Kennedy and Castro: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Dialogue: Amid the darkest years of the Cold War, Washington and Havana secretly began efforts to ease the tensions between between the two nations, declassified documents reveal.

August 22, 1999|By Peter Kornbluh

LAST WEEKEND, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle spent seven hours talking to Fidel Castro in Havana. U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue spent three days there last month. In June, low-level State Department and Coast Guard officials met with their Cuban counterparts to discuss the potential for collaboration on drug interdiction operations. More and more officials, it seems, are pursuing a dialogue with Castro's government.

But not the White House. Fearful of a right-wing attack at the first sign that Washington might engage in diplomatic discussions over its long-standing differences with Castro, the Clinton administration has rejected all high-level talks with the Cuban government.

A diplomatic dialogue with Cuba should not be considered heresy. Every president since John F. Kennedy has attempted -- in secret -- to discuss U.S.-Cuban relations with Castro. Indeed, according to recently declassified documents, Kennedy was seeking to negotiate a rapprochement before he was assassinated in Dallas. The details of this long-hidden history carry immediate relevance to current policy toward Cuba.

John F. Kennedy would seem the most unlikely of presidents to seek an accommodation with Fidel Castro. His tragically abbreviated administration bore responsibility for some of the most assertive U.S. efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution: the Bay of Pigs invasion, the trade embargo, Operation Mongoose and a series of CIA-Mafia assassination attempts against the Cuban leader.

Unknown to all but Robert Kennedy and a handful of advisers, John Kennedy began pursuing an alternative tact on Cuba in 1963: a secret dialogue toward a rapprochement with Castro. To a policy built upon "overt and covert nastiness," as Top Secret White House memorandums characterized U.S. operations against Cuba, was added "the sweet approach," meaning the possibility of "quietly enticing Castro over to us."

In a memorandum on "The Cuban Problem," Kennedy's National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, provided the rationale for this type of initiative:

"There is always the possibility that Castro or others currently high in the regime might find advantage in a gradual shift away from their present level of dependence on Moscow. In strictly economic terms, both the United States and Cuba have much to gain from re-establishment of relations. A Titoist Castro is not inconceivable and a full diplomatic revolution would not be the most extraordinary event in the 20th century."

For the Kennedy White House, there was nothing incongruous about such a policy turnaround, Bundy explained in an interview shortly before his death. "We wanted to make a reality check on what could or could not be done with Castro," he said. President Kennedy, according to Bundy, "clearly thought this was an exploration worth making because it might lead to something." Kennedy was "strong enough to explore it in a politically non-dangerous way."

Ironically, the opportunity to communicate covertly with Castro arose from the two most hostile episodes in U.S.-Cuban relations: the CIA-directed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and the missile crisis. Negotiations for the ransomed return of 1,200 Bay of Pigs prisoners provided the contacts and confidences under which the first messages could be passed; and the Kremlin's unilateral decision to withdraw its nuclear missiles appeared to provoke a Cuban-Soviet breach that the U.S. could exploit.

The first private channel to Castro was James Donovan, a Washington lawyer negotiating the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. During the late fall of 1962, Donovan became the first American emissary to gain Castro's ear and his trust. Secretly representing the Kennedy brothers, Donovan arranged a trade of $62 million in food and medicines for the imprisoned brigade members. During the spring of 1963, he continued his trips to Havana to secure the release of two dozen American citizens, including three CIA operatives, held in Cuban jails. Debriefed by U.S. intelligence officials after each trip, Donovan described his meetings with Castro as "most cordial and intimate."

In late January 1963, as he was boarding his plane to return to the United States, Donovan reported, Castro's aide de camp, Rene Vallejo, "broached the subject of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S."

During Donovan's visit in March, Castro raised the issue, asking how, given the political climates in both countries, talks could be initiated. "So I said to him, 'Do you know how porcupines make love?' and he said, 'No'," Donovan later told the CIA. "And I said, ... 'Very carefully. And that's how you and the U.S. would have to get into this.' "

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