Posts Tagged ‘Cuban Revolution’

Cuba Before the Revolution

While Americans saw only decadent gangsters, Cuban revolutionaries diagnosed deeper social ills.

Jacobin  September 6, 2015
Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista visits Washington DC in November 1938. Harris & Ewing / Libary of Congress

Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista visits Washington DC in November 1938. Harris & Ewing / Libary of Congress

To the American popular eye, pre-revolutionary Cuba was the island of sin, a society consumed by the illnesses of gambling, the Mafia, and prostitution. Prominent American intellectuals echoed that view. Even in 1969, when Cuban reality had changed drastically, Susan Sontag, in an article in Ramparts, described Cuba as “a country known mainly for dance, music, prostitutes, cigars, abortions, resort life, and pornographic movies.”

In a 2004 article for the Nation, Arthur Miller, based on what he had learned from people who had worked in the film industry in the island, described the Batista society “as hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners.”

Although most Cubans would have readily admitted that Sontag and Miller had touched some of Cuba’s real wounds, they would have hardly seen them as the most representative, or as the most pressing problems that affected the island. The perceptions dominant in America’s media revealed far more about the North American colonial worldview than anything about Cuba itself, a feature of the mainstream culture of the US that continues to prevail today.


To Americans, gambling in Cuba meant casino gambling.

Casinos began to develop in Cuba in the 1920s in connection with the growth of tourism. After several ups and downs in the following three decades, the casino industry took off in the mid- to late 1950s as Batista and his cronies, working together with American Mafiosi, used the resources of Cuban state development banks, and even union retirement funds, to build hotels, all of which hosted casinos, like the Riviera, the Capri, and the Havana Hilton (today’s Havana Libre). In the process both Cuban rulers and Mafiosi lined their own pockets, skimming the casinos’ proceeds, cheating investors, and trafficking drugs.

However, if the casino world of the island got ample coverage in the American media, it never became a central issue in the island’s media, and in the Cuban consciousness. Aside from the American tourists, who were the casinos’ principal customers, only a small number of Cubans — upper-middle and upper-class whites — gambled there. The casinos’ dress code and minimum betting requirements kept most Cubans out, though it is true that a relatively small but significant number of Cubans earned their living servicing the casinos and the hotels and nightclubs where they were usually located.

But the economic impact of casino gambling, and even of tourism, was greatly exaggerated in the US. In 1956, a good year for tourism, that economic sector earned $30 million, barely 10 percent of what the sugar industry made that year. This relatively modest performance was due in part to the fact that mass international tourism facilitated by widespread commercial jet travel had not yet begun. In the 1950s between 200,000 and 250,00 tourists visited Cuba annually, compared with slightly over three million in 2014, and likely more in 2015.

The casinos of Havana were looted immediately after the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959. The great majority of Cubans saw casinos — as well as the parking meters that had been installed in the capital a few months earlier — as odious expressions of the oppressive corruption of Batista and his henchmen.

But as Rosalie Schwartz, a historian of Cuban tourism, has pointed out, “disgust with government excesses preceded and outstripped outrage over casinos…Revolutionaries charged Batista henchmen with torture and murder — not casino operations — when they put them on trial.” Most Cubans also did not object to gambling, and many had been engaging in the practice for a long time, though in a manner that was worlds apart from the casinos populated by tourists and privileged Cubans.

Cuba had an official national state lottery that had existed since Spanish colonial times. Every Saturday afternoon, a drawing took place sponsored by the Renta de la Lotería, an agency of the Cuban government created for that purpose. The Renta had become a massive source of corruption, although some legitimate charitable organizations obtained funds from the lottery’s proceedings. Even the Cuban Communists shared in those proceeds when, in control of the trade union movement during their alliance with Batista from 1938 until 1944, they built a new union headquarters at least in part with the money that the government granted them from the national lottery.

The lottery drawings were broadcast over the radio featuring a peculiar mixture of modernity and the Middle Ages. The weekly spectacle, worthy of a Luis Buñuel film, had the orphan and abandoned children raised by the nuns of the Casa de Beneficencia announce the different prize numbers with a distinctive chant in a characteristic voice, tone, and cadence. But the fact that even the smallest fractions of the official lottery tickets were relatively expensive stimulated the growth of an informal, illegal lottery based on the results of the official lottery that accepted bets as small as five cents.

This illegal lottery, referred to as “la bolita,” became big business and had its own capitalists, or “bankers,” some of which came to be well-known. The bankers, however, could not have survived without their numerous agents (“apuntadores”) in the barrios. They were the equivalent of the “numbers runners” in the United States. The anthropologist Ulf Hannerz suggested in his book Soulside that the numbers game of the American black ghettoes may have originated in Cuba.

There was little if any connection between the people who owned and ran the casinos and the bankers who ran the illegal bolita — except for the peculiar case of Martin Fox, the owner of the Tropicana night club and casino, who had made his initial capital as a bolita banker but left that world behind when he became the owner of Tropicana in the early fifties. What the bolita bankers and casino owners did have in common was that they had to pay off high government functionaries and the police.

The “bolita” was primarily a gambling activity for poor people. But for many poor and even some middle-class people, la bolita also became a means to support or to supplement their income by working as apuntadores, or numbers runners.

Even my parents, immigrant small-business people whose obsessive dedication to work and saving could not have been further removed from any gambling mentality, participated in the bolita. They did so not because they expected to win anything, but because their small weekly bets — always the same number — were a way of helping a poor neighborhood woman who worked as an apuntadora to survive.

The Big Crooks

For a long time, several Mafia families entertained the idea of taking their business to Cuba both as a means to expand their enterprises and to escape the reach of the FBI and the IRS, among other US government agencies. In December 1946, Havana’s classic Hotel Nacional hosted an important gathering of the Mafia attended by the heads of the most powerful families and organized by Lucky Luciano, who had been residing in the island since October of that year. But under heavy American pressure, the Cuban government deported Luciano in February of 1947.

Some other gangsters, such as Meyer Lansky and Tampa’s Santo Trafficante Jr, had a much longer stay on the island and were closely connected to casino gambling. Ironically, part of Lansky’s task was to eliminate the petty trickery of fast-paced games, such as the one called “razzle-dazzle” (a casino equivalent of the “two-card monte”) used to trick gullible tourists. Even Richard Nixon had complained to the US Embassy in Havana about the victimization of one of his rich and influential friends.

According to historian Rosalie Schwartz, in response to the threat that these games posed to the Havana casinos, Lansky opened a school to train and screen casino employees. Only trained and trustworthy individuals were to gain access to the world of blackjack dealers, croupiers, and roulette stickmen. Eliminating the petty chiselers from his casinos, Lansky ran an efficient operation that attracted big-time professional players to his crap tables, and gamblers who could trust the fairness of the games.

At Lansky’s Montmartre nightclub, businesslike table crews conducted the game; dealers dealt blackjack from a box, not from the hand, and floormen watched the action for any sign of impropriety. The big crooks were not going to let the small crooks discredit and ruin their business.

