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from Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba

Our Woman in Havana by Vicki Huddlestonby Ambassador Vicki Huddleston

Copyright c 2018 by Vicki Huddleston. Published by arrangement with The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. ISBN: 978-1-4683-1579-0

THREE AND A HALF YEARS OF COOPERATIVE RELATIONS—TWO UNDER President Bill Clinton and eighteen months under President George W. Bush—had created the Cuban Spring of 2002, the most open period since the Cuban Revolution. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez and Emilio Gonzalez, senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council (NSC)—both of whom advised the president on Cuba—had expressed that they wished to continue Bush’s moderate approach to Cuba, which had resulted in benefits for both governments. Fidel Castro had cooperated in the incarceration of unlawful enemy combatants from the war in Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay, American farmers were enjoying millions of dollars in sales of agricultural products, and civil society in Cuba had more freedom to flourish. In return, Castro expected the Bush administration to continue the liberal people-to-people travel policies and the nonthreatening posture initially adopted by the Clinton administration.

President Bush was slated to give a speech in Miami on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of Cuban independence, May 20, 2002. Initially I had been enthusiastic about attending. I had been invited because, as head of the US Interests Section in Havana, I had become well known among the Cuban diaspora, which applauded my championing of Cuba’s dissidents. Being popular with exiles in Miami had given me additional credibility within the Bush administration, but I was well aware that it might not last because I was in the midst of a struggle for control of Cuba policy. In my view, Secretary Martinez and the NSC’s Gonzalez represented those in the diaspora who recognized that cooperation, or at least engagement, between our two governments was beneficial to both countries. They were reluctant to revert to a hostile policy, which would snuff out greater tolerance for dissent, diminish agricultural sales, and reduce cooperation on antinarcotics initiatives and the environment. But that was exactly what the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich, wanted. He and Undersecretary John Bolton spoke for Cuban Americans who believed that US relations with the Cuban government lent legitimacy to the Castro regime. To them, and to many conservatives in the Cuban diaspora, engagement with Cuba—even if beneficial to both countries—was unacceptable. So far Martinez and Gonzalez had retained Bush’s confidence. Emilio had assured me that I wouldn’t be disappointed by the President’s speech. Nevertheless, I couldn’t ignore my misgivings because Reich and Bolton were gaining ground. And I knew that even if the speech didn’t reverse the moderate travel measures that were allowing Americans to visit Cuba, the rhetoric would be designed to appease the diaspora.

On the day before the speech I decided that I would rather stay in Havana. I called the director of the Cuba office at the State Department and asked to be excused from attending. I didn’t want to be present if Bush was going to announce a punitive policy. Nor did I want to return to Cuba draped in hostile rhetoric designed for the consumption of the Cuban diaspora. The response was immediate, Reich called me back and ordered me to attend. He said that the president was expecting me.

On the morning of May 20, before he flew down to Florida for the speech, President Bush tried out his remarks on a friendly gathering at the White House. The New York Times reported that he denigrated Castro but also offered some carrots to encourage reforms in Cuba.

Notably, Bush said, “Freedom sometimes grows step by step. We’ll encourage those steps.” I thought that was about as good as I could expect. Perhaps Cuba policy wasn’t about to be taken over by the hard-liners. It seemed Bush would continue the carrot-and-stick approach. Castro would get the carrot of American visitors, so long as he showed restraint toward the dissidents. When I arrived in Miami, my spirits were further buoyed by the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the James L. Knight Center, a huge auditorium where the president was scheduled to speak. He said it was an “honor” to give me a ride, and even refused to accept payment for the fare.

I arrived at the Knight Center early. I had left Havana that morning and come directly from the airport. People were just beginning to arrive. But those I recognized were opposed to links between the United States and Cuba. I took my chair in a section reserved for various notables and waited for the stadium to fill up. I recognized Marisleysis González, Elián’s cousin and ersatz Miami mother, who was an icon to the diaspora. Also present was Elsa Morejon, who had come from Havana to campaign for the release of her husband, the prominent dissident Oscar Elías Biscet, who had again been jailed for aggressively confronting the Cuban hierarchy. We three were among the momentary heroes of the unpredictable Cuban diaspora, and no fame would be more fleeting than my own. The fact that Marisleysis and I were both popular figures in Miami made me question my own actions. Privately, I had been disdainful—like many Americans—of the feverish antics of the González family, and especially Marisleysis, whom the media had transformed into an emotionally fragile heroine. I thought that my radio distribution program in Cuba was a far more useful activity than the failed and fraught battle with Castro over a child who by all rights belonged with his father. But the Cuban diaspora’s recognition wasn’t based on merit; what mattered to Cuban Americans was that we had all defied Fidel Castro.

