Secret Talks And Back Channels Pervaded U.S. Relationship With Cuba

Oct 1, 2014
Originally published on October 1, 2014 8:34 am

For five decades, the official U.S. policy on Cuba was one of silence. But the real U.S. relationship with Havana involved secret negotiations that started with President Kennedy in 1963, even after his embargo against the island nation, say the authors of the new book Back Channel to Cuba. In fact, nearly every U.S. administration for the past 50 years has engaged in some sort of dialogue with the Cuban government, they say.

Co-authors Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive and William LeoGrande of American University outline these relationships based on recently declassified, or otherwise obtained, documents dating back to the Kennedy administration.

The documents reveal a series of secret meetings that took place in hotels, airport lounges and restaurants from New York to Paris to Guadalajara and involved intermediaries like the chairman of Coca-Cola, who served as President Jimmy Carter's representative, to Carter himself.

Kornbluh and LeoGrande sat down with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep ahead of the book's release to discuss their findings.


Interview Highlights

On why the talks were secret

Kornbluh: [Officials] were worried that either the Soviets would be spying on their telephone conversations or the U.S. NSA would be spying on their conversations, so they worked out a way to communicate with each other without anybody else knowing. ... This is a theme that runs through the entire history that we've recorded. Cuba issues are so sensitive that when high-level policymakers wanted to have a dialogue, they wanted to keep it secret from other parts of the bureaucracy that might object.

On Henry Kissinger's secret negotiations and contingency plan

Kornbluh: Henry Kissinger really was the secretary of state who secretly, I think, really pushed hard to create a window of opportunity for normalizing relations with Cuba. ... He told his emissaries that he was using the same kind of modus operandi to approach the Cubans that he had used with Chairman Lai in China. And, for a period of 18 months, there was a series of secret meetings, culminating in an actual negotiation session, a three-hour session in room 727 of the Pierre Hotel in New York.

Eventually, the political sensitivities about Cuba came back to haunt this effort. The Cubans had sent 36,000 troops into Angola, and for Kissinger that made things not only politically untenable, but for his strategic view of the world, he could not believe that this small country would disrupt the superpower kind of equilibrium as he was trying to play it. He was so angry; he actually ordered a set of contingency plans to attack Cuba if Cuba expanded its presence in Africa.

On the use of intermediaries and informal channels

LeoGrande: Peggy Dulany, David Rockefeller's daughter, carried a message from Fidel Castro to George Shultz during the Reagan administration, in which Fidel said he was willing to be constructive in trying to help settle the conflict in southern Africa. ... And we actually have a Cuban document in which Fidel is talking to the president of Angola and explaining why he used Peggy Dulany, as opposed to just going through normal diplomatic channels. And he says to the president of Angola, "You know, when you send a message through the [diplomats] it takes months before you hear anything back, and sometimes you never hear anything at all."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear a little play acting. We've been looking at a phrasebook used to send covert messages by phone. Whatever you say means something else. It was used for secret diplomacy between the United States and Cuba. It was uncovered by Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande. They read the dialogue here, which I translated into the actual meaning.

PETER KORNBLUH: How is your health?

INSKEEP: We want to meet.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: I have a slight headache, but otherwise I am well.

INSKEEP: Agreed.

KORNBLUH: I don't feel well.

INSKEEP: I will report on this and call you back.

LEOGRANDE: How is your sister?

INSKEEP: Where?

KORNBLUH: How is your wife?

INSKEEP: Washington at Eagleburger's home.

LEOGRANDE: How is your brother, Henry?

INSKEEP: Or we can meet at New York at LaGuardia.

Apparently there really were such conversations. Peter Kornbluh works for the National Security Archive, which collects declassified documents. Documents are the basis for the book he wrote with William LeoGrande, who is a specialist on Cuba. Their book is called "Back Channel To Cuba." It includes that phrasebook set up for Cuban phone calls with the United States in 1975 when Henry Kissinger was secretary of state.

KORNBLUH: They were worried that either the Soviets would be spying on their telephone conversations or the NSA would be spying on their conversations. And so they worked out a way to communicate with each other without anybody else knowing.

INSKEEP: Woah, woah, woah - why would they be worried? This is the United States government. Why would they be worried that the United States government might be spying on the United States government?

KORNBLUH: Well, this is a theme that runs of the entire history that we've recorded, that Cuba issues are so sensitive that when high-level policymakers wanted to have a dialogue with Cuba, they wanted to keep it secret from the other parts of the bureaucracy that might object.

INSKEEP: But there's another side to this. It is that despite the extreme political sensitivity, the two sides have in fact talked almost from the moment the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1961. Sometimes emissaries have arranged the release of prisoners. Sometimes they have traded information. Other times they've grown angry. The authors find that Henry Kissinger was upset that Cuba sent troops to join a civil war in Angola. Kissinger declared it was time to, quote, "clobber" Cuba.

I'm sure that lots of people in private meetings say things like, we've got to clobber them, that they don't really mean. Did he mean this?

KORNBLUH: The National Security Archive has obtained the memorandum of conversations of Kissinger and Ford in which Kissinger raises the issue of smashing the Cubans, of punishing the Cubans and keeping them from becoming a military influence. He never got the opportunity to implement those plans. And Cuba actually did send troops into a country outside of Angola, into Ethiopia.

INSKEEP: But you don't think he was just talking. You think he was serious.

KORNBLUH: What I'm saying to you is there is no doubt from the documents that we obtained that Kissinger took this very seriously.

INSKEEP: Well, as you two looked through the documents that you obtained, is there a back channel that you had no idea about that was particularly useful?

LEOGRANDE: I can think of one in particular, and that is that Peggy Dulany, David Rockefeller's daughter, carried a message from Fidel Castro to George Schultz during the Reagan administration.

INSKEEP: So this is a third party carrying a State Department message in effect to Cuba?

LEOGRANDE: Yes, exactly right. And we actually have a Cuban document in which Fidel was talking to the president of Angola and explaining why he used Peggy Dulany as opposed to just going through normal, diplomatic channels. And he says to the president of Angola, you know, when you send a message through the intersection, it takes months before you hear anything back. And sometimes you never hear anything at all.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's the nonofficial embassy, the intersection, that there's one in Havana; there's one in Washington and they look after their interests...

LEOGRANDE: Exactly right.

KORNBLUH: Steve, the book is filled with colorful characters - private sector individuals, lawyers, politicians, businessmen, the chairman of Coca-Cola was used by Jimmy Carter to carry secret messages to Fidel Castro, to an ex-president of the United States, Jimmy Carter himself, being recruited by the Cubans.

INSKEEP: So given the political realities on both sides, when you read these documents of these secret talks, do you end up thinking that actually things worked out in a way that made sense?

LEOGRANDE: I think they made sense in that during the Cold War, it was going to be difficult to find a formula that would have led to a real normalization of relations. I think now that the Cold War is over, however, the core interest of the two sides are not really that much in conflict anymore.

INSKEEP: William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh are co-authors of "Back Channel To Cuba: The Hidden History Of Negotiations Between Washington And Havana." Thanks to you both.

LEOGRANDE: Thank you.

KORNBLUH: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.