H-Diplo Roundtable XVI, 32 on Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana

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H-Diplo Roundtable Review
Volume XVI, No. 32 (2015)
3 August 2015

Roundtable Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Roundtable and Web Production Editor:  George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Dustin Walcher
Introduction by Dustin Walcher


William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh.  Back Channel to Cuba:  The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.  Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 2014.  ISBN:  978-1-4696-1763-3 (cloth, $35.00).


URL:  http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XVI-32


© 2015 The Authors.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

For more than fifty-five years the hostile relationship between the United States and Cuba has constituted a central feature of the inter-American political environment.  In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s ascent to power, the United States largely succeeded in isolating the island nation from most of the non-communist world. Among countries in the Western Hemisphere only Mexico consistently maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba throughout the latter’s revolutionary period.  However, after more than a half century of bilateral antagonism, and approximately a quarter century after the end of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the ongoing chill between these two neighboring countries has come to appear increasingly anachronistic to an increasing number of people.  Whereas in the early 1960s the United States successfully isolated Cuba from its Latin American neighbors, over the course of the past generation it has been Washington’s continuation of its hard anti-Castro position that has fallen out of line with both regional and global sentiments.  Most of the world managed to bury the proverbial hatchet with Castro, including states throughout Europe and Latin America, but the United States clung to its rigid approach.  At the same time, the lasting antagonism of the world’s most powerful country largely served to convince people around the region that the United States was out of touch.  Like many of the cars that still navigate Havana’s streets – themselves in part legacies of the ongoing U.S. embargo – U.S. policy appears to be trapped in another time.


This story of U.S.-Cuban enmity has been well chronicled.  The story of efforts by some prominent individuals in both countries – aided at times by third parties – has not.  It is from that angle that William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh approach the troubled bilateral relationship.  They examine the history of the series of failed efforts to bring about a rapprochement between the two countries.  As both James Hershberg and Asa McKercher observe, LeoGrande and Kornbluh’s timing was exquisite; only months after the publication of Back Channel to Cuba, the Barack Obama and Raúl Castro administrations achieved the very diplomatic breakthrough that had so long eluded the two countries.


LeoGrande and Kornbluh thoroughly chronicle the efforts of successive U.S. governments to normalize relations with revolutionary Cuba.  While mutual antagonism in the bilateral relationship was certainly very real, efforts to come to an accommodation on bilateral issues existed just below the surface from the very beginning.  Both Fidel Castro and most U.S. administrations recognized that they had something to gain through normalizing relations (the George W. Bush government was an outlier in its consistently uncompromising position).  The difficulty came in making that normalization a reality. 


Given both Washington and Havana’s interest in normalization, LeoGrande and Kornbluh ask why they failed to come to an accommodation.  Cuban priorities remained remarkably consistent over the decades.  The Castro government demanded to be treated as an equal, sovereign state by the United States.  That meant, first and foremost, an end to the embargo.  Indeed, the existence of the embargo was from Cuba’s standpoint the most important outstanding issue separating the two countries.  Additionally, Castro bristled at any attempt by Washington to dictate the structure of the Cuban political and economic system, or the direction of the country’s foreign policy.  When the United States called for elections, or insisted that Cuba break ties with the Soviet Union, or cease its support for the MPLA in Angola, Cuban officials replied that those demands infringed on Cuban sovereignty.  For Cuba, support for what the Castro government considered anti-imperial movements in Africa and Latin America was not a bargaining chip; it was a deeply held component of a revolutionary creed. 


The stumbling blocks to détente from Washington’s perspective shifted over time.  Initially the United States was most concerned about Cuban ties with the Soviet Union.  But when breakthroughs appeared close during the 1970s, Cuba’s continuing support for national liberation groups in Africa and Latin America derailed the process.  After the implosion of the Soviet Union, when the Clinton administration was close to achieving an opening, Cuba shot down an airplane belonging to an anti-Castro group from South Florida.  Largely for the same domestic political reasons that Clinton had initially been cautious about pursuing an opening with Cuba, he felt compelled to sign the highly restrictive Helms-Burton Act into law in 1996.  That law restricted the freedom of action of the executive branch by codifying the embargo into federal law.


A number of important sub-themes permeate the narrative.  The significant political influence exerted by the Cuban exile community in the United States emerges as one.  Clinton, to take one notable example, was determined to carry Florida in the 1992 and 1996 elections and therefore chose not to make promises or take steps that could cost votes with the state’s hardliners.  To the contrary, he courted the militant anti-Castro organizer Jorge Mas Canosa.  In doing so, Clinton sought to neutralize the GOP’s historical advantage with south Florida’s anti-Castro exile community. 


Back Channel to Cuba also details the expansive and diverse array of non-official emissaries and international officials who worked at various times to bring Washington and Havana together.  They ranged from journalists, such as Lisa Howard, to presidents, such as Mexico’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari, to authors, such as Gabriel García Márquez.  At certain times, Washington officials welcomed the non-official contacts such emissaries provided.  At others, policymakers sought to close down those alternative means of communication in an effort to maintain control over the U.S. message.  In all cases, LeoGrande and Kornbluh illustrate the wide variety of avenues through which states conduct diplomacy. 