There were undoubtedly strong links between the Mafia and the Batista regime, but some observers have greatly magnified and distorted the nature of those links. Journalist T. J. English, for example — the author of an earlier book on the Westies, Manhattan’s Hells Kitchen’s gang — claims in his 2007 bookHavana Nocturne: How the Mob owned Cuba and then Lost it to the Revolution, that the mob “had infiltrated a sovereign nation and taken control of financial institutions and the levers of power from top to bottom.” According to English, Batista had embraced the dictates of the American mobsters and had become the muscle behind the Havana mob.

English may have taken his cue from Cuban writer Enrique Cirules‘s book El Imperio de la Habana. Cirules, who later accused English of plagiarism, argued that the power of the Mafia, in a permanent alliance with the US intelligence services, had taken over every level of power in Cuba. Batista’s 1952 military coup, which brought the retired general back to power, was not the cause of the power that the Mafia had amassed, but the coronation of its power, and led to a power triangle formed by the dominant financial groups, the Mafia, and US intelligence.

Cirules also makes the fantastic claim that the gains from the Mafia’s cocaine trade were even bigger than those of the sugar industry. However, the Mafia in Cuba was only one, albeit highly corrupt, interest group. The Mafia had no interest whatsoever in running Cuba; it just wanted a place to pursue their interests, primarily in gambling, and also in the drug trade, unmolested by the US or the Cuban government. Rather than trying to control the government and the political and economic life of the island, these mobsters focused their efforts on preventing other criminals from invading their turf.

That’s how, for example, internal mob disputes about gambling interests in Cuba led to the murder of gangster Albert Anastasia in a New York hotel barbershop in October 1957. The Mafia’s association with Batista fit the needs and requirements of the mob, but it is wrong to claim that its power in the island was greater than that of Batista and his military forces — just as the power of the mob in the United States of the twenties was not greater than that of the largest corporations, the Pentagon, and the Democratic and Republican parties.

Sex Work

Sex work was relatively common in the pre-revolutionary Cuba of the fifties, but North American opinion gave it a lot more importance than people did in Cuba, including the most radical critics of the island’s social and economic status quo.

It is estimated that by the end of the fifties Havana had 270 brothels and 11,500 women earned their living as sex workers. Compared with New York City in 1977, where 40,000 female sex workers were reportedly working, the ratio of sex workers in 1950s Havana, with a population of 1 million people, was approximately double the amount of the one in New York City, with 8 million people.

Considering the much greater poverty, unemployment, and the sexual double standard geared to preserve the virginity of “decent” girls — not men — until they were married, the difference at the time between the two cities is not as stark as one might expect.

Sex work in Havana attracted more attention than the one in New York not because there were more sex workers, but because of its greater concentration in certain urban areas (the neighborhoods of Colón, San Isidro, and Pajarito street, for example). The salient role that sex work played in the tourist industry, as well as the flamboyance of some of its venues, contributed in a major way to its visibility and notoriety.

Despite the high number of Cuban women engaged, and exploited, in the industry, there were many more Cuban women in other highly exploited sectors. Poor and unemployed young rural women, a major recruitment zone for the Havana bordellos, were far more likely to end up working as maids in a middle- or upper-class urban household than as prostitutes. The moral economy of the Cuban peasant and agricultural proletariat, which included notions of dignity, strong parental authority, and folk religion, were powerful forces against sex work.

According to the 1953 Cuban national census — the last census held before the revolutionary victory in 1959 — 87,522 women were working as domestic servants, 77,500 women were working for a relative without pay, and 21,000 women were totally without employment and looking for work. Moreover, an estimated 83 percent of all employed women worked less than ten weeks a year, and only 14 percent worked year-round.

These were the far more shocking realities of the uneven economic development induced by the US empire and Cuban capital on the island. But the work and the problems of being a maid, or a seamstress, may not have been as risqué and exciting to North American observers, whether left- or right-wing, interested in Cuban exoticism and difference.

The Revolutionaries Respond

If many Americans, including sections of the American liberal and radical left, saw casino gambling, the Mafia, and prostitution as defining characteristics of what was wrong with the Cuba of the 1950s, the Cuban opposition on the island had bigger fish to fry — dictatorship, widespread corruption of public officials, the evils of the one-crop economy and extreme rural poverty, high unemployment (particularly among young people, in both urban and rural Cuba), and in the case of the Communist opposition to Batista, US imperialism. (Fidel Castro made no public mention of imperialism until after the revolutionary victory.)

At his 1953 trial for the failed attack he led on the Moncada military barracks in eastern Cuba, Castro delivered a radical speech entitled “History Will Absolve Me.” In the speech Castro mentioned the need for an agrarian reform law that would have granted small allotments to landless peasants with compensation to the landlords, and demanded the participation of the workers in the profits (30 percent) of all large industrial, mercantile, or mining concerns, including sugar mills. He promised also that his revolutionary government would nationalize the electricity and telephone monopolies and confiscate the wealth of those who had misappropriated public funds.

Subsequent pronouncements made by Castro during the last two years of the struggle against the dictatorship were socially more moderate, as he successfully rallied a broad social and political coalition in support of the guerrilla and urban struggles of the 26th of July Movement. But even when the casinos and the Mafia became more important in the late 1950s, neither Castro, nor any other opposition leader, mentioned the Mafia, gambling, or prostitution in their political pronouncements.

That does not mean that Castro and other Cuban reformers and revolutionaries did not regard those phenomena as social ills or that they were indifferent to their effects. But they saw them as secondary problems, in a sense derivative from more fundamental issues that in their eyes characterized 1950s Cuba.

It is true that in those times there still floated the old pre-independence notion, based on the Enlightenment politics propagated by, among others, the Masonic lodges to which must Cuban leaders of the wars of independence against Spanish domination belonged, that Cuba suffered from three vices that a future Cuban Republic should eliminate: bullfighting, cockfighting, and the lottery.


Bullfighting was indeed outlawed, but cockfighting, seen as a more Cuban than Spanish “hobby,” persisted, although more in rural than urban areas, and had nowhere near the massive cultural impact as that of the official lottery and its derivatives. But that notion had been fading away for some time.

The Cuban pre-revolutionary state also occasionally undertook actions against sex work. For example, in January 1951, under the constitutional government of the Auténtico Party’s Carlos Prio Socarrás, the minister of interior, Lomberto Díaz, launched a campaign to “clean” the Colón neighborhood, the area most associated with prostitution in the capital.

The campaign was welcomed by many Cubans, especially by the middle classes, and was widely reported and discussed in the media. But since there was no attempt to provide alternative employment to sex workers, the sector returned in full force to the Colón neighborhood soon after.

Colonial Folklore

As far back as the nineteenth century, many US politicians and ruling-class leaders saw Cuba as a potential target of annexation, a strategy that was ideologically justified by a body of assumptions that, as historian Louis A. Pérez has pointed out, regarded Cubans as a people ill-fit to govern themselves, ruled by a country (Spain) ill-equipped to govern anyone. It was this notion that supported the US intervention in Cuba’s war of independence against Spain and that, notwithstanding the genuine sympathy and compassion that many Americans felt for the oppressed Cubans, justified its imperialist design for the island.

