Rapprochement with Havana?
Brian Latell, The Latell Report
Every American president since Eisenhower has engaged in some type of dialogue with the Castro brothers’ regime. They have all “seen some advantage in talking to Cuba,” authors Peter Kornbluh and William Leogrande argue in their impressively researched new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.
Even in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, severed in January 1961, Cuba and the United States have concluded numerous agreements on matters of mutual concern. The reopening of diplomatic missions in the two capitals in 1977 and the 1994-1995 immigration accords are among the most enduringly important.
Why then has it not been possible to reach an omnibus reconciliation, or short of that, for Cuba and the United States to agree on the first decisive steps toward that elusive goal? Several American presidents –notably Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter-- earnestly tried to end the impasse in relations, and others also demonstrated keen interest in doing so. But in one fashion or another all were spurned by Havana.
Kornbluh and Leogrande pose the crucial question: “does Cuba want better relations?” though they do not provide a persuasive answer. They acknowledge that “Castro calculated that Cuba had more to gain in its relations with Moscow and its standing in the Third World by intervening in Africa in the 1970s,” than by following through on the Ford and Carter diplomatic initiatives. What became clear is that Castro simply had much higher priorities than improving relations with Washington.
Arguably, this has always been the case. Strident anti-American rhetoric has rarely subsided since Castro seized power on New Years Day in 1959. In his first speech a day later he fired his first salvo across the American bow. Revolutionary Cuba would not bend to American interests and demands, he made clear. “It will not be like when the Americans came and took over . . . we will have no intervention.”
Six weeks later the American embassy in Havana advised Washington that there had not been a single “public speech by Castro . . . in which he has not shown some feeling against the United States.” This was as the Eisenhower administration was genuinely trying to develop rapport with the Cuban revolutionaries.
The new American ambassador in Havana worked “tirelessly” for 20 months, Kornbluh and Leogrande write, “to build a constructive relationship.” It was not to be. Castro had higher priorities. By continually confronting the American archenemy, he rallied popular support, legitimized his alliance with the Kremlin, built up Cuban military and intelligence capabilities, and appealed to nationalists and Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries elsewhere.
The authors quote him: “if the United States makes its peace with us, it will take away a little of our prestige, our influence, our glory.” By this Castro meant that if he buried the hatchet with the United States, his credentials as a leader of worldwide Marxist-Leninist revolution would have been fatally compromised.
His antipathy was demonstrated repeatedly during the Cold War, but never more feverishly than at the height of the 1962 missile crisis. On so-called Black Saturday, the most frightening day of the crisis, he urged Soviet leader Khrushchev to preemptively unleash its nuclear arsenal against American targets if the Kennedy administration invaded Cuba. He preferred apocalyptic confrontation even as Kennedy and Khrushchev were desperately trying to avoid it.
And so, with only brief interludes during his nearly five decades in power, Castro never modulated his anti-American passions. Speeches he delivered toward the end of his reign in the summer of 2006 were filled with characteristic anti-American venom. In retirement it has not been noticeably different. A large percentage of the hundreds of editorials published over his name since then have rancorously attacked American presidents and policies.
Even now in his greatly diminished state, he continues to exercise a veto over his successors. If Raul Castro is actually interested in improving bilateral relations, perhaps his failure to take any concrete step in that direction is out of deference to his intransigent brother. Could it be that no progress will be possible until after Fidel Castro is gone? Could it take even longer?
I am reminded that after Stalin died in Moscow in 1953 it was three more years before Khrushchev, his eventual successor, had sufficiently consolidated power to confront the Stalinist legacy. He delivered a secret speech denouncing his predecessor’s excesses in 1956.
In revolutionary China it was similar. When Mao died in 1976 his legitimacy as the country’s indispensable revolutionary hero remained strong. It took Deng Xiaoping and other successors fully three years before they felt confident enough to abandon Maoist strictures and launch the economic reform process that has transformed the People’s Republic.
Will the long deferred Cuban-American rapprochement remain hostage to the animosities and pride of one man, perhaps for some time even after his death?
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