Although Back Channel to Cuba is clearly an international history, based upon available international sources, LeoGrande and Kornbluh organize their chapters by U.S. presidential administrations.  In light of Fidel Castro’s persistence in power, the choice makes sense.  Changes in U.S. presidencies provide useful chronological breaks, and the change in administrations brings on new casts of characters on the U.S. side.  Yet it must be understood that the prospects for improved relations waxed and waned throughout the course of U.S. presidencies.  In that sense, important points of transition in the bilateral relationship were as likely to appear in the middle of presidential administrations, and therefore the book’s chapters, as they were when new presidents took office. 


The two participants in this roundtable laud Back Channel to Cuba.  McKercher writes that LeoGrande and Kornbluh “have produced a remarkable diplomatic history of Cuba-U.S. relations, a study all the more notable given the fact that formal diplomatic relations were abrogated in January 1961.”  Hershberg calls Back Channel “by far the most important book yet written on the labyrinthine post-revolution U.S.-Cuban dialogue.”  He concludes that it “stands as the authoritative book on its subject for the foreseeable future – at least until the appearance of the paperback edition with a new final chapter.” 


While quite impressed by the book, the reviewers offer some critiques.  Hershberg, a wizard of multiarchival research, offers that there are opportunities for future scholars to add to the narrative once a more diverse collection of records becomes available.  To be sure, Hershberg recognizes the breadth of sources LeoGrande and Kornbluh utilize.  But he points out that the lack of access to official Cuban records (which, of course, the authors could not help) means that this impressive narrative remains limited.  He further suggests that Soviet and even Eastern European archives could “help circumvent the archival ‘Sugar Cane Curtain’.”


Finally, McKercher would like to have seen LeoGrande and Kornbluh “[engage] more with extant studies of the more hostile aspects of U.S. policy.”  Read in isolation from the broader historiography, Back Channel to Cuba could cause a reader to underestimate the degree of active hostility in the U.S.-Cuban relationship.  Of course, given the overwhelming emphasis in the literature on the highly antagonistic nature of the bilateral relationship, the book produces exactly what it promises: an analysis of the numerous failed efforts to bridge those differences.  Back Channel to Cuba then is best read in the context of the larger literature on U.S.-Cuban relations.  It does not claim to constitute the definitive synthesis on the troubled relationship.  On a similar note, McKercher observes that many previous scholars have adopted more cynical views of the motives behind U.S. attempts to engage with Cuba.  He would like to have seen LeoGrande and Kornbluh engage with that literature directly. 


Ultimately Back Channel to Cuba provides a clear window into decades-long negotiations between two adversarial governments that possessed, by any quantifiable measure, vast asymmetries of power.  It captures the perspective of a variety of international participants to the extent possible on the basis of the available archives and the willingness of the long drama’s surviving participants to speak with the authors.  Especially in light of the recent diplomatic breakthrough, the story of years of failed efforts at diplomatic reconciliation is not only timely but also significant. 




Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, a research center specializing in declassified records located at George Washington University.  He received his MA from GWU.  He is also The Nation magazine’s lead correspondent on Cuba, and has published in a wide range of other magazines and journals, among them Cigar Aficionado and Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy Com. Along with William M. LeoGrande, he is the author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2014.) His previous books include Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba (The New Press, 1998) and The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (The New Press, 2003, 2013). He has also served as a historical consultant on numerous documentary films and Hollywood movies, most recently the bio-pic of Che Guevara, directed by Stephen Soderberg and starring Benicio del Toro.


William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government and Dean Emeritus of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. He has written widely on Latin America and U.S.-Latin American relations. He is the author of Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), and co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). He is also co-editor of A Contemporary Cuba Reader: The Revolution under Raúl Castro, among other books. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, LeMonde Diplomatique and other journals and newspapers.


Dustin Walcher is Associate Professor and Chair of History and Political Science at Southern Oregon University.  A specialist in international history, the history of U.S. foreign relations, and inter-American affairs, his scholarship analyzes international economic policy, global capitalism, and social disruption.  He is currently revising a manuscript that examines the link between the failure of U.S.-led economic initiatives and the rise of social revolution in Argentina during the 1950s and 1960s. 


James G. Hershberg is Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University; past director of the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project; and author of Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam (Washington, DC/Stanford, CA: Wilson Center Press/Stanford University Press, 2012) and James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1993).  Author of various articles on the Cuban Missile Crisis, he is currently working on a book on Brazil, Cuba, and the Cold War in Latin America.


Asa McKercher is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History, Queen’s University and completed his Ph.D. in History at the University of Cambridge. His book Camelot and Canada: Canadian-American Relations in the Kennedy Era is forthcoming from University of Toronto Press and his latest writings have appeared in journals such as Diplomatic History, International History Review, and Canadian Historical Review. An assistant editor of the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, his next project explores the political, cultural, and ideological underpinnings of US foreign policy toward Cuba.



On December 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and Cuban President of the Council of State Raúl Castro announced the breakthrough of an agreement to normalize US-Cuban relations, most media attention in the United States revolved around the release of Alan Gross, the Maryland contractor held by Havana since 2009 for distributing communications gear to Cuba’s Jewish community.  On the cable news channels I spent much of the day flipping among, the preponderance of talking head punditry and live coverage was devoted to that poignant (and photogenic) human interest story, with relatively little time spent explaining how the two countries had finally, abruptly transcended five-and-a-half decades of estrangement between them since shortly after Fidel Castro’s revolution took power in 1959.


