The 9 Secret Meetings it Took to Resume U.S.-Cuba Relations

Photo © Day Donaldson

In the summer of 2014, while William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh were busy making the final edits on their book about the history of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, the two counties were busy upending it.

LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist at American University, and Kornbluh, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, came out with Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana in October 2014. Two months later, the United States and Cuba made the surprise announcement that they had agreed to begin normalizing relations between the two countries.

For the next year, LeoGrande and Kornbluh shifted from history to journalism — investigating and documenting the secret negotiations between the countries that had begun in 2013 — and gave Back Channel to Cuba a new ending for the recently published paperback edition. A fascinating excerpt in Mother Jones provides the first details of the high-level negotiations.

With President Obama making the first American state trip to Cuba in more than a half-century, we sat down with LeoGrande earlier this week to talk about the history of the relationship between the two countries, why there has been such a dramatic shift in the last few years, and what changes are still to come.

SIGNATURE: When was the last time we had diplomatic relations with Cuba? The 1950s?

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: Yes, we had diplomatic relations in the ’50s and for the first couple of years of Castro’s government, which began in 1959. President Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations in January of 1961 just before he left office. We had no formal diplomatic relations after that until last summer when diplomatic relations were restored. We have had U.S. diplomats in Cuba since 1977. They were technically part of the Swiss Embassy, but in reality it was U.S. diplomats working on matters of interest to the United States.

SIG: Is “diplomatic relations” a term of art for having embassies in each other’s countries?

WL: Yes. When you talk about diplomatic relations, it means that the two governments have recognized one another as the de jure government of their countries and that they have embassies and often consular offices as well. All of those relationships are governed by a couple of international accords that almost every country has agreed to.

SIG: When President Eisenhower ended diplomatic relations with Cuba, what form did that take? Closing the embassy in Havana?

WL: He closed the embassy, and it remained a locked building until the U.S. went back in 1977.

SIG: What have we done in that building since 1977?

WL: We had the U.S. Interest Section, which wasn’t a formal embassy but functioned more or less as an embassy under the protection of the Swiss government and the Swiss embassy in Havana.

SIG: And we’re still in that same building?

WL: Yes, it’s the same building that we left in 1961.

SIG: Have you been in that building?

WL: Oh, many times.

SIG: What does it look like?

WL: It was built in the early 1950, so it has that modern, sleek look to it. It is a little bit ramshackle because the State Department hasn’t had the budget yet to do much repair. Now it’s a little small for the diplomatic mission that we have there, so we have our consular offices in a separate building.

SIG: I know we don’t have an ambassador yet, but has President Obama named a chief diplomat to Cuba?

WL: The current chargé d’affaires, which is the formal title, is Jeff DeLaurentis, who is a career foreign service officer. He has the title of ambassador personally from a previous assignment, but he is not the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba because he has not been appointed by the president or confirmed by the Senate. He is a very skilled diplomat who was sent there by the president during the secret negotiations with Cuba with the expectation that he would head up the embassy once it was established.

SIG: Have there been many discussions between the heads of state of the United States and Cuba over the years since 1961?

WL: No. There were no direct conversations between the Cuban and U.S. presidents. Bill Clinton bumped into Fidel Castro in the hallway at the United Nations General Assembly once, and they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. However, there have been quite high level negotiations over a variety of issues. Secretary of State Al Haig, several Assistant Secretaries of State and senior advisors and private emissaries sent by U.S. presidents over the years have had high-level discussions with Cuba, which Peter Kornbluh and I tried to capture in the book. The presidents themselves have stayed out of it until now.

SIG: What was the George W. Bush administration’s policy toward Cuba?

WL: It was a policy of regime change. They were actively pressing for the collapse of the Cuban government, so the Bush administration tightened the embargo to try and cut off any flow of economic resources to Cuba and stepped up democracy-promotion programs aimed at trying to stoke opposition to the Cuban government. The Bush administration believed that once Fidel Castro left the picture that the government would collapse. Then when Castro got sick in 2006 and stepped down and the transition to his brother was smooth, the Bush administration was left without a strategy.

SIG: Did you find any evidence in your research that the Bush administration had begun any broader dialogue with Cuba?

WL: No, the Bush administration had less dialogue with Cuba than any other administration since Eisenhower. The only exchanges were through the diplomats Interest Section and were about cooperation with counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics cooperation.

SIG: How quickly after President Obama took office did things begin to change?