By the time the president arrived with his brother Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, the overflow crowd was ready for a rousing speech in which President Bush denigrated Castro and promised to restore freedom to Cuba. Members of the far right Cuban Liberty Council, who were enthusiastic backers of Governor Bush’s campaign for a second term, were given the honor of being seated onstage. The president’s speech and a campaign event later that day were intended to provide Jeb Bush’s reelection campaign additional momentum and financing. I imagined that if the diaspora had listened to the president’s remarks at the White House earlier in the day, they hoped he would be more aggressive by the time he reached Miami. They knew that Bush, like his many predecessors, wouldn’t invade Cuba, but he could punish Castro by tightening the embargo, eliminating travel by non-Cuban Americans, and downgrading diplomatic relations. This was not a happy crowd. They had not come to hear about the possibility of mending relations with Castro. They had lost their country, their homes, and—more recently—little Elián González. They didn’t want better relations with Cuba; they wanted the Castro brothers out of power.

President Bush began by thanking his staff and noting others like myself who were present. He said he appreciated my presence; I was glad I had come. His first words about Cuba did not disappoint: “One hundred years ago, Cuba declared her independence. And nearly 50 years ago, nearly a half century, Cuba’s independence and the hopes for democracy were hijacked by a brutal dictator who cares everything for his own power and nada [nothing] for the Cuban people.” Those onstage and in the audience stood and cheered. To my relief, he added, “This country has no designs on Cuba’s sovereignty. We have no designs on Cuba’s sovereignty. But we’ll continue to be a strong and consistent supporter of the Cuban people’s aspirations for freedom.” This sounded right to me, but it wasn’t what his audience wanted to hear. They would have liked the United States to destroy Castro and his revolution by any means possible.

Bush praised Project Varela, telling the crowd that, “More than 11,000 brave citizens have petitioned their Government for a referendum on basic freedoms,” which he said could serve as “a prelude to real change in Cuba.” That was exactly what I had hoped to hear because it meant that the Bush administration accepted internal reform carried out by Cubans as a means of bringing about change. But those onstage with the president didn’t want to hear about an incremental process of reform—they wanted regime change. Rafael Díaz-Balart—the father of Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart and former father-in-law of Fidel Castro—scowled and remained seated. In his mind, this was still a family fight with Castro, the rebel upstart who had forced him and most of Cuba’s educated professionals out of power and out of Cuba. Project Varela was a socialist endeavor created by a Christian Democrat who would collaborate with the despised regime. The Díaz-Balarts and the Cuban Liberty Council didn’t like the idea of homegrown reforms. In their view, Cubans who remained in Cuba were collaborators.

President Bush moved on to the heart of his speech by launching his Initiative for a New Cuba, which, in his words, “offers Cuba’s government a way forward toward democracy and hope, and better relations with the United States.” He said that if Cuba allowed free and fair elections to the National Assembly and released political prisoners, he would “explore ways with the United States Congress to ease sanctions,” including restrictions on assistance for humanitarian and entrepreneurial activities and by negotiating direct mail service. The audience members did not want better relations; they wanted to do away with Castro, and they began to chant, “¡Cuba si, Castro no!”

Still, Bush continued to press his point: “The goal of United States policy toward Cuba is not a permanent embargo on the Cuban economy. The goal is freedom for the Cuban people.” Summing up, he added, “The initiative I’ve outlined today offers the Cuban Government a way forward, a way towards democracy, a way towards prosperity, a way towards respect. The choice now rests with Mr. Castro.” The audience wasn’t interested in giving Castro a choice, and it made its displeasure known with boos. This was astonishing; supposedly friendly supporters were jeering the president.

Many Cuba scholars who focused principally on Bush’s fiery delivery and tone (he had called Castro a “brutal dictator”) considered the speech a return to an isolationist policy. But they were mistaken. Bush was not advocating isolating the regime or tightening the embargo; rather, he was proposing a carrot-and-stick policy. Harvard University professor and Cuba scholar Jorge Dominguez thought that the speech broke new ground. He concluded, “On May 20 President Bush delivered the most conciliatory pair of speeches of his presidency regarding Cuba.” In an essay, Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations: Shall we Play Ball?, Dominguez, a Cuban American, argued that for the first time a Republican president proposed changing the ground rules. Rather than forcing Castro from power, Bush had suggested that his administration was ready to deal with Cuba, and this in turn would confer a degree of legitimacy on Castro and his government.