After Spain lost the war, Cuba became independent in 1902, although only in a very limited sense considering the Platt Amendment granted the US government the right to militarily intervene in Cuba. As Pérez has indicated, the new reality of the island became represented in the predominant American ideology as a nation of children, or schoolchildren, with the Americans as their teachers.

Although this conception was not universally shared, and was even criticized in the US, it persisted as a kernel of the American popular conception of Cuba. As the island became the pioneer of tourism in the Caribbean beginning in the 1920s, it acquired an aura of sensuality, lack of moral inhibitions, and a hint of uncensored primitiveness highlighted by the American Protestant puritanism.

In the last analysis, the American emphasis on gambling, prostitution, and the Mafia as the central elements of the ills that affected pre-revolutionary Cuban society was, besides the general American fascination with the Mafia, a form of colonial folklore and ideology that also influenced Americans who would not consciously support colonialism or imperialism.

It was an ideology that was also present in the other imperialist power of that era, the USSR, as echoed in the 1964 Soviet film Soy Cuba. As Jacqueline Loss, a scholar of Soviet cultural influence in Cuba, has argued, the Soviet film represented Cubans as hot-blooded, sexy, impoverished, and in need of civilizing.

The American view of pre-revolutionary Cuba also stems from some assumptions that underlie the concept of underdevelopment. Aimed at replacing the “Orientalist” biases of the older notion of “backwardness,” underdevelopment — and later the Global South — was often superimposed on the earlier meaning instead of replacing it with modern objectives.

The terms were often also used as a rigid dichotomy — development versus underdevelopment — instead of as a continuum, which hindered the understanding of a country like pre-revolutionary Cuba and its contradictory combination of development and underdevelopment, its high modernity mixed with powerful remnants of the past, precluding a conception of complexity and nuanced analysis and leading to a simplistic image of a “primitive” country governed by sex and crime.

When applied to countries like Cuba, the American popular perception of “culture” was also homogeneous and unchanging, resulting in a distorted, caricatured image of Cubans. The complexities of Cuban society were reduced in the American popular media to cultural clichés and subsumed into an undifferentiated whole.

Cubans living on the island in the 1950s were not just dancers and fun people with a good sense of humor, but were also, for most of the time they were awake, working very hard either at ruling over the country (all the way down from dictators, capitalists, and landlords to soldiers and policemen) or, as for the great majority, at surviving as workers, peasants, public employees, students, professionals, shopkeepers, or intellectuals.

Whatever cultural behavior these various Cuban groupings may have shared, they were also substantially different from each other, sometimes even having more in common with their occupational and class counterparts in the United States than with other Cubans. After all, oppressed people in all countries act on the basis of the same drives and aspirations, trying to defend their standard of living, meet certain nutritional requirements, and limit if not eliminate their oppression.

This view of pre-revolutionary Cuba as a culturally homogeneous society so “exotic,” so far away from any similarity to a “developed” society, and fatally afflicted with the ills of gambling and Mafia control, suggested the image of an exhausted lumpenized society devoid of any political, moral, and spiritual resources and thus — unable to engage and conduct its own struggle for self-emancipation — dependent on saviors from above.

In the very early stages of the successful revolution, before it adoptedthe Soviet model, the Mafiosi were unceremoniously kicked out of the country, casino gambling was abolished (after some initial difficulties addressing the problem of substantial numbers of casino employees who would be left unemployed.) In February 1959 the national lottery was converted into the INAV (National Institute of Savings and Housing) — a transitional measure channeling the proceeds remaining from pre-revolutionary gambling into a savings fund dedicated to housing.

Sex work was initially allowed, but reformed, with the extortions by pimps and police abolished. Later on the sex workers were trained and provided alternative employment, but sex work eventually reappeared with the severe economic crisis of the nineties and the exponential growth of tourism.

In the last several years, bolita gambling (based on the results of the Florida lottery) has experienced a rebirth, although it has not yet reached the volume and cultural impact of its pre-revolutionary equivalent.

Still, whether one approves or disapproves of the present Cuban regime, it’s undeniable that the changes in the country, including the establishment of a one-party state, grew out of internal social and political realities in Cuba that were radically different from the American perception of Mafiosi decadence and lapsed island morals.

Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba. He is the author of Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment.

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Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship With Cuba

Mother Jones    September/October 2015
 Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship With Cuba
On a rainy day last December, President Barack Obama gathered a small group of senior officials in the Oval Office and placed a telephone call to Raúl Castro. Sitting on a couch to Obama’s left were National Security Council aides Benjamin Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, personal emissaries whose 18 months of secret negotiations were about to culminate in the first substantive conversation between the presidents of the United States and Cuba in more than half a century.

Obama later told reporters that he’d apologized to Castro for talking for such a long time. «Don’t worry about it, Mr. President,» Castro responded. «You’re still a young man and have still the time to break Fidel’s record—he once spoke seven hours straight.» After Castro finished his own lengthy opening statement, Obama joked, «Obviously, it runs in the family.»

Raúl Castro meets with President Obama on the sidelines of the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama in April, 2015. Estudio Revolucion/Xinhua/ZUMA

Despite the levity, both leaders understood the seriousness of their 45-minute conversation. «There was,» one White House official recalled, «a sense of history in that room.»

At noon the next day, the two presidents stunned the world when they simultaneously announced the dramatic breakthrough. Obama repudiated 55 years of US efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution, declaring that peaceful coexistence made more sense than perpetual antagonism. Both leaders described a prisoner exchange that had occurred earlier that morning. For «humanitarian reasons,» Cuba had released Alan Gross, incarcerated since December 2009 for setting up illicit satellite communications networks as part of a US Agency for International Development (USAID) «democracy promotion» program. Cuba also released Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a CIA spy whom Obama called «one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba.» In return, Obama commuted the sentences of the last three members of the «Cuban Five» spy ring—Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino—imprisoned for 16 years after they were caught infiltrating anti-Castro Cuban American groups and providing information that (the United States claimed) allowed Cuba to shoot down two planes flown into its airspace by an exile group, killing four Cuban Americans. (The other two members of the Cuban Five had been releasedearlier, having completed their sentences.)

 But the prisoner exchange was only the beginning. Obama promised to loosen restrictions on travel and trade, and authorize telecommunications companies to bring internet services to the island. For its part, Cuba pledged to release 53 political prisoners and engage with the International Red Cross and United Nations on human rights and prison conditions. Most importantly, the two presidents agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations. On July 20, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, traveled to Washington to raise the Cuban flag over the former embassy on 16th Street; on August 14 Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Havana to reopen our embassy in the sleek, modernist structure built for that purpose in 1953.

What brought about this radical change was a unique alignment of political stars: a shift in public opinion, particularly among Cuban Americans; a transition in Cuban leadership from Fidel to Raúl, followed by Cuba’s slow but steady evolution toward a market socialist economy; and Latin American leaders no longer willing to accept Cuba’s exclusion from regional affairs. Seizing the opportunity were a handful of dedicated US legislators, well-financed lobbyists, Alan Gross’ aggressive legal team, an activist pope from Latin America, and a woman hell-bent on getting pregnant.

But one factor trumped the rest: Obama’s determination. He was, one top aiderecalls, «a president who really wanted to do it.»