It just so happened, however, that anyone (like me) grousing about the lack of historical perspective was in luck, for with sublime timing—prompting instant jokes about how impressive the University of North Carolina Press Public Relations department must be to have arranged such a conjunction—by far the most important work yet written on the labyrinthine post-revolution U.S.-Cuban dialogue had just appeared. Back Channel to Cuba, by William M. LeoGrande (American University) and Peter Kornbluh (National Security Archive), stretches from the last, strained normal diplomatic contacts between the two countries before they ruptured in January 1961, to assorted third-party mediation attempts and the occasional face-to-faced chat between adversaries (Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin and Che Guevara, Bay-of-Pigs prisoner negotiator James Donovan and Fidel Castro) to, picking up in the mid-1970s, formal direct government-to-government negotiations, past the end of the Cold War and 9/11, to the quasi-post-Fidel period and delicate maneuvering between Obama and Raúl Castro over Gross, whom Kornbluh met in Havana in 2012 and 2013.


Prior surveys of U.S.-Cuban relations[1] have described, or at least mentioned, many of these episodes, but none have investigated or recounted them so carefully or in such depth, or subjected them to such searching analysis to discern how and why they all ultimately went awry. 


The authors’ basic sympathies in this story are not hard to discern.  They believe U.S.-Cuban relations should have normalized long ago, and that responsibility for the unnecessary prolongation of the diplomatic deadlock rests largely, but not exclusively, with the United States—both its domestic politics (i.e., the excessive influence of hardline Cuban exiles typified by Jorge Mas Canosa, the long-time head of the Cuban-American National Foundation, and their periodic hand-grenade tossing, both literal and figurative[2]) and Washington’s foreign policy missteps and misjudgments, from Cold War obsession during the Eisenhower-John F. Kennedy years with ousting (and perhaps assassinating) the uppity barbudos, to wistful Reagan-era dreams of ‘going to the source’ to squelch alleged Cuban-inspired leftist revolts in Central America, to residual, reflexive scorn even after the Cold War and USSR vanished, particularly during George W. Bush’s presidency.  Even when U.S. presidents seemed more pragmatic, or at least less fixated on Fidel—from Lyndon Johnson to Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton—various factors, including bureaucratic bungling or internecine warfare, distraction, contingent events (from flare-ups in Africa to provocations by U.S.-based militant exiles), and/or undue deference to the perceived sensitivities of South Florida Cuban-Americans, conspired to block a rational deal that might have preserved both governments’ basic interests, enhanced mutual cooperation where possible and desirable (hijacking, disaster relief, policing narcotics smuggling, a rational emigration system, etc.), and helped contain inevitable disputes and incidents before they escalated into full-blown crises.


Yet, Back Channel to Cuba is no Op-Ed polemic, but a serious, fascinating reconstruction and exploration of a murky historical record, which the authors lucidly disentangle from a scattered source base and sometimes contentiously disparate perspectives.  Rather than lecture, they let the facts tell the story so readers can make their own judgments, and do not spare Cuba from criticism when Havana, not just Washington, contributed to the two sides’ mutual acrimony, incomprehension, and/or missing of yet another opportunity to improve relations; blame often gets shared.  For example, besides documenting Washington’s utter lack of interest in the efforts of various countries (e.g., Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Argentina) to mediate the mounting dispute with Havana in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs, they also note Castro’s provocations and retrospective musing decades later that he, too, bore ‘some responsibility’ for the ‘divorce’—observing that even adversaries “find it useful to maintain bridges between them,” he admitted that “perhaps I burned some of those bridges precipitously; there were times when I may have been more abrupt, more aggressive, than was called for by the situation. We were all younger then; we made the mistakes of youth.”[3]


Similarly, Back Channel to Cuba fairly assesses Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s détente-era attempt to normalize U.S.-Cuban ties during the Ford Administration (an episode Kornbluh and James Blight first brought to light two decades ago[4]); at times, the book shows, Castro failed to reciprocate Kissinger’s genuine attempts to move forward, and gratuitously inflamed relations at a delicate juncture (not only rebuffing U.S. pleas that he abandon his support for Puerto Rican nationalism, which was understandable, but sponsoring an “international conference of solidarity” to support its independence).[5]  In the end, the overture fizzled, doomed, among other factors, by strains over Cuba’s intervention in Angola and a right-wing challenge to Ford from Reagan for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination that made Cuba a “political hot potato” (p. 148).


Testifying to the unorthodox diplomacy that substituted for official channels (or complemented them when they grew stale), and the intrigue that both Castro and at least some of the North Americans seemed to enjoy, the authors recount how a diverse array of unofficial, non-diplomatic emissaries served as conduits between Havana and Washington—from journalists like Lisa Howard and Jean Daniel, to Democratic Party operative Frank Mankiewicz, to banker David Rockefeller’s daughter, to novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to politicians like George McGovern, Bill Richardson and  ex-president Jimmy Carter, to documentary-makers Saul Landau and Scott Armstrong; and others.


