A prior post referred to the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations that resulted in the December 17, 2014, announcements by presidents Obama and Castro that the two countries were embarking on a process of re-establishing diplomatic relations and resolving many issues that have accumulated over the last 50 years. Another post described the involvement of Pope Francis in these negotiations.
Now Reuters reports the following new details about these subjects.
Originally the breakthrough was thought to be the result of such secret negotiations over the prior 18 months (or since June 2013). Now, says Reuters, the process really began in December 2012 when President Obama after reelection with 48% of the Cuban-American vote instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope,” according to Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor who played a central role in shaping Cuba policy.
The next month, January 2013, Ricardo Zuniga, Obama’s top Latin American adviser, went to Miami and met with a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and with young Cuban-Americans, the latter of whom helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo.
By April 2013, the White House was ready to proceed with the Cubans by quietly proposing back-channel talks after getting notice that Havana would be receptive. Obama initially froze out the State Department on these developments in part due to concern that its “vested interests” would still be bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach. Even Secretary of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared they might be fruitful.
In any event, the secret negotiations started in June 2013 in Ottawa, Canada. The Cubans opened with harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes, age 37, responded, “Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place … We want to hear and talk about the future.”
The Cubans in these initial sessions also insisted on an exchange of the remaining three of “The Cuban Five” in U.S. prison for U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, in Cuban prison. Obama refused such a deal because Washington denied Gross was a spy and because Obama did not want a three-for-one trade. As a result by the end of 2013, the negotiations had stalled.
At a January 2014 negotiating session in Toronto, however, the U.S. proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – Cuba’s releasing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for the U.S. who had been imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, and thereby enabling the U.S. to claim it was a true “spy swap” and giving it political cover. But the Cubans dis not immediately agree to release Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the U.S.
While the Sarraff proposal was still on the table, but not yet accepted by Cuba, President Obama held a White House meeting in February 2014 with certain lawmakers, including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin. Obama stressed his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade, and Durbin “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.”
Thereafter Senator Leahy persuaded two unnamed Roman Catholic cardinals to ask Pope Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when he was scheduled to hold a private audience with Obama in March.
At that private audience, as reported in a prior post, Francis and Obama did discuss the U.S.-Cuba situation, and the Pope in June sent letters to Obama and Castro urging reconciliation and the prisoner exchange. Francis’ involvement also provided Obama with political coverage against future criticism by Cuban-American Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and others.
In October 2014 (before the U.S. mid-term elections) the deal was finalized in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together.
In early December Rhodes and Zuniga met the Cubans again to nail down logistics for the December 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing of 53 political prisoners.
Strobel, Spetalnick & Adams, How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and cut a Cuba Deal, Reuters (Mar. 23, 2015),
Reuters, , N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2015), How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal