Four Days with Fidel: A Havana Diary

Tuesday, January 7. We are flying to Miami en route to Havana for a conference, with Fidel Castro, on the Cuban missile crisis.

This is the fifth conference in a series that began in 1987, in Hawk’s Cay, Florida, as an all-American affair, in which Kennedy administration veterans were asked questions about the crisis by political scientists and historians. The second meeting, at Harvard, brought in Soviet representatives. Then Cubans complained that everyone called it the Cuban missile crisis but no one ever asked them. (Actually the Cubans themselves call it the October crisis.) So the third meeting, held in Moscow in 1989, included Cubans, as did a fourth meeting a year ago in Antigua.

The Cubans then proposed a fifth meeting in Havana. But they had stuck so dogmatically to the Party line in Antigua that some of us questioned the usefulness of a Havana conference. Where the Americans and the Soviets had divulged internal debates and declassified relevant documents, the Cubans had gone on about the iniquities of the CIA, long since exposed in the US, and revealed nothing about their own decisions and actions.

After all, Castro had his own CIA; and Cuba’s clandestine war in the early 1960s against other Latin American states, especially against Rómulo Betancourt’s progressive democratic regime in Venezuela, was an essential part of the story. The Kennedy administration had seen the future of Latin America as essentially a contest between the Castro way and the Betancourt way. Castro, we believed, saw the contest similarly and had therefore made Venezuela his major target.

Jim Blight and Janet Lang, the organizers of the Cuban Missile Crisis Project for the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University, last summer got the Cubans to promise to release declassified documents by November 15, but so far no documents have been forthcoming. Robert McNamara and I both have forebodings and agreed last weekend that, if the conference degenerates into a propaganda barrage by Castro and his team, we will walk out.

Wednesday, January 8. After much waiting, a crowded plane takes off on the forty-minute flight to Havana. I first visited Havana in 1950, for a meeting of the Inter-American Association for Democracy and Freedom, when I met Betancourt and other democratic leaders like José Figueres of Costa Rica, Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic, Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende of Chile. I next visited Havana thirty-five years later—in May 1985 and again in October, this time on human rights missions with Robert White, a former ambassador to El Salvador, and a champion of Latin American democracy. We had frank, and not uncordial, sessions with Castro on each occasion.

Human rights are obviously not on the agenda of the impending conference, and the primary purpose of the present trip is to clarify the historical record of the supreme crisis of the nuclear age. However, some of us, especially Wayne Smith, former head of the US Interest Section—the de facto embassy—in Havana, and Robert Pastor, McNamara’s son-in-law…

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