WL: It was interesting. So the president even during his campaign in 2008 said that the old policies didn’t make sense and that he wanted to try something new. There were some initial discussions in 2009 and 2010, but they didn’t go anywhere. They got stuck around the arrest of Alan Gross, who was involved in one of the democracy-promotion programs and was arrested by the Cuban government for subversion. The president made a number of regulator changes that helped improve personal relations between Cubans and Americans and cultural exchanges, and he lifted restrictions on Cuban-American travel and academic travel.

There was really no progress on government-to-government relations until President Obama’s second term. After he was reelected, he told his senior White House staff that he wanted to seek a breakthrough with Cuba. That led secret negotiations from June 2013 to December 2014 when they announced the decision to normalize relations.

SIG: Is there any indication that there was a person within the administration who was driving that initiative, or does it seem to have come from the president himself?

WL: It appears to have come from the president himself. Before Secretary Clinton left office at the end of Obama’s first term, she had been advocating for doing more to open up relations to Cuba, but it was the president himself who decided it was time to do it.

SIG: What did President Obama actually do?

WL: Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and National Security Council Director Ricardo Zuniga reached out to Cuba through back channels and asked if the Cubans were interested in a dialogue. The Cubans said yes, and that dialogue began in 2013. There were nine meetings. The only negotiators on the U.S. side were Rhodes and Zuniga, and the two or three negotiators on the Cuban side were all from Raul Castro’s staff. They met mostly in Canada and one meeting with the pope in the Vatican before announcing the agreement in December 2014.

SIG: What’s the practical impact so far? Travel restrictions have been eased?

WL: The president has approved four packages of regulatory changes that have eased various aspects of the embargo. One of those is travel. It’s a lot easier now to travel from the United States to Cuba. Another has been commercial ties. It’s easier now for U.S. businesses to do business with Cuba. Google has a new deal, Starwood has a new deal, and there are a few more deals in the pipeline, so we’re seeing reconnection of commercial relations between the countries.

SIG: What about trade? Where do Cuba’s exports go now?

WL: Cuba’s exports are pretty diversified. A lot of Cuba’s trade goes to Russia and China. Most of what Cuba imports is oil from Venezuela and food from Canada, Argentina, Europe and about $170 million last year of agricultural imports from the United States.

SIG: Will the next president likely introduce some kind of We’re OK with Cuba Now Act of 2017 that would further normalize legal relations?

WL: There are two big legislative issues. The first is the fact that the embargo was written into law in 1996, and the other is the ban on tourism that was enacted in 2000. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both endorsed the president’s policy and would no doubt carry it forward. Donald Trump said he thought an opening to Cuba made sense but that he would have gotten a better deal, which we’ve heard him say in other contexts. Ted Cruz has said he opposes the president’s policy.

There are a lot of political forces pushing us toward more normalized relations with Cuba. American people are overwhelmingly in favor of it. American business is eager to get into the Cuban markets. Ordinary Cubans are very much in favor of it. And our allies abroad are in favor of it. A new president who wanted to reverse everything President Obama has done would pay a big political price at home and abroad.

SIG: Do you see President Obama’s trip to Cuba as intended to be a symbol of a thaw?

WL: Exactly. I think that’s exactly right. This is as symbolic of the change in U.S.-Cuban relations as Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China.

SIG: Do you expect to see any agreements or announcements come out of the trip?

WL: I think we’ll see — either during the trip or shortly after — some agreements on issues of mutual interest. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just announced a new agreement with Cuba on environmental protection and maritime safety. Those are relatively technical issues but are important for countries that are only ninety miles apart and separated by water. We could see an agreement on global health issues like the zika virus. We could see an agreement on cooperation to fight narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean. There could be more announcements on commercial deals.

SIG: What kind of steps has Cuba taken on easing travel by Cubans to America and allowing U.S. newspapers and websites to be more broadly accessible in Cuba?

WL: Cuba used to require permission of the government to travel, and they did away with that in 2013. Now any Cuban with a valid passport can travel abroad to any country that will grant a visa. You don’t really see U.S. newspapers and magazines in Cuba. U.S. websites are generally accessible, though some sites are still blocked.

SIG: You sound pretty optimistic about things.

WL: I am. I think Cuba is changing very fast. Raul Castro has decided to move away from the old Soviet-style planning system and toward something more like the Vietnamese or Chinese model of market socialism, and things have opened up a lot in Cuba. Cubans can have cell phones and computers and can travel. A lot of things have improved with human rights over the past five or six years, and President Obama deserves some credit for that.