But they pay particularly close attention to various direct (and well-documented) negotiations between the two governments, several of which seemed to have a reasonable shot at bearing fruit.  While (thanks in large measure to Kornbluh[6]) some of these stories are fairly well-known to specialists, particularly the tantalizing back-and-forth in President John F. Kennedy’s final months and days, the book adds telling detail to the tangled tales of Henry Kissinger’s and Jimmy Carter’s efforts to normalize relations in the 1970s—both ultimately aborted, but the latter successful in at least opening diplomatic ‘interest sections’ in Havana and Washington—and to the intriguing dialogue during President Bill Clinton’s tenure.  As Back Channel shows, Clinton’s limited but real interest in exploring a rapprochement was derailed by exile and Congressional pressure that (in the 1996 Helms-Burton act) sharply constrained presidential authority.Even that, however, did not preclude incremental progress on some fronts, including beisbol diplomacy and quieter cooperation on military, counter-narcotics, and counter-terrorism issues, even before the explosion over Elián González in 2000 when Washington ultimately sided with Havana and returned the boy to his father in Cuba. Mexico’s president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, promoted contacts, including Garcia Marquez, who conveyed his message to the U.S. President at a Martha’s Vinyard summer party. However, wary of alienating Cuban-American politicos (especially Mas Canosa, who died in 1997), Clinton moved cautiously—and may have missed his best chance to normalize relations in the last month of his presidency, after the 2000 presidential election had been decided; it would have been a fitting riposte to the anti-Castro Florida Republican establishment (led by Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris) which had tilted the state’s recount process against Al Gore and in favor of George W. Bush.[7]


Even without covering the final breakthrough, Back Channel to Cuba’s treatment of U.S.-Cuban interactions since 2008—when Raúl Castro replaced his ailing brother as president, and Barack Obama was elected president, having made clear his belief that the rigid U.S. policy of refusing to normalize relations had proved counterproductive—is remarkably prophetic.  Reading their account, one can see that the groundwork was being steadily laid to finally hurdle the normalization barrier once the obstacle of the Alan Gross case, and doubtless other political complications on both sides, could be surmounted.


LeoGrande and Kornbluh are both veteran Latin America specialists who for decades have been monitoring Washington’s dealings with Havana and other hemispheric hotspots (notably Chile and Central America), and pushing for greater historical openness from the U.S., Cuban, and other governments. Much of this material has emerged via the National Security Archive, the non-governmental research institute and declassified documents repository in Washington, DC where Kornbluh has been an analyst since it was founded in the mid-1980s and its probes helped illuminate the Iran-Contra affair.[8]  For this book, they have sifted the declassified U.S. record—which they have expanded over the years through numerous Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) and Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) requests—and complemented it with numerous interviews of American and Cuban participants in the events.


Like so many others, however, they have had less success penetrating Cuban archives.  According to recent reports, traditional stringent restrictions on these archives may be receding (at least at the foreign ministry), but for many years they have cracked open only for a few favored scholars—most prominently Piero Gleijeses, who made such extensive use of them in his two volumes on Cuba and the Cold War in Southern Africa.[9]  Judging from their endnotes, the only Cuban archive LeoGrande and Kornbluh were able to draw upon contained the “discursos e intervenciones del Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz” (485). While Castro’s speech file supplies some useful nuggets—he was, after all, perhaps the twentieth-century’s greatest blabbermouth (though during the early Cold War India’s Krishna Menon gave him a run for his money)—this hardly substitutes for substantial Cuban records to document internal decision-making and meetings between high-level Cuban and foreign officials.  (The authors make considerable use of U.S. records of contacts with Castro and Co., but Cuban accounts of the same conversations might well differ—especially considering the sensitivities involved in even secret American documents that are internally circulated, as well as the ancient dictum that no official ever comes out second best in his/her own memcon.)  One noteworthy exception: LeoGrande and Kornbluh are among the first scholars to exploit the stash of Cuban documents which Gleijeses obtained in Havana for Visions of Freedom and generously made available via the website of the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), and they enrich their account of ultimately successful U.S.-Cuba exchanges in the late 1980s to reach an Angola accord.


Of course, one unavoidable problem with analyzing Cuban decision-making is that ultimate choices often boiled down to the calculations, emotions, and impulses of one omnipotent figure, and for all the verbiage he has produced, in both public and secret realms, only Fidel Castro (renowned for his ability to tailor his remarks to particular audiences) really knew what he had in mind at any given moment.  Still, the more access we get to the records of his comments to close comrades, whether Cuban or foreign, as opposed to public speeches, interviews with journalists, and meetings with Americans or other ‘capitalists’ or ‘imperialists,’ the closer we may get to grasping his motives, understandings, and actions.


To help circumvent the archival ‘Sugar Cane Curtain,’ scholars can build upon Back Channel to Cuba by spelunking in the archives of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies, since a fuller understanding of the Moscow-Havana dialogue from the revolution until the Soviet collapse could yield important pertinent insights and information regarding concurrent Washington-Havana relations.  In late 1960 and early 1961, for instance, amid mounting signs that the United States might act to topple Castro, diplomats in Havana noted signs that the Soviets were counseling caution and moderation to Fidel, and urging him to seek a reconciliation with Washington that would allow normal commerce to resume (thereby lessening the Kremlin’s own economic burden in supporting the island) and avoid unduly interfering with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s own agenda for relations with the United States and its new President (which naturally took higher priority than Cuban revolutionary nationalism).  A comparable dynamic may also have arisen during the Brezhnev-Nixon/Ford détente period of the 1970s and the Gorbachev ascendance in the late 1980s.


To what extent, and when, did the Soviets press Castro to make nice with Washington, or even attempt mediation?  (Using materials from his foundation, the authors document one such effort by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, which President George H.W. Bush brushed aside at Malta.[10]  But Russian archives have not yet disgorged records of Castro’s meetings with other Soviet leaders, including Nikita Khrushchev, Alexi Kosygin, and Leonid Brezhnev.)  How did Havana respond?  Did the Soviet-Cuban dialogue influence the parallel, evolving U.S.-Cuban dynamic?  For instance, how seriously did Castro, seeking a reinforced deterrent to Washington, seek to join the Warsaw Pact (in early 1981, during the Polish Crisis, he told East German Communist leader Erich Honecker that Cuba needed “special solidarity, as Reagan threatens us quite openly”[11]), and did his failure to gain Soviet acceptance of the idea influence his stand towards Washington? That Soviet-bloc archives can enhance our view not only of Havana-Moscow relations but also of the ‘hidden dialogue’ with Washington is shown by Back Channel to Cuba’s use of communist evidence published by CWIHP. Castro’s candid comment on the impact of the Brzezinski-Vance feud on U.S. Cuban policy during the Carter Administration (190) came from his May 1980 talk with Honecker, a transcript of which was found in the East-German archives. Probably the best example is the lengthy, revealing, and apparently verbatim record of the secret November 1981 encounter near Mexico City between Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Cuban Vice-Premier Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, which occurred, surprisingly, despite the Reagan administration’s acute hostility towards Castro.  The record emerged not from Cuban or U.S. archives but from Moscow: the Cubans gave it to the Soviet Ambassador in Havana, who cabled it, translated from Spanish into Russian, to the Foreign Ministry, where it rested in its archive until it was obtained by the “Carter-Brezhnev Project” organized by James G. Blight, and published by CWIHP in English re-translation.[12]


Mexico’s role in brokering the Haig-Rodriguez and Clinton-Garcia Marquez conversations underlines the importance of further diversifying the source base by investigating the archives of third countries which, at various points, had both the opportunity (i.e., decent contacts with both Washington and Havana, and embassies in both) and the political/personal will to mediate between the United States and Cuba, or at least to discuss U.S.-Cuban relations with high-level Cubans.  LeoGrande and Kornbluh describe many of these episodes—from the efforts of Argentina’s energetic Ambassador in Havana, Julio Amoedo, to shuttle between Fidel and the last U.S. Ambassador, Philip Bonsal, in 1960; to various Brazilian bids (the subject of my own research[13]), which climaxed during the Cuban Missile Crisis; to little-known British and Spanish efforts during the Johnson Administration; to the Mexican and Gorbachev initiatives mentioned above—but there were many other nations involved in one way another in such message-sending and mediation efforts, whose archives merit further exploration.  Canada, which resolutely resisted U.S. pressure to cut diplomatic and economic links with Castro and has long been poised to pass messages between Washington and Havana (Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, for example, cultivated cordial relations with Fidel[14]), should receive fresh scrutiny given its hosting of the secret talks that led to the Obama-Castro accord; as should the Swiss (who represented Washington’s interests in Havana after it broke relations until the establishment of a U.S. interests section)[15]; the Romanians (on a quest to boost his international status, in the late-1960s/1970s communist party leader Nicolae Ceauşescu went on a mediation binge, trying to spur talks between Washington and Hanoi, Beijing, Pyongyang, the PLO, and probably others, as well as between the Soviets and Chinese during their border clashes)[16]; and the Dutch and British, who regularly passed Washington copies of telegrams from their Havana envoys, including reports of conversations with Fidel.  Of course, there are no guarantees: Tanya Harmer rifled the Santiago archives for her study of Chilean-Cuban relations, but failed to discover detailed records of the many hours of private conversations between Chilean leader Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro—probably because they did not exist, since, as old Spanish-speaking comrades, they needed neither note-takers nor translators.[17] And while various popes, probably beginning with John Paul II, who visited Havana in 1998, have tried to spur the U.S.-Cuban dialogue, and both Obama and Raúl Castro thanked Pope Francis for his aid, scholars need not hold their breath for the Vatican archives to open.


In sum, additional evidence seems likely to flesh out the story, particularly on the Cuban side, and perhaps resolve a few lingering mysteries and create new ones, but not seriously to alter the basic history LeoGrande and Kornbluh relate. Despite a few trivial errors—e.g., a nocturnal dinner meeting between Fidel Castro and Latin American envoys, hosted by Amoedo, took place in May 1960, not April (34), and “illicit” should be “elicit” on 136—and likely criticism from some anti-Castro activists who doubt that particular U.S.-Cuban exchanges they describe were useful or might have led to better results, Back Channel to Cuba stands as the authoritative book on its subject for the foreseeable future—at least until the appearance of the paperback edition with a new final chapter.[18]


If timing is everything, then William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh should be commended heartily for publishing a book on U.S.-Cuba backchannel diplomacy just months before President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, President of the Council of State and Cuban Communist Party, announced that their governments had been in talks with the aim of normalizing diplomatic relations. Of course LeoGrande and Kornbluh should be commended anyway, because they have produced a remarkable diplomatic history of Cuba-U.S. relations, a study all the more notable given the fact that formal diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington were abrogated in January 1961. As the authors show, alongside subsequent decades of hostility were efforts, often furtive, towards reconciliation or at least normalization. Back Channel to Cuba is, then, a history of the other side of this hostile relationship, and, like the recent spate of books on Cuba-U.S. relations put out by the University of North Carolina Press, a very good one at that.[19]


To begin with, the book has been a long time coming. The authors have been exploring the topic in various forums, Cigar Aficionado included, for a decade and a half.[20] They have also done yeoman’s service in archives, employing Freedom of Information Act requests, and depositing materials with the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Moreover, they draw on personal interviews with dozens of participants in policymaking circles, including former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and former President Jimmy Carter. The result of Kornbluh and LeoGrande’s thorough commitment is a comprehensive study of U.S.-Cuba backchannel diplomacy that will undoubtedly stand as the preeminent work on this topic until the opening of Cuban archives.