Obama’s push to break «the shackles of the past» began shortly after his reelection, when, according to one aide, he «told us we needed to design a play to run with Cuba.» By April 2013, Obama had chosen Rhodes and Zuniga to lead the negotiations. Rhodes had joined Obama’s 2008 campaign as a speechwriter and was personally close to the president. «All it takes is one Google search for these guys to know that Ben speaks to the president, and has daily access, and can be a trusted back channel,» explained a former White House official. Zuniga, meanwhile, had served in the US Interests Section in Havana (the embassy stand-in) and as the State Department’s acting coordinator for Cuban affairs.

Over the next 18 months, the two men met nine times with a small team of Cuban officials in various locales, from Ottawa to Rome. From the start, it was clear that before any discussion of normalizing relations could occur, both countries wanted their imprisoned citizens released.

But US officials believed that such a direct exchange would be politically toxic. Instead, they hoped their growing rapport would convince the Cubans to free Gross. As a show of good faith, they arranged for the wives of Hernández and González to secretly visit them. In exchange, the Cubans permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband, held in a military hospital in Havana.

«We thought this would lead to the release of Alan Gross,» one US official recalls. But the Cubans continued to hold out for the swap, even as the parole dates for two of their five spies neared. Eventually US negotiators realized their strategy was doomed. In May 2012, Clinton received a memo from her team that stated: «We have to continue negotiating with the Cubans on the release of Alan Gross but cannot allow his situation to block an advance of bilateral relations…The Cubans are not going to budge. We either deal with the Cuban Five or cordon those two issues off.»

The memo hit at an opportune time. Clinton and Obama had just returnedfrom the Sixth Summit of the Americas, where they’d been chastised by heads of states furious over the US stance on Cuba. «It was clearly an irritant and a drag on our policy in the region,» says Roberta S. Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Clinton had previously pushed the White House to liberalize regulations on educational travel to Cuba, finally going directly to the president to bypass White House aides worried about political fallout. In the wake of the summit debacle, she instructed her deputy to assemble what one adviser called «the full monty» of potential actions to change Cuba policy. «I recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo,» Clinton recalls in her memoir. «It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.»

Following his reelection, Obama approached Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry about replacing Clinton as secretary of state—and immediately raised the prospect of a new approach to Cuba. Kerry was receptive. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he’d been a vocal critic of the USAID democracy promotion programs that financed Gross’ secret missions to Cuba. Kerry had also long opposed the US economic embargo, and played a key role in normalizing relations with Vietnam—a triumph he hoped to repeat with Cuba.

Still, when a new round of secret talks began in June 2013, Kerry was not privyto them. Only a handful of US officials knew, among them Vice President Joe Biden, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. No one at the Pentagon was «read in.» Although Kerry was eventually brought into the loop, «we kept it fairly tight on our side, and the Cubans, I think, did the same on their side,» a senior US official said. «We didn’t want any wrench to be thrown in the gears that could complicate attempts to secure Alan Gross’ release.»

The effort at secrecy was aided by Canada, which allowed the two sides to meet in Ottawa and later Toronto. The Cubans’ top priority was still getting their spies back—particularly Gerardo Hernández, who, as the ringleader of the Cuban Five and the broader crew of spies known as the «Wasp Network,» was serving two life sentences. Zuniga and Rhodes came to the table with a more fluid approach. «We had no fixed vision of what an agreement would be,» recalls a White House official knowledgeable about the talks. Instead, they wanted to «try out different formulas» to explore what could be agreed on. «We never went in thinking there would be a grand bargain.»

But politically the White House was in a tricky spot. If all that came out of the talks was a prisoner exchange and a few travel and trade tweaks, Obama’s initiative would not register as a serious policy change. Lifting the embargowas in Congress’ hands, but restoring diplomatic ties was the one dramatic action he could take unilaterally.

«Look, I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place,» he told the Cubans. «We want to hear and talk about the future.»

During the first negotiating sessions, the US team had to listen to the Cubans recite the long history of US depredations against the island, starting with the Spanish-American War in 1898. To old hands, it was the requisite throat-clearing to be endured before getting down to real business. But Rhodes had no prior dealings with Cuba and at one point interrupted the diatribe. «Look, I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place,» he told the Cubans. «We want to hear and talk about the future

Historical disagreements were only the beginning. The US team wasn’t willing to talk about the USAID programs or Guantán­amo; the Cubans weren’t willing to discuss human rights or US fugitives hiding in their country. «There were a lot of dry wells for us and for them,» according to a White House official. Both sides were eager to talk about the prisoners, but a straight-up trade—Gross for the three remaining members of the Cuban Five—was still a nonstarter for the White House. The president had said repeatedly that Gross had done nothing wrong, was not a spy, and therefore could not be exchanged for spies. In the administration’s public portrayal of Gross, he was just a development specialist attempting to bring internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. To the Cubans, Gross was a covert operative engaged in a program to subvert their government, and the Cuban Five were patriots protecting their country against the far-right zealots of Little Havana.

To break the deadlock, the US negotiators raised the case of Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, who’d been a top CIA mole inside Cuban intelligence until his arrest in the mid-1990s. Sarraff had provided the United States with information that led to the prosecution of many Cuban spies, including Ana Montes, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba specialist; State Department employee Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn; and the Wasp Network—including the Cuban Five.

During negotiations in Toronto in January 2014, the Americans suggested that if the ailing Gross were released on humanitarian grounds, they would swap the three Cuban spies for Sarraff. But the Cubans did not want to give up Sarraff—a double agent they considered so treacherous they’d held him in solitary for 18 years.

Left: Alan Gross greets Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Dec. 17, 2014. Right: Gross departs Havana with his wife, Judy Gross, attorney Scott Gilbert, and members of Congress. Lawrence Jackson/White House

Negotiations got even pricklier in May 2014, when the Obama administration announced it was swapping five Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier captured and imprisoned by the Taliban since 2009. The political uproar in Congress and the media was intense, especially after Bergdahl was reported to have deserted his post. From the US perspective, this made a similar trade with Cuba completely out of the question. The Cubans, however, figured that since Washington had traded five Taliban combatants for one US soldier, the White House would eventually agree to trade their three spies for Alan Gross.

It took months of negotiations for US diplomats to convince the Cubans that the only exchange the White House could abide would be trading spies for spies, namely the Cuban agents for Sarraff. Finally the Cubans relented, and talks turned to what one US official describes as «a bigger package»—including the restoration of full diplomatic relations.


In defending the Bergdahl deal, Obama officials cited intelligence indicating his mental and physical health were deteriorating after five years of captivity. They faced a similarly dire situation with Alan Gross. More than four years after being arrested, Gross was despondent over the administration’s inability to obtain his freedom. At one point he lost more than 100 pounds. By December 2013, when the coauthor of this article, Peter Korn­bluh, visited him in the military hospital where he was held, he seemed determined to get out on his own—dead or alive. «I’m a ticking time bomb. Tick. Tick. Tick,» Gross warned during the three-hour visit, in which he alluded to a plan to break down the «flimsy» door of his cell and challenge the heavily armed guards on the other side. A few months later, in April 2014, Gross went on a nine-dayhunger strike. On his 65th birthday on May 2, he announced it would be the last he would spend in a Cuban jail.