The Knight Center cleared out quickly. I was uneasy; there was no residue of excitement or enthusiasm. I had seen representatives of the Cuban Liberty Council in the auditorium, but Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) president Jorge Mas Santos and executive director Joe Garcia were nowhere to be found. CANF, not the Cuban Liberty Council, was more likely to champion Bush’s Cuba initiative. CANF tolerated contact with Cuba and seemed to recognize that reform in Cuba would have to come from the Cuban people rather than being imposed by the United States. This was not the case for the Cuban Liberty Council, which recently had broken away from CANF because the council was unwilling to settle for anything less than regime change.

I suspected relations with Cuba had even caused a rift between the Bush brothers. Those in the audience who had booed the president’s Cuba initiative and chanted “Cuba si, Castro no!” had likely been primed to do so by the new Cuban Liberty Council. And it must have been Jeb Bush who had determined that the council, not the more moderate CANF, would be the guests of honor. CANF would have accepted the middle ground laid out by the president in the speech that Martinez and Gonzalez had crafted, but the Cuban Liberty Council would not, and Governor Bush was catering to them. When President Bush gave a similar speech earlier that day at the White House, Jeb Bush must have protested, and this in turn might have led to a discussion between the brothers. Perhaps that explained why the president had begun his speech by saying, “I love you, Jeb.”

The speech, having been poorly received by some in the audience, would force the president to resolve the divisions among his advisers as well as between himself and his brother. He could continue the current policy advocated by Martinez and Gonzalez, and to a certain extent by CANF, or revert to an isolationist and punitive policy advocated by Governor Bush, Bolton, Reich, and the Cuban Liberty Council. I knew the decision would be made that day, because as I was walking back to my hotel from the Knight Center, I encountered Otto Reich rushing to an emergency meeting with the president and his Cuba advisers.

The president decided to support a hardline approach. After May 20, there was an abrupt shift in US policy away from cooperating with Cuba. I heard no more about Bush’s New Initiative for Cuba, and the administration’s rhetoric became more strident. CANF, which for years had been the monolithic and unchallenged voice of Cuban Americans, lost much of its influence when the Bush administration elected to back the Cuban Liberty Council, which had cultivated a fortuitous alliance with Governor Jeb Bush. The result was that a small minority of conservative Cuban Americans captured Cuba policy and—for the remainder of the Bush administration—sought to oust the revolution by increasingly punitive measures.

Within a month’s time Reich was pressing Bush to adopt a tactic best described as the Big Bang, centered on the idea that if too much air were put into a balloon it would burst loudly. The same would happen if the president increased economic and political pressure on Cuba. Desperate Cubans, no longer willing to endure poverty and lack of opportunity, would at some critical point rise up and topple the government—creating said Big Bang. Although successive American administrations had tried variations on this tactic and failed, its proponents rationalized its failure by claiming that no administration had squeezed Cuba to the bursting point. Now that Bush had sided with the hard-liners, they could once again attempt to ignite chaos in Cuba.

The first causality of the policy change was respectful dialogue. In keeping with Reich’s desire to reduce relations to a minimum, I was informed that the semiannual migration talks scheduled for mid-June would be canceled. When I vehemently opposed this suggestion, Reich backed down, allowing the talks to go forward as planned. The talks were held in New York at the US Mission to the United Nations. Rafael Dausa, the director for North American affairs, led the Cuban delegation. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Dan Fisk, who had previously worked at the Heritage Foundation and today is the chief operating officer of the International Republican Institute, was head of our delegation. In the past, these talks had been friendly and respectful; over informal lunches and dinners, we had accomplished as much as we did in the formal talks. This time the talks ended at noon. Nothing was accomplished other than sending a very clear message that the Bush administration was no longer interested in dialogue.

The next punishment was to restrict the travel of Cuban diplomats, thereby preventing the gregarious chief of the Cuban Interests Section, Dagoberto Rodríguez, from speaking at forums and events around the United States. Again, I protested. If we restricted Cuban diplomats, the Cuban government would confine US diplomats to Havana, thereby preventing our team from doing its job. We would be unable to determine if migrants returned by the US Coast Guard were being abused or jailed, and our highly successful outreach program would be severely reduced, as we would be unable to distribute radios and books or visit with dissidents around the country. I explained that if we were confined to Havana, we would be prevented from gathering firsthand information about what was going on across the island.

