Pragmatic Diplomacy Worked Once With Cuba


U.S. officials recently concluded another round of talks on immigration with Cuba but once again rejected the possibility of a broader diplomatic dialogue to improve overall bilateral relations.

When Joseph Sullivan, the head of the U.S. interests section in Havana, expressed hope for return to the "very close and very friendly relationship" that once existed between Cuba and the United States, Clinton administration officials sharply rebuked him and reiterated their policy of isolating Cuba politically and economically.

Last month, 101 nations condemned the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba -- only the United States and Israel supported it -- during a vote in the United Nations. The State Department announced Wednesday that Cuba would be excluded from next month's summit of Western Hemisphere nations in Miami.

Meanwhile, a growing number of liberal and conservative voices are suggesting that a full diplomatic dialogue between Washington and Havana would advance the national interest of the United States.

Such negotiations would not be without precedent. The Carter administration's talks with Mr. Castro between 1977 and 1979 -- which produced the establishment of U.S. and Cuban interests sections in Washington and Havana -- are well known.

Only recently uncovered, however, is documentation of the Ford administration's secret diplomatic effort, initiated by Secretary of BState Henry A. Kissinger, to fully normalize relations with Cuba.

Began in 1974 with note

Mr. Kissinger's secret diplomacy began in late June of 1974, when he sent an unsigned note to Mr. Castro stating that the United States was interested in talking and that this should be done quietly through intermediaries.

Over the next 18 months, emissaries traveled back and forth between Washington and Havana, and Mr. Kissinger's deputies met more than a half-dozen times with Cuban officials in airport lounges, New York hotels and private houses to discuss issues that divide the nations.

Mr. Kissinger's attitude on these talks is recorded in a secret memorandum of conversation with his aides: It is better to deal straight with Mr. Castro, he told them, adding: We are moving in a new direction.

Significantly, Washington placed no preconditions on these negotiations.

This special project was conducted with utmost secrecy. Only three members of the Ford administration -- Mr. Kissinger, his special deputy, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, and Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs William D. Rogers -- were privy to the details.

According to Mr. Rogers, the initiative was never discussed in the National Security Council or the State Department. Mr. Kissinger says that not even Presidents Nixon and Ford were fully briefed.

Mr. Eagleburger, who assumed the code name Mr. Henderson, acted as Mr. Kissinger's primary representative during the talks. Mr. Castro selected Ramon Sanchez Parodi, a high-ranking member of Cuba's Communist Party, as his chief negotiator. Mr. Sanchez Parodi used the alias Jose Viera and was given a special visa to travel to the United States under that name.

Crowded cafeteria

The first substantive meeting took place at La Guardia airport on Jan. 11, 1975. After the line proved too long at a more secluded restaurant, U.S. and Cuban emissaries were forced to meet in a crowded cafeteria.

In the midst of the conversations, according to Mr. Sanchez Parodi, a blind man came to the table trying to sell pencils, prompting Cuban suspicions that the CIA was trying to tape the meeting.

Concrete issues were addressed during these talks, which resulted in a softening of what Mr. Kissinger called the perpetual antagonism that marks U.S.-Cuban relations.

The United States supported the lifting of Organization of American States multilateral trade sanctions. And in August 1975, the Ford administration lifted one major aspect of the bilateral embargo -- U.S. sanctions on American subsidiary companies trading with Cuba through third countries.

These steps will be recognized as constructive ones by Mr. Castro, Mr. Kissinger informed President Ford in a secret memorandum, and will put the onus on him to make the next conciliatory gestures.

For its part, Cuba released a number of political prisoners, returned $2 million in ransom money from an airplane hijacking and agreed to the first opening (expanded during the Carter administration) to travel by Cuban-Americans to visit relatives.

Cuba is ready for family visits to the island, a Cuban emissary told Mr. Rogers during a secret meeting at National Airport in January 1976. A month later, Mr. Eagleburger held a final negotiating session during which the Cubans agreed to let 60 individuals return to the island to visit aged or ill parents and grandparents. This is our stand, stated a Cuban government position paper presented to Mr. Eagleburger. It constitutes a gesture which indicates that, on the part of Cuba, there is not an attitude of permanent hostility toward the United States.

Cuba's Angola venture

In the end, however, Mr. Kissinger's grand design of normalizing relations with Cuba did not succeed.

In the midst of the 1976 presidential campaign -- Ronald Reagan was challenging Mr. Ford for the Republican nomination and attacking him for being soft on Cuba -- Mr. Castro had deployed about 30,000 Soviet-armed troops to Angola's post-independence civil war.

U.S. officials took Cuba's intervention in Africa as a signal of a lack of interest in normalizing relations with the United States. There was absolutely no possibility that we would tolerate the Cubans becoming a strategic base in the Cold War and still improve relations, Mr. Kissinger told us.

But according to Mr. Sanchez Parodi, the main reason that the United States abandoned these talks, was the fear that if they were revealed during the election campaign, Mr. Ford would have been severely damaged. When Mr. Ford lost the 1976 election, Cuba entered into secret talks with the incoming Carter administration.

The world has changed dramatically since this diplomatic episode took place. The Cold War is over; Cuba's patron, the Soviet Union, has collapsed. And Cuba has been left in a state of political isolation and economic desolation.

Only the U.S. policy of political pressure and economic estrangement remains the same.

Indeed, with Mr. Clinton's recent decision to cut family visits to and from the island and the passage of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which reinstated sanctions on third-country trade, the gains made during Mr. Kissinger's effort to achieve a modus vivendi with Cuba have been wiped away.

Promotes civil war

Yet the underlying premise of Mr. Kissinger's detente initiative -- that the United States has a national interest in ending a policy of diplomatic hostility toward Cuba -- remains all the more valid today.

An outbreak of civil strife in Cuba, which Mr. Clinton's current policy seems designed to promote, could well take Washington down the same path as the near invasion of Haiti.

A Cuban cataclysm is clearly not in the U.S. interest. However, a diplomatic dialogue -- without preconditions, but with the objective of advancing U.S. interests in a peaceful and democratic evolution of power -- offers an alternative to the punitive policy of estrangement and all its possible negative repercussions.

Mr. Clinton would do well to heed Henry Kissinger's advice to deal straight with Castro, and conduct U.S. foreign policy like a big guy, not like a shyster.

Peter Kornbluh and James G. Blight are co-authors of "Dialogue with Castro: A Hidden History," an article in the Oct. 6 issue of the New York Review of Books from which this was adapted for The Baltimore Sun.

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