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Review by Joe B. Johnson

Back Channel to Cuba by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC, ISBN-13: 978-1469617633, 2014, 544 pp., $19.24 (Kindle), $25.82 (Hardcover).

The highest-level official meeting of American and Cuban diplomats in decades, held January 21-22, 2015 in Havana, began a process of normalizing bilateral relations after 55 years of prickly and sometimes hostile coexistence.

The meetings followed joint announcements by President Obama and Raul Castro expressing the intention to normalize relations. The initiative had been in secret preparation since June 2013; both Obama and Castro gave credit to the Government of Canada and the Vatican for serving as intermediaries.

The discrete process behind the headlines was typical of 55 years of U.S.-Cuban negotiations. Generally, the two countries have conducted major negotiations outside traditional diplomatic channels.

And that is the subject of Back Channel to Cuba, published late last year: a very timely prequel to the normalization story. The book lives up to its subtitle, “The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana,” relying on previously classified and private documents as well as extensive interviews with many of the players. Acknowledgements include interviews with former presidents Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro.

The National Security Archive, an award winning nonprofit that tries to pry open government secrets, sponsored the research effort. Co-author Peter Kornbluh is director of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project and of the Cuba Documentation Project. William LeoGrande, who specializes in Latin American studies, is a professor of Government and former Dean of the American University School of Public Affairs.

Some of the “back channels” were targets of opportunity. One example is Frank Mankiewicz, a Democrat political strategist and former president of National Public Radio. In April 1974, Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, recruited Mankiewicz to approach Castro while he was setting up a television interview with the Cuban leader. Kissinger developed a secretive dialogue with Castro about normalizing relations through a coterie of agents outside the State Department’s organization chart.

Lawrence Eagleburger, who later rose to become Secretary of State, was a principal actor. To maintain secrecy, the players developed a set of pseudonyms, coded language and meeting places including airports and coffee shops. The first time Castro’s aide, Nestor Garcia, called Eagleburger at home he asked for “Mr. Henderson.” Unfortunately, Eagleburger’s wife was not in on the code. She hung up on him twice saying “wrong number” before he decided to drop the pretense and just ask for Eagleburger.

Kissinger apparently hoped to achieve the kind of diplomatic breakthrough that he had engineered with the People’s Republic of China. During this two-year courtship—a tumultuous period seeing Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford’s tenure and the eventual election of Jimmy Carter—the United States made several good-will gestures to Cuba. But Castro was not willing to discuss serious normalization without a commitment to end the U.S. economic embargo. Instead of reciprocating, in 1976 Castro called for Puerto Rico’s independence. Later that year he sent Cuban troops to support pro-communist forces in Angola, ending any chance of further progress and sending relations into a downward spiral.

Stories like this one make for a readable review of the fraught history of Cuban-American relations over six U.S. and two Cuban presidents. Taken together, they have a Sisyphean quality. Even for special envoys, anything can go wrong and it nearly always has.

The book’s introduction lays the groundwork by starting at the very beginning of U.S.-Cuban relations. For example, it reminds us that the military base of Guantanamo Bay is a legacy of the United States’ first intervention in Cuba during the Cuban war of independence. The book chronicles how the rapid hardening of political positions led to U.S. export embargo and Cuba’s expropriation of U.S.-owned properties and the withdrawal of ambassadors in 1960.

When Fidel Castro seized power from Fulgencio Batista, who himself had taken over with U.S. assistance, Cuba—a heretofore submissive ally—turned into a threatening adversary. The first official meeting between Castro and Vice-President Nixon, held April 19, 1959, “was an out-and-out disaster” according to Carlos Franqui, who accompanied Castro on the trip. Castro saw Nixon as arrogant and condescending. Nixon developed an instant dislike of the Cuban upstart. American officials down the chain of command sensed the pro-communist leanings in the new Cuban leader and suspected bad faith.

Then U.S. spy planes discovered Soviet missiles on Cuban territory. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the involvement of unusual emissaries: Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella and Brazilian President Joao Goulart.

Some back channel capers were driven by crises; others, by perceived opportunities. Still others attempted to solve painful problems. In 1962, lawyer and Cold-War go-between James Donovan obtained the release of exiles captured at the Bay of Pigs and other prisoners from Cuba jails after a series of meetings – including a fishing trip with his son, hosted by Castro, illustrated with a photo in the book.

Cuban migrants trying to reach U.S. territory on leaky rafts became a severe problem for President Bill Clinton when twenty thousand wound up camped in a detention center at Guantanamo. Cuban Affairs Coordinator Dennis Hays failed to make progress, so Clinton turned to Peter Tarnoff, whom Jimmy Carter had used as a go-between. Tarnoff had to swear his Cuban counterpart, Foreign Minister Ricardo Alarcon, not to tell Hays about their talks. These took place sometimes in the Plaza Hotel, where Alarcon could smoke his cigars. The resulting deal on migration “ended the thirty-year U.S. policy of encouraging illegal flight from Cuba,” the authors write. They continue: “Within days, the anti-Castro lobby was organizing angry protests in the streets of Miami’s Little Havana—and in front of the White House gates.”

As global Cold War obstacles waned, other issues waxed. The influential lobby of Cuban exiles that grew in the decades following Castro’s takeover fueled U.S. demands for progress toward democracy, which the Castro regime always flatly rejected. Congress also asserted growing influence with the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms—Burton Act of 1997 among others. Former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section Wayne Smith, a long-term advocate of detente, remarked, “We keep changing the goal posts.”

Every chapter of the book contains colorful detail. When receiving an American initiative, Castro’s response almost always included a box of Cuban Cohiba cigars for the U.S. President. I lost count of the number of fine smokes provided over the years.

Throughout the past 55 years of talks both secret and on-the-record, the constant barrier to progress has been mutual mistrust. That, hardened by so many failures over the years, became a barrier to normalization of relations that conventional diplomacy could not surmount.

The last chapter offers lessons from the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, some of which resonate with the recent normalization efforts. Example: “History has demonstrated that the quid pro quo approach does not work…. The alternative is a bold stroke that fundamentally changes the relationship.”

That brings us to the present opening. Raul Castro announced on December 17 that Cuba was willing to engage in dialogue on subjects including “issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy.” But critics of the Obama rapprochement charge that the Castro regime will pocket U.S. concessions and continue its repression.

President Obama argued, “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.” The announcements at last brought U.S.-Cuban talks about normalization into a conventional diplomatic process. Still, Obama could make no guarantee that this process would make substantial progress toward normalizing relations.

For Cuba experts, the detailed factual record in Back Channel to Cuba offers food for thought. For any student of Latin America, the book is a valuable reference. And the narrative is entertaining and instructive on its own, offering insight to other problematic relationships: e.g., Iran.

Finally, Back Channel to Cuba leaves this reviewer wondering what is not in the book. In Cuba, there is no such thing as a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. How would the story change if the Government of Cuba offered the transparency and open access that we have in the United States?

Perhaps some day a sequel can be written.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

AuthorJoe Johnson serves as an instructor at the Foreign Service Institute and lends public affairs assistance to nonprofits in the Washington area after a 33-year Foreign Service career with the Department of State and the United States Information Agency. He served on detail to the Department of State from USIA as Director of the Office of Press Relations from April to June 1999, and for one year in the Office of the Under Secretary for Political Affairs during the tenures of James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger.

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