Again, I won the argument, but once again, only temporarily. To avoid a public showdown with me, Reich waited a few months until I left Cuba and then proceeded with his plan. Castro, as I anticipated, responded by confining American diplomats to Havana. The result was that President Bush and the State Department were informed more by rumor and wishful thinking than by solid, fact-based reporting. In retrospect, blinding the US Interests Section may have been exactly what Reich and conservatives had desired for years. If they couldn’t close the building, they could at least avoid dealing with the facts as America’s diplomats saw them. Instead, they could listen to their friends within the diaspora and interpret the “facts” as they wished. Perhaps this was an early harbinger of the “alternative facts” promoted by the administration of president Donald Trump?

Fidel Castro waited until June 1 to respond to President Bush’s May 20 speech. In the eastern town of Holguin (not far from Birán, his birthplace), Castro warned, “Don’t be foolish, Mr. W; respect the intelligence of people capable of thinking. Don’t insult Martí! Show respect.” Castro might have been even more caustic had he known that as he was speaking Bush was giving a speech at the West Point Military Academy outlining his new doctrine of preemptive strikes. Certainly, Castro would have been worried that Bush might have Cuba in mind.

By July 26 Castro’s tone had grown as harsh as Bush’s. In the small town of Ciego de Avila where he was celebrating the forty-ninth anniversary of the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks—the Cuban Revolution’s most important date—Castro claimed, “The smallest municipality in Cuba is stronger than all the scum that met Bush in the James L. Knight Center in Miami.” Still, he left open a small window, promising, “On this historical date for Cubans, I can assure you that we wish for a sincere, respectful, and fraternal friendship between the people of Cuba and the United States. Viva socialismo! Patria o muerte! Vencermos!” (Long live socialism! Country or death! We will be victorious!).

I disliked Bush’s Big Bang policy. I was convinced that no matter how tough the rhetoric and how tight the embargo, it would not succeed in overturning the regime. I had little doubt that as relations deteriorated Castro would respond by curtailing the greater freedoms dissidents had gained during the past several years—most notably during the first eighteen months of Bush’s presidency. Inevitably, Castro would retaliate by cracking down on the dissidents and destroying the Cuban Spring. Everything my team and I had done to empower the Cuban people would be wrecked, and Cubans would again have to await another opportunity for change, which might not arise for decades.

I decided to try one final time to convince Reich and my colleagues working on Cuba that a hostile approach would not succeed. I met with them in a conference room on the sixth floor of the State Department. They listened quietly as I reminded them that the dissidents were now stronger and more influential within Cuba than ever before, but that would undoubtedly end if we adopted a hostile policy. Project Varela had flourished because Castro believed the United States would continue its more liberal travel policy. But if the administration adopted a punitive policy, Castro would retaliate. He had already threatened to throw me out of the country, close down the US Interests Section, and end cooperation on migration if we didn’t stop distributing the AM/FM/shortwave radios. In response, I had modulated the distribution because—like it or not—Cuban state security could shut down our activities in a heartbeat if Fidel was willing to pay the price. The more hostile approach that we were taking would risk the outreach program and reduce the limited newfound freedoms available to ordinary Cubans. There was little discussion. Reich had won the policy battle, and it was time for me to admit defeat and leave the field. At the end of the meeting, a smiling Reich wished me good luck in my new assignment—as US ambassador to Mali. I was discouraged because I knew Reich was delighted that I would soon leave both Cuba and Latin America. My scheduled departure in September would remove a major obstacle in his fruitless campaign to squeeze Cuba to the point of internal collapse.

Fortunes change rapidly when dealing with Cuba. Although Secretary Martinez had earlier asked me to stay in Cuba for another year, the domestic political winds had shifted. I would either be locked in a continuous battle with Reich and my peers, or I would have to acquiesce to the new hardline policy. I did not enjoy being continually at odds with the Bush administration, which had become the norm over the last few months, nor could I could carry out a policy with which I so deeply disagreed. I would leave Havana in September when I had completed my three-year tour. Now, my choice was either to accept the assignment to Mali or resign from the Foreign Service. Fortunately, I had always loved Africa, where I hoped I would avoid any major policy disputes.

But policy differences were impossible to escape. In Africa and the Middle East, the Bush administration was engaged in its War on Terror, the rules of which had not yet been well defined. All too soon I had serious differences with Chuck Wald, the four-star general responsible for Africa, over how to confront terrorists operating in the Sahara. While we both wanted to defeat them, he preferred unilateral, long- range bombing attacks on the terrorists and insurgents in the region. I believed that the best way to defeat them was to coordinate US military operations with the Malian and regional armed forces. Blocked from bombing the terrorists, Wald focused on providing training and intelligence to regional allies, enabling them to carry out a military campaign, which destroyed the first Al-Qaeda group in the Sahara, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Unfortunately, similar groups would emerge and terrorism would spread throughout the region. Much more on this subject can be found in Joshua Hammer’s excellent book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.

