Declassified U.S. documents recall Cuba contacts

George Washington University’s National Security Archives has released classified government documents shedding light on U.S. relations with Cuba. On the National Archives website (gwu.edu), Senior Analyst Peter Kornbluh notes, “This rich declassified record of the past provides a road map for the new administration to follow in the future.”

His message is that any Cuba negotiations undertaken by the Barack Obama administration will hardly occur in a vacuum. Precedents are in place from the Kennedy through Clinton administrations. And reasoning and rationale that informed leaders then carry weight now. Likely as not, their ideas on negotiation methods are still relevant.

The administration of George W. Bush was alone in shying away from contacts with Cuban leaders. He was the only president who used executive orders to intensify restrictions imposed under the U.S. blockade, in force since 1961.

The elder President Bush did sign the onerous Cuba Democracy Act of 1992, which barred foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba and blocked ships that visited Cuba from docking at U.S. ports for six months afterwards. President Clinton eased travel restrictions, but joined with Congress in 1996 to enact the Helms-Burton Law, which encouraged U.s. courts to target foreign business owners in Cuba and shifted responsibility for changing embargo rules from the Executive Branch to Congress.

The National Security Archives put eight documents relating to U.S.-Cuba relations on display on its web site on Jan. 22. A brief summary testifies to their significance.

In a secret memo, Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin reports on meeting with Che Guevara in Uruguay on Aug. 17, 1961. This first instance of talks between officials of both countries is remarkable for Guevara’s suggestion that negotiations should begin, and focus on secondary issues “as a cover for more serious conversation.” Responding later to a memo from the U.S. negotiator on releasing Bay of Pigs prisoners, Kennedy expressed interest in pursuing dialogue with Fidel Castro.

Two weeks before his assassination, recordings preserved a Kennedy conversation with McGeorge Bundy demonstrating active participation in deciding on methods to achieve secrecy during an upcoming visit to Cuba for talks by U.S. diplomat William Attwood.

In 1974, Henry Kissinger, then President Ford’s National Security Council head, is seen to approve a subordinate’s memo calling for openings toward Cuba. They were responding to Latin American demands for trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba. Kornbluh says Kissinger initiated secret contacts with the Cubans himself.

The next year, Kissinger aides met with Cuban representatives in a cafeteria at New York’s La Guardia Airport. One of them delivered a document approved by Kissinger that said, “We are meeting here to explore the possibilities for a more normal relationship between our two countries.”

Also in 1975, as Latin American nations were preparing to resume relations with Cuba, Harry Shlaudeman, a deputy assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, prepared a memo sketching out the process toward normal diplomatic relations. “Our interest is in getting the Cuba issue behind us, not in prolonging it indefinitely,” the memo states. It speaks of getting Cuba “off the domestic and inter-American agendas.”

On March 15, 1977, President Carter ordered normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba. The directive appearing on the Archives web site instructs Carter’s foreign policy experts to “set in motion a process which will lead to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.” U.S. pressure on Cuba to withdraw troops from Southern Africa derailed the effort.

President Obama has signaled his administration’s desire to restore the U.S. image before the world. The effect of its Cuba policies on world opinion surely weighs upon Obama no less than on his predecessors. Obama likely takes Latin American condemnation seriously, especially as the movement gains there for integration, mutual support and independence from U.S. hegemony.

The well-oiled device of approaching “secondary issues” first probably still makes sense, if only because there are so many of them. The agenda includes easing of travel restrictions, freeing the Cuban Five, dealing with immigration, firming up cooperative drug interdiction strategies, and facilitating agricultural sales to Cuba.

Pressures brought by powerful interests deflected assays by previous presidents — Jimmy Carter in particular — to shed the blockade against Cuba. Obama, fresh off a powerful electoral victory and enjoying remarkable public approval, is not lacking in strength of his own — enough, one assumes, to move beyond old ways on Cuba. In any event, he will not have invented openings to Cuba. “We don’t start from zero,” Danielle Bleitrach writes on rebelion.org.