When Gross’ terminally ill, 92-year-old mother, Evelyn, took a severe turn for the worse in late May, negotiations became urgent. Meeting in Ottawa in early June, the Cubans pushed for a quick prisoner trade, expressing their fear that Gross would kill himself when his mother passed away. US officials, meanwhile, worried that if Gross died in a Cuban prison, a change in US policy would become politically impossible.

Kerry reached out to Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez and proposed a «furlough» to the United States—Gross would wear an electronic bracelet to allow the Cubans to monitor his movements, and he would return to prison after his mother’s death. «Alan promised unequivocally that he would return to incarceration in Cuba after visiting his mother at the hospital in Texas,» his lawyer Scott Gilbert recalls, «and I offered to take his place until he returned. That is how important this was.»

But the Cubans considered the plan too risky. After Evelyn Gross died on June 18, 2014, Kerry warned Rodrí­guez that if any harm came to Gross while in Cuba’s custody, the opportunity for better relations would be lost.

Left: Alan Gross talks with President Obama onboard a government plane headed back to the United States. Right: Gross arrives at at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Lawrence Jackson/White House

Gross was in «a difficult state of mind,» Gilbert recalls. As the summer progressed, he refused to meet with officials from the US Interests Section who routinely brought him care packages, and he told his wife and daughter that unless he was released soon, he’d never see them again. His lifeline was Gilbert, who pressed the Cubans to allow him to speak to Gross every day, and who traveled to Cuba 20 times to sustain his client’s morale.


Gross was also taking regular calls from Tim Rieser, a top aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Rieser was instrumental in securing better conditions for Gross in return for one of the more unusual confidence-building measures in the annals of diplomacy—a long-distance effort to impregnate the wife of Gerardo Hernández, the jailed Cuban spymaster.

This idea was first conceived in early 2011, when the head of Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington met with the State Department’s Julissa Reynoso to deliver a diplomatic note stating that Cuba did not see «any solution» to the incarceration of Hernández and that his wife, Adriana Pérez, was nearing the age of 40. Cuba sought US support to «facilitate» her ability to get pregnant.

It was one of the more unusual confidence-building measures in the annals of diplomacy—a long-distance effort to impregnate the wife of Gerardo Hernández, the jailed Cuban spymaster.

After what she calls a «sensitive» meeting on the matter, Reynoso explored the possibility of a secret conjugal visit between Pérez and her husband, but efforts to arrange such a rendezvous «fizzled out» due to Bureau of Prisons regulations. Two years later, in February 2013, Pérez met with Leahy, who was visiting Cuba with his wife, Marcelle. In a Havana hotel room, Pérez made an impassioned appeal to the Leahys to help her find a way to have a child with her husband, who had been in jail for 15 years. «It was an emotional meeting,»Leahy remembers. «She made a personal appeal to Marcelle. She was afraid that she would never have the chance to have a child. As parents and grandparents, we both wanted to try to help her. It was a human thing. It had nothing to do with the politics of the two countries.» But it would.

Leahy asked Rieser to find a solution. A conjugal visit was a nonstarter, but there was precedent for allowing an inmate to provide sperm for artificial insemination. Eventually, Rieser secured approval and the Cubans flew Pérez to a fertility clinic in Panama.

Meanwhile, Rieser was pressing the Cubans to improve the conditions for Gross: «I wanted to make clear to them that we cared about the treatment of their people, just as we expected them to care about the treatment of ours.» The Cubans reciprocated, permitting Gross to be examined by his own doctors, giving him a computer and printer, and allowing him more outdoor exercise.

As Pérez’s pregnancy became obvious, the State Department asked the Cubans to keep her out of the public eye, lest her condition stir speculation that a US-Cuban rapprochement was in the works. «We had given our word to keep the pregnancy and all of the process around it a secret in order not to prejudice the greater objective, which was our freedom,» Hernández later explained. When he landed in Cuba, state television showed him being greeted by Raúl Castro and, to the astonishment of his countrymen, a nine-months-pregnant wife. Three weeks later, on January 6, 2015, their baby girl, Gema Hernández Pérez, was born.

Although Leahy’s «stork diplomacy» contributed to the success of the Cuba-US negotiations, even he was unaware of the secret talks underway. Meanwhile, he served as the unofficial leader of a group of senators and representatives who pressed Obama and his aides for change at every opportunity. «All of us had been pushing the president when we saw him at ceremonial functions for a few seconds—telling him, ‘You’ve got to do something on Cuba,'» recalls Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Leahy decided that to get the attention of the president, a former legal scholar, he’d have to flesh out the legal basis to release the Cuban spies. The senator’s staff collaborated with former White House counsel Greg Craig to draft a 10-page memo of options «to secure Mr. Gross’ release, and in so doing break the logjam and change the course of U.S. policy towards Cuba, which would be widely acclaimed as a major legacy achievement.» The document, dated February 7, laid out a course of action that would prove to be a close match with the final accord. «It was a damn good memo,» Craig says.

Still, it took until May 1 before Leahy, along with Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and McGovern, finally met in the Oval Office with Obama, Biden, and Susan Rice. They urged Obama to press for Gross’ release and replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. «You said you were going to do this,» McGovern reminded the president. «Let’s just do it!»

«We’re working on it,» Obama told them, but he gave no hint of the back-channel diplomacy then well underway.

«There was a bit of tension with the president. We’re pushing him, and he’s pushing back,» McGovern recalls. «We were pretty aggressive.» At the meeting’s end, the members were not very optimistic. «We were not reassured that this was going to happen.»


Three days earlier, a series of billboards appeared in the Washington Metro stations nearest to the White House and State Department. «Mr. President, it’s time to take action on Cuba policy,» read one. Another declared, «The American people are our best ambassadors. It’s time to allow all persons to travel freely to Cuba.» The ads, which generated significant media buzz, were sponsored by a new advocacy group, #CubaNow, which positioned itself as the voice of the younger, more moderate Cuban American community in Miami.

#CubaNow was the brainchild of the Trimpa Group, an unusual organization that matched deep-pocketed donors seeking to change policy with a political strategy and advocacy campaign. In 2003, for example, founder Ted Trimpa developed a lobbying strategy to mount a marriage-equality movement across the country financed by multimillionaire businessman Tim Gill.

Nine years later, in October 2012, Gill traveled to Cuba on a US-licensed tour with a wealthy friend, Patty Ebrahimi, who was born and raised in Cuba but left with her family a year after Fidel Castro seized power. Ebrahimi chafed under the restrictions of the tour imposed by US Treasury regulations. She couldn’t go off on her own to visit the neighborhoods of her youth, track down family friends, or see her old schools. «The idea that I could go anywhere else in the world, including Vietnam, North Korea, or Iran, without special permission from the US government but couldn’t go to Cuba without a license angered me,» she recalled. As she vented her frustrations to Gill in the lounge of the Saratoga Hotel in Havana, he offered a suggestion: «You should use your money to change the policy.» A few months later, he introduced Ebrahimi to Trimpa.

Gerardo Hernandez with his wife Adriana Perez after the birth of their daughter.

Gerardo Hernández with his wife Adriana Pérez after the birth of their daughter. Estudios Revolucion

After conducting a three-month survey of the political landscape, the Trimpa Group reported that «the highest level of decision makers within the Obama administration» wanted change—they just needed political reinforcement to push for it. After consulting with her husband, Fred, the former CEO and owner of Quark Software Inc., Patty gave the lobby shop $1 million to finance a campaign to embolden the White House.

«My decision to take up this work was an emotional one,» she later said. «We did it because we wanted to help,» Fred Ebrahimi noted. «We did it because we thought we could be effective.»

The Trimpa Group pulled out all the stops. It counseled Ebrahimi to make donations to key political figures such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Durbin—donations intended to gain access and «be in the room,» according to Trimpa’s strategic plan. The lobby shop hired Luis Miranda, who had recently left his position as Obama’s director of Hispanic media, and sought the blessing of Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff, to launch a public campaign promoting a change in Cuba policy. The Trimpa team also met with key foreign policy officials. To all the players, the Trimpa Group insisted that there would be no political blowback for Democrats in Florida if Obama changed Cuba policy. To bolster that argument, they financed a series of opinion polls. One, conducted by an Obama pollster, John Anzalone, found that Cuban Americans in Florida—especially the younger generation—favored engagement. And the Atlantic Council conducted a national poll sponsored by Trimpa that found, as a New York Times headline would put it, that a «Majority of Americans Favor Ties With Cuba.»

The polls were intended to «show broad support for change,» «create a new normal,» and «give voice to the silent majority,» says James Williams, the political operative who oversaw the Trimpa Group’s efforts.

Williams also had the support of groups key to the Cuba debate, ranging from funding powerhouses (like Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation) to policy shops (the Washington Office on Latin America, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and the Latin America Working Group) to elite think tanks (Brookings and the Council of the Americas).

On May 19, 2014, this coalition released an open letter to Obama signed by 46 luminaries of the policy and business world, urging the president to engage with Cuba. The signatories included former diplomats and retired military officers—among them former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering—and Cuban American business leaders like Andres Fanjul, co-owner of a Florida-based multinational sugar company. But the name that attracted the most attention was John Negroponte, George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence.

The same day, not coincidentally, the conservative US Chamber of Commerce announced that its president, Tom Donohue, would lead a delegation to Cuba to «develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector.»

Soon after that, the New York Times launched a two-month editorial series slugged «Cuba: A New Start.» The weekly editorials were the work of Ernesto Londoño, who talked to administration officials, Leahy’s office, and the Trimpa Group. «There was really no collusion or formal cooperation in what they were doing and what we were doing,» he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The Times simply saw an opportunity to push the policy it advocated forward. «We figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.»

All these forces, in other words, were marshaled to push Obama through a door whose threshold he had already crossed.


And let’s not forget the pope.

Even as the secret negotiations continued, members of Congress kept looking for allies to press Obama on Cuba, and provide him cover from attacks from the right. In a September 2013 meeting at Rice’s office, Durbin floated a new idea: What about getting the new pope involved? As the first pontiff from Latin America, Francis knew Cuba well. After accompanying Pope John Paul II on his 1998 visit to the island, Francis—then the assistant archbishop of Buenos Aires—had written a short book about the trip, Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro. And the Vatican had credibility with Havana because of its consistent opposition to the embargo.

Raul Castro talks with Pope Francis

Pope Francis talks with Cuban President Raúl Castro during a private audience at the Vatican May 10, 2015. Gregorio Borgia/Pool/Reuters

All parties saw the wisdom of divine intervention. Leahy sent a confidential message to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, asking him to encourage the pope to help resolve the prisoner issue. Drawing on the close ties between Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, the White House also «got word to the Vatican that the president was eager to discuss this» at an upcoming meeting in March with the pope in Rome, according to Craig. And at a strategy meeting of the Cuba advocacy groups, Tim Phillips of the peace group Beyond Conflict suggested approaching Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston. «We knew that O’Malley was very close to the pope,» recalled Craig, who had ties to the Catholic Church hierarchy in Boston from his days as a foreign policy aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy. «O’Malley had spent time in Latin America, spoke Spanish fluently, had known the pope before he became pope, and had a relationship with the pope that was unusual, certainly much, much better than McCarrick’s.»

In early March 2014, a small group of Cuba policy advocates, including representatives of the Trimpa Group, Phillips, and Craig, met with Cardinal O’Malley in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. «We explained the recent trends, the conversations with POTUS and others in the administration and Congress,» Phillips recalls, «and indicated this was a historic moment, and a message from the pope to POTUS would be significant in moving the process forward.» Craig brought a letter from Leahy urging the cardinal to focus the pope’s attention on the «humanitarian issue» of the prisoner exchange. Leahy personally delivered a similar message to Cardinal McCarrick, and arranged for yet another to be sent to Cardinal Ortega in Havana. There now were three cardinals urging the pope—as yet unaware of the secret dialogue between Washington and Havana—to put Cuba on the agenda with Obama.

Three weeks later, Obama met the pope in his private library, a marble-floored chamber overlooking St. Peter’s Square. There, they spoke for an hour under a frieze of Renaissance frescoes. Obama «told the pope that we had something going with Cuba and said it would be useful if he could play a role,» according to a White House official familiar with the meeting. A few days later, Francis summoned Ortega to enlist his help.

Over the summer, the pope wrote forceful, confidential letters to Obama and Raúl Castro, imploring the two leaders «to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.» To safeguard his communications, the pope sent both letters via papal courier to Havana—with instructions to Cardinal Ortega to personally deliver the message into the president’s hands. Ortega then sent his top aide to Washington to advance his clandestine diplomatic mission. But arranging a secret face-to-face meeting with the president of the United States was easier said than done. Alerted to the problem, Cardinal McCarrick conferred with White House officials, who enlisted his help as a secret back-channel go-between. In early August, McCarrick traveled to Cuba carrying a note from Obama that asked Ortega to entrust McCarrick with delivering the pope’s letter to the White House. But Ortega’s papal instructions were to deliver the message himself. McCarrick left Cuba empty-handed.

To make sure the meeting did not leak, US officials kept Cardinal Ortega’s name off of the White House visitor logs. Meeting with the president on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega delivered the pope’s letter in which Francis offered to «help in any way.»

Back in Washington, McCarrick worked with McDonough to arrange a secret meeting for Ortega with the president. On the morning of August 18, Ortega gave a talk at Georgetown University—providing a cover story for his presence in Washington—and then quietly went to the White House. (To make sure the meeting did not leak, US officials kept Ortega’s name off the White House visitor logs.) Meeting with the president on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega finally completed his mission of delivering the pope’s sensitive communication, in which he offered to «help in any way.»

It was a convoluted process, but an unprecedented gesture. «We haven’t received communications like this from the pope that I’m aware of other than this instance,» a senior US official recalls. «And that gave, I think, greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward.»


By late October, the pope had invited the negotiators to Rome. «It was less a matter of breaking some substantive logjam but more the confidence of having an external party we could rely on,» says a senior US official.