Clearly written, the book ranges across five decades, with each chapter focused on U.S.-Cuba relations during a specific presidency. Some of the ground they cover will be familiar, but much is new, the result of the authors’ profitable investigative efforts. For example, while former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s efforts to reach a détente with Cuba are well-known, Kornbluh and LeoGrande reveal that, with the Cuban incursion into Angola threatening wider détente, the ‘spectacled Machiavelli ‘ordered the Pentagon to draw up contingency plans to strike Cuba. The need to punish Havana and burnish U.S. prestige were evidently worth the risks of losing Guantánamo and sparking a crisis with Moscow. More shocking is that President Gerald Ford agreed on the need for such an attack, though he opted to await the 1976 presidential election, which, blessedly, he lost. What is surprising here, too, is the extent to which even the Reagan White House pursued, not normalization, but efforts to deal with issues – Central America, migration, Angola, and Namibia – that required bilateral cooperation. That backchannel talks continued throughout the 1980s is surprising because the usual view of Reagan-era dealings with Havana is of the hawks in that administration wanting to turn Cuba ‘into a parking lot’ and ‘go to the source’ of leftist insurgencies in Central America.


For some, the level of detail in certain areas – perhaps the discussion of the Johnson administration’s National Policy Paper (113-17) – could come off as a tad too policy-wonkish, but the authors’ thoroughness is welcome. If there is a deficiency in this regard, however, it is that while showcasing the ample fruits of their research and setting their sights mainly on the stalled efforts at repairing relations, they might also have engaged more with extant studies of the more hostile aspects of U.S. policy. I had hoped to see, say, a bit more tussling with Stephen Rabe – whose work goes unmentioned – and Thomas Paterson, both of whom take a more jaundiced view of Kennedy’s outreach activities than do the authors. Similarly Alan McPherson draws different conclusions about Castro’s 1959 North American jaunt and the possibilities of an early modus vivendi.[21] Moreover, the authors might have made more use of work by Lou Pérez in order to show the deep-seated reasons why a rapprochement has been such a long-time coming.[22] Still, this is a first-rate book, and one might profitably read Back Channel to Cuba alongside Lars Schultz’s recent opus, as together these two works provide a comprehensive account of both sides of U.S. dealings with Cuba.


What emerges from the book, and from five decades of diplomatic rigmarole, is that several issues have, again and again, prevented the breakthrough that now seems within sight. On the Cuban side was Cuba’s refusal to curtail solidarity for leftist movements, and its insistence – as a precursor for talks – on an end to the embargo, a key lever for Washington. A problem, too, was that for Castro the United States served as a useful foil, with hostility from the norteamericanos proving to be a unifying force at home. On the U.S. side, factors in play included domestic politics, bureaucratic bun fights between doves and hawks, bungled overtures, and the lack of understanding of Cuban nationalism. These factors continue to loom over U.S.-Cuba relations. Yet the authors make clear that despite mutual antipathy and varying degrees of hostility in Washington, over fifty years both Cuban and U.S. officials pursued backchannel diplomacy, thereby taking to heart Churchill’s maxim that ‘Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war’. The point is one that Churchillian hawks in Washington – notably a certain Canadian-born Senator from Texas – might find profitable to keep in mind.



“The Cuban Revolution and the United States: Could Reconciliation Have Come Sooner?”

We very much appreciate the complimentary comments by our colleagues and are pleased to have this opportunity to further explore some of the issues they raise.


Asa McKercher suggests that our assessments of Fidel Castro's April 1959 trip to the United States and of President John F. Kennedy's diplomatic outreach to Cuba in 1963 are at odds with the views of other scholars like Alan McPherson, Stephen G. Rabe, and Thomas G. Paterson, who perceived less opportunity for reconciliation in these incidents than we do.


We do not have any major disagreement with McPherson's outstanding account of Castro's 1959 trip to the United States; rather, the difference is one of emphasis.[23] He underscores the lack of fit between Castro's goals for the trip and U.S. expectations, and the clash of political cultures between a nationalist revolution and the U.S. imperium. We touch on these themes as well, but nevertheless see the trip as a missed opportunity to begin closing the gap between the revolution's nationalist pride and Washington's disdain for Castro’s radicalism. Whereas McPherson regards the likelihood of such a reconciliation as negligible, we argue that at this early juncture, with Castro engaging in dialogues with Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, and even a CIA officer who believed Castro to be “a strong anti-Communist fighter,” the breach was not inevitable— as Castro himself reflected some years later (41).


This disagreement about the counter-factual should not detract from our common assessment of how the trip unfolded: Castro's desire to avoid being seen as a supplicant, U.S. officials' annoyance at his flouting of normal protocol, and the unprecedented public acclaim Castro received from the general public. Moreover, we all agree that the trip was an authentic attempt by Castro to appeal to U.S. opinion and explain the revolution to the U.S. audience, not an exercise in deception as some would have it.


