A prior post covered the surprising December 17, 2014, announcement of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement while another post discussed the initial public information about the preceding secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations about normalization; yet another post integrated that information into previous public information about U.S.-Cuba relations in President Obama’s second presidential term, 2013-2014.
Now Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande. both leading scholars on the relationship between the two countries, have added the following additional details about such previous secret discussions:
- In response to the January 2010 devastating Haiti earthquake, the U.S. and Cuba engaged in unprecedented cooperative disaster relief in that country.
- Thereafter in 2010-2012 two top State Department officials—Cheryl Mills, the Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Julissa Reynoso, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs—had secret discussions with Cuban officials that initially focused on Cuba’s releasing U.S. citizen Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and the U.S.’ allowing the wives of two of the Cuban Five to visit their husbands in U.S. prisons.
- By September 2011, the Cubans had explicitly proposed swapping the Cuban Five for Alan Gross, but the U.S. was not prepared to do so. Instead, as a show of good faith, the U.S. arranged for the wives of two of the Cuban Five to secretly visit their husbands in U.S. prisons while Cuba permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband in a military hospital in Havana.
- In May 2012, Clinton received a memo from her team that stated: “We have to continue negotiating with the Cubans on the release of Alan Gross but cannot allow his situation to block an advance of bilateral relations…The Cubans are not going to budge. We either deal with the Cuban Five or cordon those two issues off.”
- This May 2012 memo arrived soon after Clinton and President Obama had returned from that April’s Sixth Summit of the Americas where they had been chastised by heads of states furious over the U.S. stance on Cuba. Afterwards Clinton “recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo. It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”
- After his reelection in November 2012, President Obama approached Massachusetts Senator John Kerry about replacing Clinton as secretary of state and raising a new approach to Cuba. Kerry was receptive. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had been a vocal critic of the USAID democracy promotion programs that financed Gross’ secret missions to Cuba and also had long opposed the US economic embargo of the island.
- During the U.S.-Cuba secret discussions in Canada in 2013=2014 that were discussed in a prior post, The U.S. was not willing to talk about the USAID programs or the status of Guantánamo Bay. Cuba, on the other hand, was not willing to discuss human rights or U.S. fugitives living in their country.
- In September 2013 Senator Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) suggested to National Security Advisor Susan Rice that the U.S. should see about getting Pope Francis involved in helping the two countries resolve their differences.
- In February 2014, Senator Patrick Leahy had his staff collaborate with former White House counsel, Greg Craig, to draft a 10-page memo of options “to secure Mr. Gross’ release, and in so doing break the logjam and change the course of U.S. policy towards Cuba, which would be widely acclaimed as a major legacy achievement [for President Obama].” The document, dated February 7, laid out a course of action that would prove to be a close match with the final accord.
- Apparently also in or about February 2014, Leahy sent a confidential message to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, asking him to encourage the Pope to help resolve the prisoner issue. Drawing on the close ties between Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., the White House also “got word to the Vatican that the president was eager to discuss” Cuba at the upcoming upcoming March private audience with the Pope.
- In early March 2014, a small group of Cuba policy advocates, including representatives of a newly formed coalition for changing U.S. policies regarding Cuba, met with Cardinal Seán O’Malley in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. The advocates of change explained the recent trends, the conversations with President and others in the administration and Congress and indicated this was a historic moment, and a message from the Pope to President Obama would be significant in moving the process forward. A letter from Senator Leahy was given to Cardinal O’Malley urging him to focus the Pope’s attention on the “humanitarian issue” of the prisoner exchange.
- During this same time period, Leahy personally delivered a similar message to Cardinal McCarrick and arranged for yet another to be sent to Cardinal Ortega in Havana. There now were three cardinals urging the Pope to put Cuba on the agenda with Obama.
- At the private audience later that month (March 27), Obama told the Pope that the U.S. had something going with Cuba and that it would be useful if the Pope could play a role.” (Other details about the audience were provided in a prior post.) A few days later, Francis summoned Cardinal Ortega to enlist his help.
