Back Channel to Cuba

Title:                      Back Channel to Cuba

Author:                  William M. LeoGrande

LeoGrande, William M. (2015) and Peter Kornbluh. Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press

LCCN:    2016655026

E183.8.C9 L384 2015


  • INTRODUCTION: Rebuilding Bridges — EISENHOWER: Patience and Forbearance — KENNEDY: The Secret Search for Accommodation — JOHNSON: Castro Reaches Out –NIXON AND FORD: Kissinger’s Caribbean Détente –CARTER: Close, but No Cigar — REAGAN AND BUSH: Diplomatic Necessity — CLINTON: From Calibrated Response to Parallel Positive Steps — GEORGE W. BUSH: Turning Back the Clock — OBAMA: A New Beginning — INTIMATE ADVERSARIES, POSSIBLE FRIENDS; EPILOGUE: Cutting the Shackles of the Past: A Back-Channel Success.


Date Posted:      September 23, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

American University professor William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba documentation project at the National Security Archive, conclude their history of negotiations between Washington and Havana with suggestions for President Obama, should he choose to seek to improve or even normalize relations with the present or a successor government. Whether the president took their advice in doing just that may never be known. What is known, however, is that he is not the first president to consider reaching out to Cuba with better relations in mind. “Every president since Eisenhower has engaged in some form of dialogue with Castro and his representatives… [and] has seen some advantage in talking to Cuba.” (p. 2) Back Channel To Cuba “presents a comprehensive chronicle of dialogues since 1959,” both secret and public. (p. 3)

While some of the contacts produced tangible results, most did not. Key sticking points on the Cuban side included, inter alia, Cuba’s insistence that the United States lift its economic embargo, its relationship with the Soviet Union, and various Latin American nations, and Castro’s need to blame the United States for Cuba’s domestic problems. Factors on the US side included the refusal to recognize Cuba’s legitimacy, the impact on domestic politics created by Cuban refugees, human rights issues, and from time to time Cuba’s espionage operations in the United States.

One of the early meetings they discuss occurred during the Eisenhower administration, when Castro met in New York City with CIA representative Gerry Droller (also known as Frank Bender, a later participant in the Bay of Pigs operation). During the Kennedy administration, Britain acted to improve relations and helped arrange talks. (p. 108) In the Nixon administration, Secretary of State Rogers suggested the “US attempt ‘baseball diplomacy’ to advance relations with Cuba.” (p. 135) Most of the many attempts at dialogue presented are more substantive and complicated.

The authors base their work on formerly-classified documents and interviews with participants, including Fidel Castro and President Carter. The result is a rich and timely review of the background to the normalization recently achieved.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 131-132). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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