While Paterson emphasizes Kennedy's "fixation" on Castro and his concerted efforts to overthrow the revolutionary government, he also notes that after the Missile Crisis, "The President showed some interest in accommodation at the same time that he reinvigorated anti-Cuban programs," and, "At the time of his death, Kennedy's Cuba policy was moving in opposite directions—probing for talks but sustaining multi-track pressures."[24] On this, we disagree not at all; we set the diplomacy of the late Kennedy administration in the context of the policy of hostility, noting that his administration was the most tenaciously aggressive in its attacks on Cuba (42-44). Paterson, echoing McPherson, doubts that the embryonic diplomatic feelers in 1963 would have matured into reconciliation because the gap between the two sides was too great. He notes, rightly, that Washington's conditions—that Cuba end its support for revolution in Latin America and sever its military ties with the Soviet Union—were in all likelihood unacceptable to Cuba, and he concludes, "It does not seem likely that either Kennedy, had he lived, or Castro could have overcome the roadblocks that they and their national interests had erected" (154).


Here, again, we are in the realm of speculating about the counter-factual, but throughout our book, we note how U.S. demands that Cuba surrender key elements of its foreign policy or abandon its socialist system were unrealistic and stymied diplomatic progress more than once. These demands might well have scuttled the1963 initiative had Kennedy's tentative diplomatic opening been pursued, but we will never know for sure.


Rabe's article focuses on refuting the argument by "keeper(s) of the Kennedy flame" that after the Missile Crisis, the President was a more mature statesman interested in de-escalating the Cold War, and that his 1963 opening to Cuba reflected this transformed persona. Rabe effectively marshals the evidence that the policy of hostility and aggression against Cuba never ceased. But we believe his argument goes too far when he concludes from this that the outreach of 1963 did not constitute "a meaningful diplomatic effort" and that "Kennedy did not pursue a dual-track policy toward Cuba during the last thirteen months of his administration."[25] Rabe makes this claim (despite considerable debate within the administration about the merits of reaching out to Castro, which we document) on the grounds that the U.S. demands were so stringent that Cuba would never have agreed to them. In this, he echoes Paterson, albeit with more conviction. 


Rabe and Paterson are correct that Kennedy’s national security aides proposed difficult pre-conditions for talks, but the President’s own position appears to have been less rigid. Neither Rabe nor Paterson cite the March 4, 1963 memorandum quoted in our book, which elucidates Kennedy's initial opinion on conditionality: “The President does not agree that we should make the breaking of Sino-Soviet ties a non-negotiable point. We don’t want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines”  (64).


After Castro proposed a secret meeting with William Attwood to begin negotiations,  according to a November 5, 1963, Oval Office tape, Kennedy himself came up with the idea of taking Attwood off the State Department payroll to provide “plausible denial” in case the meeting leaked. Although Rabe argues that Kennedy vetoed a secret meeting between Attwood and the Cubans, in fact on November 19th, the President passed the message to Attwood that once the Cubans sent an agenda for the talks, Kennedy would meet him at the White House “and decide what to say and whether to go [to Cuba] or what we should do next” (76). 


In the final days of his life Kennedy took the initiative to send a direct message of potential reconciliation to Castro with French journalist Jean Daniel. Castro’s response to the tenor of this message—voiced just before news arrived that the President had been assassinated in Dallas—was that Kennedy might become “the greatest president of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas” (78). At the time, Castro clearly considered Kennedy’s message to be “a meaningful diplomatic effort,” even if Rabe, in retrospect, does not.      


As James Hershberg notes, we tried very hard over many years to convince the Cuban government to open its archives so that we could present fully and fairly the Cuban perspective on the diplomatic minuet with Washington.  In the end, we were able to  piece together the Cuban point of view through a combination of public statements, a smattering of documents from Cuba's eastern bloc allies, a few key Cuban documents generously shared with us by Professor Piero Gleijeses of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and substantive interviews with almost all of the surviving Cuban diplomats who participated in talks with the United States from the 1960s onward.


As our project was coming to fruition, Castro did open some of his archives to two Cuban scholars, Elier Ramírez and Esteban Morales, whose recent book, De la confrontación a los intentos de 'normalización',[26]  covers the Kennedy, Ford, and Carter administrations.  Last October, we had the honor of presenting Back Channel to Cuba, along with the presentation of their book, at a panel sponsored by Cuba's National Union of Writers and Artists, and on May 27, both books were presented together at the Latin American Studies Association conference in Puerto Rico. We were pleased (and relieved) to find that their account based on Cuban sources closely parallels our own.


Finally, Hershberg generously suggests that our book will stand the test of time— "at least until the appearance of the paperback."  In fact, the new paperback edition, due out in the fall, includes a comprehensive investigative account of the Obama administration’s secret negotiations that led to the dramatic, historic breakthrough in relations on December 17, 2014—a fitting conclusion to a half-century of back-channel diplomacy.




[1] See, e.g., Lars Shoultz, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2009).

[2] On Cuban-American influence, see esp. Ann Louise Bardach, Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana (New York: Random House, 2002).

[3] Back Channel to Cuba, p. 41, citing Wayne S. Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic History of the Castro Years (New York: Norton & Co., 1988), 44-45.