My daughter Alexandra, who had been staying with us in Cuba for the summer, was the first to leave. She had just completed a project consisting of ten photographs and ten paintings for Stanford University, where she was an undergraduate. Prior to leaving the island with her artwork, she took the precaution of obtaining permission from the Cuban authorities, who require that all art created or acquired in Cuba be approved for export. At the airport, Alexandra and I encountered an unpleasant customs official. She slowly unrolled each of the ten canvases, studied them, then silently rolled them back up and laid them on the table. Finally, she announced solemnly that she was confiscating a large painting of Fidel Castro and his rebels. It was Alexandra’s version of the iconic photograph, which appears on the banner of Granma, the Cuban government’s official daily newspaper, and is known to every Cuban. She had painted the figures of Fidel and his rebels holding aloft their guns in a victory salute in gray and black on a yellow background. Around the edge of her three-by-four-foot canvas, the word “Allure” was repeated as a border motif and, in the center of the canvas were the words, “Warning: Keep Out of Reach of Children. For Adult Use Only.”

I quickly gathered up the paintings and walked away. I could imagine Fidel telling a visitor that the painting, which perhaps he would mount behind his desk, was made by the American ambassador’s daughter. Placing the paintings on a chair some distance away, I walked back to the official and announced, “Either these paintings will go with my daughter to California or remain with me in Cuba.” I wasn’t about to give in. After about an hour appealing to higher authorities, Alexandra departed with all her paintings.

I received a farewell letter, “Bon Voyage, Mrs. Huddleston,” which was published on the front page of Granma. Fidel certainly approved the missive and he might even have written it. The author, Jean-Guy Allard, could have been a pseudonym for Fidel. The article was illustrated with a photo of me on the fifth-floor balcony of the US Interests Section. It began, “She is accompanied by a purebred Afghan hound, which she named Havana, and a cat, very disrespectfully called Martí, in great irreverence toward the nation in which she represented her country for three years.” I thought that Fidel had a sense of humor, but apparently not when it came to my pets. It seemed he was still annoyed that my prize hound Havana and I had embarrassed him. The Granma article continued, “She came in September 1999, the first year of her presence was marked by the kidnapping of Elián González in Florida, she was seen observing mass demonstrations through her binoculars from the Interests Section balcony.” But when Bush came to power, according to Fidel (or Allard), “Vicky Huddleston the career diplomat suddenly abandoned all protocol to devote herself to the recruitment of agents from among the assiduous and remunerated dissidents and candidates for emigration.” In other words, I had been a good diplomat when I was carrying out Clinton’s instruction to manage the return of Elián, and a bad one when I supported Cuba’s dissidents, in accordance with Bush’s Cuba policy.

An even worse offense was that I “handed out hundreds of small radios for the purpose of listening to the sermons of Radio Martí, the official US anti-Cuban radio station.” Fidel never seemed to understand that I didn’t care what Cubans listened to; what I cared about was giving them access to information. And then a final dig: “Mrs. Huddleston will be taking a break before embarking on her next adventure. The State Department has assigned the outgoing head [of the Interests Section] to the US Embassy in Mali, in faraway Africa. Far away from Otto Reich and her obsession with Cuba that in itself constitutes a recompense. Bon Voyage, Mrs. Huddleston.” My staff, knowing how much I would miss Cuba, if not Castro, signed the article, had it framed, and presented it to me as a farewell gift.

My best gift was a letter from Secretary of State Colin Powell, which read in part, “In particular, I would like to commend you for your actions in helping the Cuban opposition move forward. Your realization that they had reached a new stage in their development and the help you gave them was an important early step in Cuba’s inevitable transition to democracy. Your radio giveaway program was particularly helpful; I believe it highlighted the importance of freedom of information. Your observation that we need to look past Fidel Castro and towards a transition was right on the mark, as were your thoughts on support for the opposition and civil society.”

Thank you very much, Secretary Powell. Alas, President Bush’s decision to reject the moderate policies of his first years and return to a punitive policy meant that the greater freedoms that dissidents and civil society had enjoyed during the Cuban Spring of 2002 would not return until under another American president a decade later would reach out to the island.white star

Vicki Huddleston
Vicki Huddleston

Ambassador Vicki Huddleston served under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush as Chief of the US Interests Section in Havana. She also served as US Ambassador to Madagascar and Mali. Her report for the Brookings Institution about normalizing relations with Cuba provided a blueprint for President Obama’s diplomatic opening with Raúl Castro in 2014. She has written opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Miami Herald, and The Washington Post. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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