It was at the Vatican that the two sides hammered out their final agreement on the prisoner exchange and restoring diplomatic relations. Rhodes and Zuniga also noted Obama’s intention to ease regulations on travel and trade, and to allow US telecom companies to help Cuban state enterprises expand internet access. They acknowledged these initiatives were aimed at fostering greater openness in Cuba, though they delivered this message respectfully. Cuban officials said that while they had no intention of changing their political system to suit the United States, they had reviewed the Americans’ list of prisoners jailed for political activities and would release 53 of them as a goodwill gesture. The pope agreed to act as guarantor of the final accord.

Obama’s National Security Council met on November 6 to sign off on the details. Later that month, the negotiating teams convened one last time in Canada to arrange the logistics of the prisoner exchange.

On December 12, Zuniga called Alan Gross’ wife, Judy, to the Executive Office Building to tell her the good news. Four days later, on the eve of Hanukkah, Scott Gilbert called his client to tell him he’d soon be a free man. «I’ll believe it when I see it,» Gross replied.

He didn’t have to wait long: Early the next morning Gross was taken from his prison cell in Havana to a small military airport, where he was met by his wife, his attorney, and members of Congress who had worked to win his release. The prisoner exchange was choreographed so carefully that the blue and white presidential plane sent to bring Gross home was not cleared to depart Havana until the plane carrying the three Cuban spies touched down on a nearby runway.

Once in the air, Gross was given some of his favorite foods—popcorn and corned beef on rye—and took a call from Obama. After clearing Cuban airspace, he called his daughters to tell them simply, «I’m free.»

Obama called on Congress to rescind the embargo—a policy, as he said, «long past its expiration date.» But with Republican majorities in both houses and a presidential election in the offing, getting Congress to end the sanctions looks to be a lot harder than reaching an agreement with Havana. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has led the Republican tirades against the deal, says thepresident gave the Cuban government «everything it asked for» and got nothing in return. «I am committed to unravel as many of these changes as possible,» he added.

While Rubio and the rest of the old-guard anti-Cuba lobby fume, the process of normalization is moving forward. Obama officially removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and US and Cuban flags fly over the newly reestablished embassies in Havana and Washington.

But maybe the most symbolic moment came at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in April, when Obama and Castro met privately in person for the first time and reaffirmed their commitment to normalize relations. Although Castro prefaced his speech before the assembly with a 50-minute litany of US transgressions against Cuba, at the end his tone changed to conciliation and even warmth. «I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution. I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this,» Castro said, noting that nine other US presidents could have reached out to Cuba and didn’t. «In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man. I have read his autobiographies and I admire him and his life and think his behavior comes from his humble background. There, I said it.»

Obama chose not to revisit old bitterness: «America never makes a claim about being perfect. We do make a claim about being open to change. The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We’re looking to the future.»

This article is adapted from the new, updated edition of the authors’ book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, to be published in October, ©2015 University of North Carolina Press.

It was a touchy subject, but one we learned had already been broached following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which led to unprecedented US-Cuban cooperation on disaster relief. Over the next two years, two top State Department officials—Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julissa Reynoso—secretly negotiated with Cuban officials in Creole restaurants in Port-au-Prince, subterranean bars on Manhattan’s East Side, and a hotel lounge in Santo Domingo. US officials focused on freeing Gross, while the Cubans requested that the wives of Cuban spies Hernández and René González be allowed to visit their husbands in jail. (These women’s visas had previously been denied because they too were suspected of being covert agents.) The Cuban position «started with ‘Treat our guys better,'» says a US official with knowledge of the talks, and evolved into «‘We want them all home.'» By September 2011, the Cubans had explicitly proposed swapping the Cuban Five for Alan Gross.«JUST DO IT!»At noon, Obama announced the deal with Cuba to the nation: «We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests. Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.» Raúl Castro was more restrained, focusing on the return of the three Cuban «heroes.» Normalization of diplomatic relations received just a single sentence, followed immediately by a reminder that the embargo —»the heart of the matter»—remained in place.


Director, Cuba Documentation Project

Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. He is co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.


Professor of Government

William LeoGrande is a professor of government and a specialist in Latin American politics and US foreign policy toward Latin America. He has written five books, including Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992. Most recently, he is coauthor of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

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In December, Presidents Barak Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would be taking steps to normalise US-Cuban relations thereby ending decades of animosity between the two governments. In a public statement, Obama declared it time ‘to cut loose the shackles of the past’ and do away with the enmity that brought about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although Cuba is currently in the headlines, the Caribbean island does not figure as prominently in US politics as it once did. During the Cold War, developments in Cuba had a profound effect on US policy towards Latin America as a whole. In particular, Washington officials feared that the Cuban Revolution would pave the way for other communist governments, allied with the Soviet Union, to emerge throughout the region. For President John F. Kennedy, this prospect made Latin America ‘the most dangerous area in the world’.

As a senator, Kennedy had initially called for a ‘patient attitude’ towards Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro who, after coming to power in January 1959, repeatedly denied being a communist. However, as Castro nationalised US property, delayed elections and accepted aid from the Soviet Union, Kennedy’s view shifted. 1 In the run up to the 1960 election, he repeatedly argued that Latin America was threatened by future communist revolutions.  ‘I have seen Communist influence and Castro influence rise in Latin America’ he declared and asked ‘By 1965 or 1970, will there be other Cubas in Latin America?’ 2

As President-Elect, Kennedy’s fears were supported by a government report which warned that ‘the present Communist challenge in Latin America resembles, but is more dangerous than, the Nazi-Fascist threat of the Franklin Roosevelt period and demands an even bolder and more imaginative response.’ A response came as, once in office, Kennedy established the ‘Alliance for Progress’ which ostensibly aimed to undermine support for radical social movements by funding Latin America’s economic development. 3  Kennedy asserted that the Alliance should aim to ‘eliminate tyranny’but as historian Thomas C. Field Jnr has revealed, in practice, US aid was used to support the increasingly authoritarian regime of Bolivian President Víctor Paz Estenssoro. 4

In 1961, Kennedy’s advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger cautioned that ‘Bolivia might well go the way of Cuba’ and argued that ‘we simply cannot let another Latin American nation go Communist; if we should do so, the game would be up through a good deal of Latin America.’ 5 By providing Paz with financial support and military hardware, Washington was able to ensure that the country’s leadership maintained an anti-communist stance and liberalised the national economy against the wishes of armed, left-wing trade unions. Yet the authoritarianism that Washington encouraged ultimately inspired civilian and military revolt against Paz, culminating in the 1964 coup that overthrew him. 6

Fears of ‘another Castro situation’ also informed Kennedy’s attitude towards British Guiana which, by 1963, was taking steps towards independence from the British Empire. At the time, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) held a majority in the colony’s assembly but US officials had concerns regarding the possible ‘communist connections’ of its leader Cheddi Jagan. Fearing that British Guiana would emerge as a ‘Castro-type state in South America’, Washington was keen to see the more conservative Forbes Burnham, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), assume leadership of the colony following its independence.

