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…

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