- On May 1, 2014, Leahy, along with Senators Carl Levin (Dem., MI) and Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) and Representatives Chris Van Hollen (Dem., MD) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA) met in the Oval Office with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The legislators urged Obama to press for Gross’ release and replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. “You said you were going to do this,” McGovern reminded the president. “Let’s just do it!” Obama had a non-committal response,”We’re working on it” and gave no hint of the back-channel diplomacy then well underway.
- On May 19, 2014, the previously mentioned coalition released an open letter to Obama signed by 46 luminaries of the U.S. policy and business world, urging the president to engage with Cuba. The signatories included former diplomats and retired military officers—among them former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering; Cuban-American business leaders like Andres Fanjul, co-owner of a Florida-based multinational sugar company; and John Negroponte, George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence. The same day, not coincidentally, the conservative US Chamber of Commerce announced that its president, Tom Donohue, would lead a delegation to Cuba to “develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector.”
- During the summer of 2014 the Pope wrote forceful, confidential letters to Obama and Raúl Castro, imploring the two leaders“to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.”
- To safeguard his communications, the Pope sent both letters via papal courier to Havana—with instructions to Cardinal Ortega to personally deliver the message into the two presidents’ hands. After delivering the Pope’s letter to Raúl Castro, Ortega then sent his top aide to Washington to advance his clandestine diplomatic mission to deliver the other letter to Obama. But arranging a secret face-to-face meeting with President Obama was easier said than done. Alerted to the problem, Cardinal McCarrick conferred with White House officials, who enlisted his help as a secret back-channel go-between. In early August, McCarrick traveled to Cuba carrying a note from Obama that asked Ortega to entrust McCarrick with delivering the Pope’s letter to the White House. But Ortega’s papal instructions were to deliver the message himself. McCarrick, therefore, left Cuba empty-handed.
- Back in Washington, McCarrick worked with McDonough at the White House to arrange a secret meeting for Ortega with the President. On the morning of August 18, Ortega gave a talk at Georgetown University—providing a cover story for his presence in Washington—and then quietly went to the White House. (To make sure the meeting did not leak, U.S. officials kept Ortega’s name off the White House visitor logs.) Meeting with the President on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega finally completed his mission of delivering the Pope’s sensitive communication, in which he offered to “help in any way.”
- In October 2014, at the Pope’s invitation, the two sides met at the Vatican and hammered out their final agreement on the prisoner exchange and restoring diplomatic relations. The U.S. representatives, Rhodes and Zuniga, also noted Obama’s intention to ease regulations on travel and trade, and to allow US telecom companies to help Cuban state enterprises expand internet access. They acknowledged these initiatives were aimed at fostering greater openness in Cuba. Cuban officials said that while they had no intentionof changing their political system to suit the United States, they had reviewed the Americans’ list of prisoners jailed for political activities and would release 53 of them as a goodwill gesture. The Pope agreed to act as guarantor of the final accord.
- On October 12, the New York Times published an editorial calling for ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba and for a new relationship between the two countries; it turned out to be the first of a series of editorials on various aspects of the relationship. These editorials were the work of Ernesto Londoño, a new member of the Editorial Board and a native of Colombia. He talked to administration officials, Senator Leahy’s office, and the new coalition, but recently said, “There was really no collusion or formal cooperation in what they were doing and what we were doing. The Times simply saw an opportunity to push the policy it advocated forward. We figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.”
- On November 6, 2014, Obama’s National Security Council met to sign off on the details. Later that month, the negotiating teams convened one last time in Canada to arrange the logistics of the prisoner exchange.
These additional details about the over two years of previously secret negotiations should be merged with the earlier post about President Obama’s Second Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2013-2014. Together they demonstrate the diplomatic skill of that Administration in achieving this historic breakthrough that will benefit both countries.
 Kornblu & LeoGrande, Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship with Cuba, Mother Jones (July 2015) This information will be incorporated in a new edition of their book: Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana that will be published this October by the University of North Carolina Press.
 Previous posts covered the other Times editorials that commended Cuba’s foreign medical missions (Oct. 19), recommended normalization (Oct. 26) and prisoner exchanges (Nov. 3) and criticized USAID programs on the island (Nov. 10), the U.S. Cuban medical parole program (Nov. 17) and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (Dec. 15).
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