Union, and there were indications that Carlos Lechuga, the Cuban UN ambassador, would like exploratory talks with the United States.

On 18 September 1963 Attwood sent Averell Harriman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, a memorandum arguing that the policy of isolating Cuba put the United States “in the unattractive posture of a big country trying to bully a small country,” proposing “a discreet inquiry” into the possibility of normalizing relations and asking authority to make contact with Lechuga.

Harriman told Attwood that he was “adventuresome” enough to favor the idea, but, because of political implications on the eve of a presidential year, Attwood should discuss the plan with Robert Kennedy. The Attorney General thought the plan “worth pursuing” and told Attwood to present it to McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser. President Kennedy, Bundy reported back to Attwood, was in favor of “an opening toward Cuba” that would take Castro “out of the Soviet fold and perhaps wiping out the Bay of Pigs and maybe getting back to normal.”

Thus authorized, Attwood conducted quiet talks with Lechuga (as Lechuga confirmed to me in Havana in January 1992). “The President gave the go-ahead,” Robert Kennedy told John Bartlow Martin in an oral history interview in 1964, “and [Attwood] was to go to Havana, I don’t know, December last year or January of this year, and perhaps see Castro and see what could be done [toward a] normalization of relationship.”

In the meantime, Kennedy opened up a second channel to Castro. On hearing that the French journalist Jean Daniel of L’Express (today the editor of Le Nouvel Observateur) was in Washington on his way to Havana, Kennedy called Daniel in on 24 October and gave him an oral message to Castro. The message, as recently summarized by Daniel (International Herald Tribune, 24 September 1994), was that nothing was possible with a Soviet vassal but everything was possible with an independent communist state (here Kennedy cited Tito’s Yugoslavia and Sekou Toure’s Guinea). Jean Daniel was lunching with Castro on 22 November when word came of Kennedy’s assassination. Castro muttered again and again, “Es una mala noticia“; “this is bad news.” To Daniel he said, “Voilà, there is the end to your mission of peace.”

Attwood continued his talks with Lechuga after Dallas. On 4 December, Attwood told me that his discreet inquiry was, he believed, reaching a climax; that Castro might really be trying to drop the Communists and strike a deal with the United States. But Lyndon Johnson, now president, soon told Bundy he did not want in an election year “to appear ‘soft’ on anything, especially Cuba,” and Bundy told Attwood that “the Cuban exercise would probably be put on ice for a while—which it was,” Attwood wrote in 1967, “and here it has been ever since.”

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

New York City

Peter Kornbluh and James G Blight replies:

Maurice Halperin objects to our conclusions that a bilateral dialogue toward more normal relations between Havana and Washington would be in the national interest of the United States. There is nothing new in his view as stated: it is the “powder keg” theory—put pressure on Cuba until it explodes.

US policy toward Cuba, as Halperin knows, has adhered to the “powder keg” approach for most of the thirty-five years since Castro’s revolution, with only brief departures during the Kennedy, Ford, and Carter administrations. The US government has authorized attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro; it has conducted covert operations against Cuban civilians and economic assets; it has made it illegal for US businesses to trade with or invest in Cuba, and it has sought, with little success, to prevent our allies from doing the same.

All these efforts have had the avowed purpose of bringing down the Castro regime. None has worked. “It is time to learn the lessons of thirty-five years of Communism in Cuba,” the Nobel Peace laureate and former President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, recently noted. “We should not overestimate the power of economic sanctions, and we must not underestimate the value of dialogue and negotiation.”

Indeed, with the end of the cold war, and the end of Soviet assistance to Cuba, which has left the island in dire economic straits, the value of dialogue and negotiation as an alternative to current US policy is much enhanced—not to salvage the Castro regime, as Halperin insinuates, but to help bring about a peaceful transition of economic and political power. That should be the goal of US policy. If, as advocates of a hard-line US policy desire, the Cuban “powder keg” in the US backyard explodes, the resulting upheaval, violence, refugees, and escalating pressure for US military intervention will not be in the national interests of either the United States or the Cuban people.

William D. Rogers, who served as Secretary Kissinger’s point man on the détente initiative we described in our October 6 article, addressed this issue in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 7. “I fear a hard landing in Cuba after Castro,” Rogers stated. “The Soviet Union and East Europe had velvet revolutions. Cuba could be otherwise when the Castro regime loses its grip.”

In determining US policy, Rogers observed, Cuba was being arbitrarily singled out:

We maintain open diplomatic and trade relations with other countries which are not democratic. China, the Gulf Arabs and much of Africa spring to mind. If there is anything to be said for consistency or coherence in foreign policy—and I am one who thinks there is—then our Cuban policy is difficult to justify.

Indeed, retaining our current position of isolating Cuba demonstrates a fundamental lack of faith in the capacity of democracy to transform people, cultures, and countries for the better. President Clinton seems to have that faith when it comes to controlled societies such as Indonesia and China. Speaking in Jakarta recently he talked about the relationship between positive economic engagement and democratic development. “The key to improving human rights and personal liberty,” the President said, “is commerce, not confrontation.”

That was certainly the US approach to Moscow and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be the same for Havana. The lesson of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rogers concluded, was that “openness serves our interests. The breakup of the Soviet system occurred not because we cut off trade and human interchange, but because we didn’t.” We agree with that assessment.

We are grateful for Arthur Schlesinger’s account of President Kennedy’s “opening” to Cuba which ended by being “put on ice,” as William Attwood said—much like the Kissinger initiative. That it is still “on ice,” long after the end of the cold war, is an American embarrassment.

It has often been pointed out that the explanation for this lies in domestic US politics, especially the heavy political influence of the dogmatists at the Cuban American National Foundation. For them, any rapprochement with Castro is identical to capitulation. Their Miami-based leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, clearly wants to succeed Castro.

Not surprisingly, the Cuban American National Foundation, one of the most authoritarian, anti-democratic forces operating legally in the US, has been leading the fight to squeeze Castro’s Cuba until it implodes like Somalia or explodes like Yugoslavia.

As Schlesinger’s letter makes clear, LBJ feared pressure from similar pressure groups. President Ford, as we demonstrated in our article, also feared them and backed off an early commitment to exploring normalization with Cuba. And so on, down to the present administration, which continues to knuckle under to a hard-line Cuba lobby whose commitment to US-style democracy is no greater than Fidel Castro’s.

With Clinton administration officials emphasizing the theme of “crisis avoidance” in US foreign policy elsewhere in the world, there is no sound basis for the current approach to Cuba. Only when the US government has the courage to ignore the self-interested pressures of such groups as the Cuban American National Foundation will US policy toward Cuba be defensible politically and morally.

Can such courage be mustered in time to avert a Cuban cataclysm? When the Kissinger initiative we documented in our article failed in the 1970s the unresolved Cuba question was passed on to the next administration. In view of Cuba’s dire economic situation, however, a failure to end the “perpetual hostility” of US Cuba policy in the 1990s could contribute to a crisis of instability and bloodshed ninety miles off our shores—a crisis so detrimental to real US national interests that history will judge harshly those who had the chance to prevent a Caribbean disaster but refused.

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