The US government persuaded London to alter British Guiana’s electoral system to proportional representation and, in 1964, despite receiving the highest share of the popular vote, Jagan’s PPP lost its majority status in the legislative assembly to a coalition led by the PNC. Subsequently, in May 1966, the colony became an independent state, renamed Guyana and led by Burnam. 7

The Kennedy administration’s interventions in Latin America took a number of forms with each aiming to prevent ‘another Castro’.  As Thomas G. Paterson has argued, US officials were gripped by the ‘fear that the Cuban Revolution would become contagious and further diminish United States hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.’ 8 Now, with the Cold War concluded, this fear has diminished and at least some US officials desire a more cordial relationship with Havana.

Significant steps have already been taken to improve US-Cuban relations with prisoners released and the announcement that Washington will ease restrictions on commerce and travel between the two countries. Fidel Castro has tentatively backedhis brother’s rapprochement with Obama who intends to set up an embassy in Havana but tensions remain as officials from both countries have continued to criticise the others’ human rights record. While the future of this relationship is uncertain, it seems unlikely that Cuba will ever again be so central to US foreign policy as it was during the Kennedy presidency.

Mark Seddon completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2014. His research focuses on British and US interventions in Latin America during the Second World War and Cold War. You can find him on Twitter @MarkSedd0n.

For an overview of Kennedy’s policy towards Latin America see: Stephen G. Rabe, The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999)


  1. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 124-125. 
  2. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29403 
  3. Jeffrey F. Taffet, Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America (New York, NY, 2007), pp. 11-28. 
  4. Thomas C. Field Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (New York, NY, 2014). 
  5. Ibid., p. 14. 
  6. Ibid., pp. 189-196. 
  7. Stephen G. Rabe, U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (Chapel Hill, NC), pp. 105-151. 
  8. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), p. 127. 

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When J.F.K. Secretly Reached Out to Castro

Michael Beschloss

The New York Times    December 17, 2014

In December 1962, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, greet newly freed Brigade 2506 members, who had been captured by Fidel Castro’s government in the previous year’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Credit Cecil Stoughton/The White House, via John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library

President Obama’s surprise effort to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, concurrent with an economic embargo, recalls the two-track approach — economic and sometimes military force, along with secret, sporadic attempts to find some kind of accommodation — that formed American policy toward Cuba during the most dangerous years of that relationship.

On Monday evening, Nov. 18, 1963, at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach — four days before his assassination — President John F. Kennedy, wearing black tie, told the Inter-American Press Association that only one issue separated the United States from Fidel Castro’s Cuba: Castro’s “conspirators” had handed Cuban sovereignty to “forces beyond the hemisphere” (meaning the Soviet Union), which were using Cuba “to subvert the other American republics.” Kennedy said, “As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible.”

The president had asked his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, for language that would open a door to the Cuban leader, although, as Sorensen later observed, the audience was “a very tough anti-Castro group.”

That same day, Ambassador William Attwood, a Kennedy delegate to the United Nations, secretly called Castro’s aide and physician, Rene Vallejo, to discuss a possible secret meeting in Havana between Attwood and Castro that might improve the Cuban-American relationship, which had been ruptured when President Eisenhower broke diplomatic ties in January 1961.

Attwood had been told by Castro’s U.N. ambassador, Carlos Lechuga, in September 1963, that the Cuban leader wished to establish back-channel communications with Washington. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy worried that such talks would leak and embarrass his brother on the eve of his 1964 re-election campaign, but the president quietly encouraged Attwood to pursue the matter.

Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, told Attwood that J.F.K. wanted to “know more about what is on Castro’s mind before committing ourselves to further talks on Cuba.” He said that as soon as Attwood and Lechuga could agree on an agenda, the president would tell him what to say to Castro; in the meantime, J.F.K. had to make a trip to Texas.

Had Kennedy survived, the Attwood back channel might conceivably have led to some improvement in the relationship between Havana and Washington, but the odds against it were formidable. By allying Cuba with the Soviet Union, Castro was in flagrant defiance of America’s Monroe Doctrine, and Kennedy was eager to stop it.

In April 1961, he had authorized an invasion of Cuba by C.I.A.-supported Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. When that failed, Castro’s regime jailed more than a thousand members of the invasion brigade, who were released in December 1962 in exchange for $53 million in medical supplies and food. President Kennedy greeted the freed prisoners at the Orange Bowl in Miami. They presented him with their battle flag, which J.F.K. pledged to return to them “in a free Havana.”

Trying to recoup from the Bay of Pigs disaster, the Kennedy administration covertly unleashed Operation Mongoose, which included sabotage, paramilitary raids, guerrilla warfare and – although differences remain to this day over how much the president knew about them – efforts to assassinate Castro.

Kennedy saw Operation Mongoose as a substitute for authorizing a full-fledged American invasion to remove Castro from power. But the Cuban leader mistakenly presumed that Mongoose was actually the prelude to such an invasion, and he asked the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to do something to keep the Americans out. Castro’s request was one of the reasons that, in the fall of 1962, Khrushchev ordered nuclear-capable missiles sent to Cuba, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kennedy settled the crisis, in part, by pledging that the United States would not invade Cuba; however that pledge was conditioned on the presumption that Castro would stop trying to encourage other revolutions like his own throughout Latin America. But Castro was furious that Khrushchev had not consulted him before making his bargain with Kennedy to end the crisis — and furious as well that U.S. covert action against him had not ceased. (In fact, on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination, the C.I.A., in Paris, gave a disaffected comrade of Castro’s a poison pen that was to be used against the Cuban leader.)

In September 1963, Castro appeared at a Brazilian Embassy reception in Havana and warned, “American leaders should know that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, then they themselves will not be safe.”

Late on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1963 — the evening before President Kennedy’s final full day at the White House — the C.I.A.’s covert action chief, Richard Helms, brought J.F.K. what he termed “hard evidence” that Castro was still trying to foment revolution throughout Latin America.

Helms (who later served as C.I.A. director from 1966 to 1973) and an aide, Hershel Peake, told Kennedy about their agency’s discovery: a three-ton arms cache left by Cuban terrorists on a beach in Venezuela, along with blueprints for a plan to seize control of that country by stopping Venezuelan elections scheduled for 12 days hence.

Standing in the Cabinet Room near windows overlooking the darkened Rose Garden, Helms brandished what he called a “vicious-looking” rifle and told the president how its identifying Cuban seal had been sanded off.

Helms (who died in 2002) told me in 1987 that he realized that in response to this evidence, Kennedy “wasn’t going to invade Cuba,” but that he was certain the president’s “real energy” on Cuba was directed toward covert action. Helms insisted that J.F.K.’s quiet efforts to communicate with Castro were at best “a feint” — “like most two-track policies, try everything.”

Helms’s skepticism about Kennedy’s back channel to Castro no doubt reflected the president’s careful efforts to show no sign of weakness on Cuba in front of his covert action director. And indeed, as Helms later related to me, Kennedy responded to the sight of the Cuban rifle by telling him, “Great work!”

The president reminded the C.I.A. man that he would be leaving on Thursday morning for Texas. He told Helms, “Be sure to have complete information for me when I get back from my trip.”

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