Cuba Is a Diplomatic Cautionary Tale

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, The University of North Carolina Press, 544 pages

Published on The American Conservative blog site, February 27, 2015.


 Marcin Krzyzak /
Marcin Krzyzak /

On December 10, 2013, at the memorial service for former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, U.S. President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro. On December 17, 2014, President Obama and President Castro simultaneously announced that the two countries would move to restore full diplomatic relations. Reportedly 18 months of secret negotiations, and a personal telephone conversation between the two leaders the week before, preceded the December 17 announcement. In the January 20, 2015 state of the union address President Obama noted, “In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date … And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere and removes the phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba, stands up for democratic values and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, by Professor William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, masterfully chronicles the often quixotic, if not at times highly unusual, and but inevitably unsuccessful attempts from the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower through the beginning of President Obama’s second term, to break what one author has called the “hemispheric anomaly.” Messrs. LeoGrand and Kornbluh take the reader up to the handshake between President Obama and President Castro. Both authors bring an understanding and marked appreciation of the tortuous intricacies of the United States’ relationships with its southern neighbors: Professor LeoGrande of American University is a specialist in Latin American politics and U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. His noted book Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992, is a scholarly work on a troubled and passion-fraught period; Mr. Kornbluh is the director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kornbluh edited Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba and has written articles and books on recent U.S.-Latin American issues. The University of North Carolina Press exceeds contemporary publishing standards in its commendable attention to detail and exemplary professionalism in editing and printing the book. Digital source cites, subject to modification or deletion, are kept to a minimum.

A tour de force, Back Channel to Cuba never simplifies the complexity of the post-Revolution relationship between the United States and Cuba. The authors’ virtuosity and enthusiastic vigor is reminiscent of John Le Carré as a political moralist while adhering to exacting scholarly standards. Meticulously researched, affording itself of primary and secondary archival sources, the book benefits notably from 54 personal interviews of key participants. Amongst those interviewed are former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro, three former U.S. National Security Advisors, and Cuban counterparts of equal stature. (Though the absence from the bibliography of Michael Dobb’s superlative 2008 book One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War is but a minor quibble, it is one worth noting.) As Back Channel to Cuba makes abundantly clear, the attainment of the ever-elusive goal of “dialogue, rapprochement, and reconciliation” was concomitant with a singular lack of consistency in defining, elucidating, and exercising realistic strategic goals toward Cuba. Through 10 presidents, U.S. policy makers have been loath to recognize, much less seriously assess, the effects of “[t]he discontinuity from one administration to the next…” and what this has signaled to Cuba: “Ricardo Alarcón, who lead Cuban delegations negotiating with the United States from the 1980s to 2003, remarked how little institutional memory the State Department seemed to carry over from one administration to the next.”

From the time “Che” Guevara entered Havana on January 2, 1959, at the head of a victorious rebel column to the day in December 2013 when President Raúl Castro introduced himself to President Obama, the answer to a fundamental question, “What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance?” has eluded U.S. presidents and their policy makers. That former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger poses the question in his recent book World Order is evocative; Kissinger was if not the then certainly a principal in dealings with Cuba, both as national security adviser and secretary of state, under two successive presidents. Whether Kissinger’s tenure in those two capacities reflected an Aristotelian aesthetic of stripping away all that is incidental and propositional to arrive at the metaphysical essentials of the issue is likely open to debate. Whether Dr. Kissinger asked himself about values while wrestling with the Gordion knot of Cuba is not indicated.

The formulation of foreign policy is inherently conjectural. That is, it consists of the inevitable linking of action—passive, anticipatory, or reactive—to assessments that are to one degree or another inconclusive and/or incomplete. A U.S. national strategy toward Cuba, in which dialogue by definition must play a critical role, was further encumbered by unsustainably chasing elusive calculations and moral proscriptions absent in-depth historical and cultural appreciation and understanding. The calculations were a chimera while moral proscriptions tended to render themselves onto crusades. Consequently, misguided national ambitions or goals find themselves unchecked by realism and restraint. Tellingly, the authors observe that at one point, during President Bill Clinton’s administration, the most substantive exchange occurred when Cuban diplomat Fernando Remírez commented on the difficult state of U.S.-Cuban relations. Angelina Nuccio, the Mexican-born wife of President Clinton’s Special Adviser for Cuba, Richard A. Nuccio, then reminded Remírez of a famous saying in her country: “So far from God, so close to the United States.”

“Yes, that’s it,” Remírez replied. “You understand us exactly.”

Whether the United States’ relationship with, in the words of Prof. Lars Schoultz, “the infernal little Cuban republic”, and the many failed attempts to rectify it are to be changed with the historic handshake remains to be seen. Messrs. LeoGrande and Kornbluh’s book gives cause for hope while serving as a cautionary tale of the many pitfalls that await the United States’s efforts to move beyond an anachronism noted more for acrimony than meaningful dialogue.

Significantly, Back Channel to Cuba serves as a salutatory tonic for much that has ailed U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Post-1945 history has been marked with some major blunders, perhaps, just perhaps, undertaken by misguided well-meaning actors, but blunders nevertheless. Admittedly there have been some stunning successes, but at what cost? One can fairly assess Back Channel to Cuba not so much as a chronicle of success but rather a primer on what not to do, whether with Cuba, ISIS, China, or a host of other challenges that contain an inherent capability to bedevil U.S. efforts at successful diplomacy or seriously veer the country off track into an era of continuous and unmitigated conflict.

Colonel John C. McKay is a career Marine Corps infantry officer who from 1995-1996 was the senior U.S. military officer conducting military-to-military contact talks with the Cubans at U.S. Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay.