A revealing account of the hidden history of Cuban-American relations--and the portrait of an American hero.
- Palgrave Macmillan
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Chapter Three: Mission to Havana: The Carter Years
Fidel Castro's victory over Batista's corrupt dictatorship not only dramatically affected relations between the United States and Cuba; in the words of a foreign policy analyst, "its principal effect was to dynamite the logjam in U.S. policy toward Latin America."1 Almost overnight, Washington officials and journalists thrust Castro's revolutionary government into the cauldron of the Cold War. The United States awoke to the threat posed by revolutionary Cuba to the entire region, especially in countries ruled by strongmen dictators in league with a tiny elite. This, experts theorized, would leave the rest of the immiserated population vulnerable to Castro-like movements, or, in the case of fragile democracies like Brazil, where rural peasant leagues threatened to topple the ruling landed oligarchy, it would create the pre-conditions for the spread of revolution within the hemisphere.
In March 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, upset by the circuslike atmosphere of firing squads, impromptu military tribunals, and Castro's angry harangues against "Yankee imperialism," agreed to fund an invasion of Cuba "designed to take care of Castro." Seven months later, in October, John F. Kennedy, running for the presidency (who surely had been briefed on Eisenhower's action), accused the Republicans of "blunder, inaction, retreat, and failure" in Latin America, and called for arming "fighters for freedom . . . who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro." His opponent, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, who knew about all of the anti-Castro measures, called Kennedy's statement "dangerously irresponsible." He could not reply in any greater detail because he had been sworn to secrecy.2 In the final presidential debate before Kennedy's narrow victory at the polls, Kennedy warned again of the danger of Castroism and urged policies that would "win the hearts and minds of Latin America's poor."3 In 1961, President Kennedy created the Army's Special Forces (the "Green Berets"), elite army troops trained to fight "Castro-type guerrilla insurgencies" but they ultimately only saw action a few years later in Vietnam. But the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, as did CIA efforts to destabilize Castro's government.
Events then occurred in the United States that would lead to new kinds of foreign policy initiatives abroad. In autumn of 1963, Cuba's United Nations delegation used third parties to inform the State Department that it would consider opening confidential talks on normalization of relations. William Atwood, an advisor to the United States Mission to the United Nations, held several meetings with the Cubans, and advanced to the point at which Atwood was informed that the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations would meet with him to discuss a date for talks to be held in Havana. President John F. Kennedy, on his own, asked the French journalist, Jean Daniel, to deliver a message to Fidel Castro during a scheduled interview. Reportedly, Castro greeted the news--that Kennedy was willing to negotiate--with elation, and responded by saying that he was willing to make concessions. Just as Daniel prepared to depart Havana for Washington, the world learned that on November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy had been gunned down in Dallas.4
Under the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, despite accusations that the CIA was attempting to kill Castro and to implicate Cuba in the Kennedy assassination, the Cubans made further gestures seeking negotiations. In July 1964, Castro held several long meetings with the New York Times's Richard Eder; allegedly, Castro told the reporter that both sides shared blame for their mutual antagonisms.5 But Secretary of State Dean Rusk, still believing that Castro's government would not last, rejected the overtures because he did not want to signal weakness on the part of the United States.
Sometime during 1971, Bernardo Benes convinced Pepín Bosch, the chairman of the Bacardi Corporation and head of RECE, the Cuban-based umbrella group for anti-Castro organizations, to mount a radio transmitter on a yacht. Crew members would broadcast for twenty minutes each evening, starting with "El Canonazo de la Nueve," the cannon firing that heralded 9:00 P.M. all through Havana. These broadcasts would be loving, not confrontational. When Bosch agreed to cooperate, Benes contacted his friend Larry Sternfield in the CIA, asking for support. Benes narrates the rest:
Two weeks later, [Sternfield] came back with a manila envelope and told me that his superiors had approved the transmissions to Cuba and that they had some new electronic device that allowed the yacht not to be identified by Cuban authorities. Before leaving my office, he said that they needed approval from the president, Richard Nixon. To my great surprise, I received a call a few days later from Larry, who told me that the operation had not been approved by the president. . . . This is how I became a dialoguero. I knew that the Cuban exile community lacked the power to become effective opponents of the Cuban government. We needed the support of the U. S. government, and if the president did not help us, I decided that we had to look for an acceptable and dignified coexistence with Castro. So I converted myself from belligerent to a dialoguero.6
The first formal negotiations between Castro's Cuba and the United States occurred in 1973, when the two countries signed an anti-hijacking agreement. Other events, however, pushed aside any further negotiations. In 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Fidel Castro issued public statements suggesting that improved relations would benefit both countries.7 But second-term president Richard M. Nixon abruptly resigned from office in August 1974, under threat of impeachment for the Watergate scandal; eight months later, the last United States military forces withdrew in defeat from Vietnam.
In the summer of 1975, Assistant Secretary of State William D. Rogers reaffirmed the willingness of the United States to improve relations, but the arrival of Cuban soldiers in Angola halted any possible progress to this end. President Gerald Ford labeled Cuba's involvement in Africa as "aggression."8 Jimmy Carter, an "outsider" in the world of Washington politics, won the 1976 presidential election and entered the White House personally unconnected with the troubles of his predecessors Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. President Jimmy Carter's passionate personal concern for human rights led him naturally to Latin America, riddled by military dictatorships and repression not only in Cuba, but also throughout the region from the Southern Cone to Central America.9 Castro would exploit Carter's deep commitment to human rights, using the issue as a wedge to attempt to end the economic embargo and restore diplomatic relations.
Jimmy Carter considered human rights and the plight of Castro's political prisoners to be the primary issues blocking improved relations between the two countries. After Carter became a formal presidential candidate, Benes became chairman of the campaign's Hispanic Committee in Florida. During the campaign, candidate Carter suggested that relations with Cuba could be improved "on a measured and reciprocal basis;" he was the first president to say so since 1959. Robert A. Pastor, Carter's Latin American specialist on the NSC, in his 1992 analysis of United States policy towards Latin America after 1976, noted, however, that "although encouraged by Carter's energy and ideas, many Latin leaders were skeptical that the United States would really consult them on key economic issues."11 To dispel these fears, Carter initiated talks on sugar production and pricing, and pledged to negotiate an international sugar agreement.
Immediately following Carter's presidential inauguration in January 1976, Cuba-watchers began to notice a more relaxed relationship between Cuba and the United States, although there had been a wave of bombings and killings among exile factions. A year later, Cuba and the United States opened their "interests sections" in Havana and Washington, and in October, fifty-five teenage Miami Cubans belonging to the left-leaning Antonio Maceo Brigade were permitted to visit Havana for a month, to do volunteer work and to visit relatives which most of them had never met.12 Four members of an evangelical Protestant church in Hialeah visited Cuba, followed by six larger groups over the next seventeen months. Senators Jacob Javits (R-NY) and Claiborne Pell (D-RI) visited Cuba in 1974, and Representative Charles Whalen (R-OH) became the first member of the House of Representatives to travel to Castro's Cuba. In 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger held secret negotiations with Cuban officials to coordinate the policies of the two countries on the issues of air piracy and immigration.13
Following Carter's victory, speculation arose in Miami that Benes might be appointed to the Bureau of Latin American Affairs of USAID, the Agency for International Development.14 He seemed to be a logical choice: he had worked on contract for the agency and had done extensive consulting with Latin American leaders on ways to finance low-cost housing. He was a delegate to the Florida Democratic Convention in St. Petersburg and, once the election was won, was invited to the White House to attend a ceremony proclaiming "Hispanic Heritage Week." Although he was not offered the job in the Carter administration, it enabled Benes to keep his foot in the door. The stars seemed in alignment: Carter, more than anything else during his presidency, maintained a firm commitment to improving human rights.
Benes's missions to Cuba for the Carter administration can be divided into four stages. The first started in Panama in 1977 and continued through October 1978, during which he and his partner, Carlos Dascal, negotiated with the Cubans to create the basis for the release of Castro's political prisoners and to permit Cuban exiles to visit their families on the island. A visit with six Miami exiles in October 1978, to bring back the first group of released prisoners, comprised the second stage. The November and December "dialogue," largely for show, was the third; and continued talks with Castro up to the last days of Carter's presidency, the fourth.
Benes observed an interesting pattern as the dialogue missions evolved. The initial operation started with the consent and support of President Carter's National Security Council and the CIA, and concluded with supervisory authority shifted to the FBI and the Department of State. The FBI had proven to be vigilant, supportive, and efficient. Before and after each trip, Benes would call the FBI and describe what was planned and, on his return, what had occurred.
The story of the dialogue--between Miami Cubans and Fidel Castro over the release of political prisoners and permission for other Cuban exiles to visit their relatives on the island--started in a manner as unconventional as it was unprecedented. Various Miami Cubans were contacted by representatives of the Castro government and invited to participate in talks that might lead to a "dialogue." In June 1977, the Cuban consul in Jamaica held a dinner party and invited Manuel Espinosa, the pastor of a Hialeah Protestant church. Presumably, this contact did not yield what the Cubans wanted, although Espinosa would play a peripheral role in the dialogue.
At their first meeting, Castro took ten minutes to tell Benes that he had read Benes's entire dossier, comprised of information about his youth in Cuba, his work in Zaydín's law office, and his career in the United States. Intelligence agents had even interviewed former employees of Boris Benes's "Perro" textile factory. The report, Castro said, concluded that the Benes family was honest, hardworking, and responsible. Castro was aware of Benes's relationship with Alfredo Durán, the Cuban American lawyer who was active in the state Democratic Party, as well as Benes's volunteer work for the Carter campaign. Clearly, few stones had been left unturned.
The first instance of the unprecedented dialogue Benes and Castro occurred in Castro's private office. The space was divided into four areas: a living room with leather sofas and armchairs, an alcove with thousands of books on shelves, a conference area, and a bathroom. All of the other meetings took place at the Cuban Special Forces' Protocol House #1, at the end of Fifth Avenue in the western portion of the city, although after the tenth trip, Benes and Dascal were housed in different places. Frequently, the sessions ran into the early hours before dawn. Benes later estimated that he spent a total of 150 hours in conversation with Castro during both the Carter and (briefer) Reagan years.
At their first meeting on February 14, 1978, Castro expounded on Cuba's foreign policy, a sore point for the United States government. He explained why Africa held more interest for him than Latin America, where rigid social structures and organized interest groups (trade unions, the Church, corporations, the armed forces) made rebel activity more difficult. Africa, by contrast, was "poor and lacked such forces." When asked about the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, Castro replied that he was not impressed by their potential to take power.17
Castro accompanied Benes and Dascal to the Santa María del Mar Protocol House. They sat in a black Soviet-made Zyl limousine, while Castro expounded on his revolution's greatest achievements: education, health care, and the Cuban people's national consciousness. He spoke at length about President Kennedy's Peace Corps, and said that he was thinking of starting a similar organization in Cuba.
The following day, they flew back to Miami. Benes and Dascal met Padrón and de la Guardia again, this time on March 20, 1978 in Mexico City, where the CIA's Larry Sternfield had been posted as political attaché in the U. S. Embassy. Sternfield left them in a hotel room, adjacent to the embassy, where the Cubans, Benes, and Dascal reviewed the issues for literally twenty hours; they explained for the last time, what Castro would and would not be prepared to do.
Reviewing his encounters with Castro in retrospect, Benes admits that sometimes he and Dascal offered Castro advice or made offhand comments that El Comandante may not have appreciated. At their first meeting, they had made small talk about some of the students Benes had known in the FEU, the anti-Batista student group, and about General José Abrantes's brother, who had died in an airplane accident. Also at the first meeting, when it was well past midnight, Benes rose from his chair and absent-mindedly started meandering around Castro's office, while talking. Benes walked over to Castro's desk and, still talking, began to page through one of the books on the desktop. Then, he sat down in Castro's chair. José Luis Padrón later told Benes that at the point during the meeting that he had stood up, Abrantes had taken his pistol out, because he knew that Castro kept a gun in his desk and was afraid that Benes was looking for it so he could kill Castro. Benes, who has never touched a gun in his life, moved quickly back to his chair and stayed there.
When Castro asked Benes why he hadn't stayed in Cuba to change the revolution from within, El Jefe added that he supposed it was because making money was too important for Benes. Bernardo recalls that he responded angrily: "You ruined our family financially. But this is not what turned me against you. What did this was the way you lined people up against a wall and shot them." To this, according to Benes, Castro replied: "I was very sorry to have to do that, but we had to set examples. It was the only way to consolidate . . . the revolution."
Once, when they were taken to the Hotel Internacional on Varadero beach, which in pre-1959 times was perhaps the grandest hotel on the island, Benes noticed that the wooden chairs had rusty, protruding nails. When they met Castro in Havana, Benes, referring to the deteriorated condition of the hotel, said to him: "Being poor is shit. Why don't you appoint someone from Special Forces to get things fixed up?" Six months later, José Luis Padrón became the country's Minister of Tourism.
At another meeting, Castro sat with one leg crossed over the other and Benes noticed from the sole that his boots were Florsheims. He commented on this, saying that they were "middle-class" boots. Castro replied that they were "good American products." Benes then told him that he could do better and asked for his shoe size. Castro shouted "Pepín!" and ordered his aide, Pepín Naranjo, to go to the trunk of Castro's car and check his shoe size. The next time Benes visited Castro, he gave him a pair of Johnson & Murphy boots worth $650, which Castro accepted with pleasure.18 Benes recalled that Castro spent at least ten minutes admiring them.19
The Cubans insisted that the embargo be lifted, and they offered the possibility of joint ventures between the Cuban government and foreign investors. They spoke about "freezing" Africa, not pulling out their troops but halting the fighting. In short, they wanted to know if President Carter was interested in accelerating the negotiations. They explained how important it would be for them to obtain American technology.
Notably, the Cubans took extreme measures to assure that these meetings remained secret. The reason was obvious: Castro and his aides feared what might happen if Soviet Intelligence found out, although to Benes and Dascal, they always boasted that they had full independence politically. Benes recalled that there were so many measures taken to keep the Soviets in the dark that he and Dascal started referring to their treatment as the "Timoshenko Operation," which they arbitrarily named after World War II Soviet Field Marshal Semyon Timoshenko.20 José Luis Padrón, knowing that Benes would tell Castro this, asked Benes, as a favor, to not do so. In fact, Padrón and his comrades never liked the Soviets, whom they dubbed "bolos," as in "ball and chain," but they had to restrain themselves from showing any animosity.21
--From Secret Missions to Cuba : Fidel Castro, Bernardo Benes, and Cuban Miami by Robert V. Levine. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission
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