[4] Peter Kornbluh and James Blight, “Dialogue with Castro: A Hidden History,” The New York Review of Books, 6 October 1994, 45-49.

[5] Back Channel to Cuba, pp. 126 ff., esp. 143-144.

[6] See, in addition to the New York Review of Books article co-authored with Jim Blight cited above, Kornbluh’s articles in Cigar Aficionado (esp. “JFK and Castro” in the Sept./Oct. 1999 issue, and “Talking with Castro” in Jan./Feb. 2009) and his many postings of important documents in “Electronic Briefing Books” on the National Security Archive website.

[7] In awaiting lame-duck status and the outcome of a presidential election before taking a controversial diplomatic action perceived as liable to alienate a key voting bloc, Clinton would have been following the lead of Ronald Reagan—who waited until December 1988 to recognize Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization as a negotiating partner.

[8] On which, see the new study by Kornbluh’s long-time National Security Archive colleague: Malcolm Byrne, Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2014).  Full disclosure: as an Archive friend dating back to Iran-Contra, I’m Kornbluh’s long-time colleague and occasional ping-pong partner.

[9] Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Piero Gleijeses, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[10] Back Channel to Cuba, 259-61.

[11] Record of Castro-Honecker conversation, 28 February 1981, in Andrzej Paczkowski and Malcolm Byrne, eds., From Solidarity to Martial Law: The Polish Crisis of 1980-1981—A Documentary History (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2008), 220.

[12] For various Soviet-bloc documents on US-Cuban relations, 1976-81, see CWIHP Bulletin 8/9 (Winter 1996/1997), 185-219, including the excerpt from the East German record of the 25 May 1980 Castro-Honecker meeting (194-207) and the Haig-Rodriguez memorandum of conversation (207-215), as well as the commentaries by Jorge I. Dominguez (“Cuba as Superpower: Havana and Moscow, 1979,” 216-217) and Peter Kornbluh (“A Moment of Rapprochement: The Haig-Rodriguez Secret Talks,” 217-219).

[13] See, e.g., James G. Hershberg, “The United States, Brazil, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962,” Journal of Cold War Studies 6:2 (Spring 2004), 3-20 (pt. 1) and 6:3 (Summer 2004), 5-67 (pt. 2).

[14] Robert Wright, Three Nights in Havana: Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro, and the Cold War World (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007).

[15] Back Channel to Cuba notes several instances in which the Swiss relayed messages from Castro, e.g., in the LBJ, Nixon, and George W. Bush administrations (97, 121, 366), but describe them using only U.S. sources. Swiss archives, now open, might reveal more of the story than Bern disclosed to Washington. See, e.g., Stephanie Popp, “Switzerland and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” CWIHP Bulletin 17/18 (Fall 2012), pp. 728-749.

[16] On Romanian mediation, see, e.g., Mircea Munteanu, “Communication Breakdown? Romania and the Sino-American Rapprochement,” Diplomatic History 33:4 (September 2009), 615-631; and Mircea Munteanu, “Over the Hills and Far Away: Romania’s Attempts to Mediate the Start of U.S.- North Vietnamese Negotiations, 1967-1968,” Journal of Cold War Studies 14:3 (Sumer 2012), 64-96.

[17] Tanya Harmer, Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[18] It will presumably replace the hardcover’s concluding chapter, which contained ten “lessons” intended to help US and Cuban negotiators succeed where past efforts have fallen short; based on early accounts of the December 2014 breakthrough, these seem remarkably prophetic, particularly the admonitions that ‘Timing is everything’ and ‘An incremental approach to normalization has not worked.’

[19] Piero Gleijeses, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2013); Lars Schoultz, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2009); and Louis A. Pérez, Jr., Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2008).

[20] Peter Kornbluh and William M. Leogrande, “Talking with Castro”, Cigar Aficionado (January/February 2009).

[21] Stephen G. Rabe, “After the Missiles of October: John F. Kennedy and Cuba, November 1962 to November 1963”, Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (2000): 714-26; Thomas G. Paterson, “Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Fidel Castro”, in Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963, ed. T.G. Paterson (Oxford, 1989); Alan McPherson, “The Limits of Populist Diplomacy: Fidel Castro’s April 1959 Trip to North America”, Diplomacy & Statecraft 18 (2007): 237-68.

[22] Louis A. Pérez, Jr., “Incurring a Debt of Gratitude: 1898 and the Moral Sources of United States Hegemony in Cuba”, American Historical Review 104 (1999): 356-98; Idem., “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba”, Journal of Latin American Studies 34 (2002): 227-54. And also: Lars Schultz, “Blessings of Liberty: The United States and the Promotion of Democracy in Cuba”, Journal of Latin American Studies 34 (2002): 397-425; and Idem., “Benevolent Domination: The Ideology of U.S. Policy toward Cuba”, Cuban Studies 41 (2010): 1-19

[23] Alan McPherson, “The Limits of Populist Diplomacy: Fidel Castro’s April 1959 Trip to North America,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 18 (2007): 237-68.

[24] Thomas G. Paterson, “Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Fidel Castro," in Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963, ed. T.G. Paterson (Oxford, 1989): 152, 154.

[25] Stephen G. Rabe, “After the Missiles of October: John F. Kennedy and Cuba, November 1962 to November 1963," Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (2000): 714-26.

[26] Elier Ramírez and Esteban Morales, De la confrontación a los intentos de 'normalización' (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2014)