The Washington Diplomat / July 2005
By Larry Luxner
It was 1991, but Ambassador Vicki Huddleston remembers her first and only meeting with Fidel Castro like it was yesterday.
"We had just signed a tripartite agreement with Cuba on Angola and Namibia," she recalled with a touch of nostalgia. "Jeff Davidow was leading a delegation to Havana to witness the signing, and as the [State Department's] new director of Cuban affairs, I had to go. So Fidel Castro offers this opulent reception at the Palacio de la Revolución, and the only two women there are me and the Soviet ambassador's wife.
"Fidel immediately comes over to our table, looks at me and says, 'And who are you? Someone's spouse?"
"I said, 'No, I'm the director of Cuban affairs.'
"Castro responds, 'Oh, I thought I was.'"
After some polite chuckles, said Huddleston, the old revolutionary left the American delegation, only to return 15 minutes later for a rather lengthy political discussion.
"That was probably the last conversation between Castro and a top U.S. official," said Huddleston. "It was indicative once again of the pragmatic policies of the first Bush administration, where there could be conversation — if not with Castro himself, then at least with the Cuban government."
Huddleston's point in telling the story is that such give-and-take is no longer possible in the second Bush administration, where Cuba policy is controlled by a handful of right-wing zealots who are pushing this country dangerously close to a confrontation with Cuba.
"It isn't gonna be easy," she warns. "If Castro feels he's losing control, he will do something bad or use some incident to make us pull away. U.S. politics will interfere, but we need to figure out how to stay the course. We need to move away from interest groups that may not have the same goals as we all have, which is a peaceful democratic transition."
Huddleston obviously has strong opinions, and since retiring from the Foreign Service earlier this year, she's free to express them. And that she did during a May 13 briefing on Capitol Hill, and later the same day in a lengthy interview with The Washington Diplomat.
A former Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, Huddleston, who disdains titles and enjoys being addressed simply as "Vicki," began her Cuba career in 1989, working under the first President Bush. During that time, she said, "we talked to the Cubans, we negotiated with them, and the result was removal of all Cuban troops from Africa, and the end of Cuban assistance to Central America. By the end of the Bush administration, Cuba no longer had any sizeable importance as a world player."
After three consecutive assignments unrelated to Cuba — first as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1993-95), then as U.S. ambassador to Madagascar (1995-97) and finally as the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for African affairs (1997-99) — Huddleston in late 1999 was appointed chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
The first woman ever to hold that post, she remained in Havana from 1999 to 2002, a three-year span that witnessed some of the most difficult moments in U.S.-Cuban relations, including the tumultuous Elián González affair.
During her tenure, Huddleston won praise from the Cuban exile community, and considerable notoriety in Cuban government circles, for passing out shortwave radios and meeting regularly with dissidents.
From all accounts, Huddleston, a likeable woman who is fluent in both Spanish and French, was quite popular with fellow Western diplomats. Her local civic activities even extended to the National Association of Afghan Hounds, an affiliation that made headlines after Huddleston's dog, an Afghan hound named Havana, won an islandwide competition.
Yet that victory was short-lived when the club's president, Amalia Castro, expelled the diplomat (but not her dog) for having hosted dissidents at the U.S. residence.
"The government you represent has maintained a policy of hostility against our people and government," wrote an angry Castro, explaining that Huddleston's behavior was incompatible with the association's morals. No matter that the real reason Castro was furious was that her pooch had lost out to Havana in the competition.
Huddleston says that same kind of dog-eat-dog logic seems to apply to U.S.-Cuban relations in general, though she claims she "didn't start out being pro-active" as chief of USINT.
"After a year and a half in Cuba, I felt I had enough information and a sense of the country, but I proceeded very slowly. My first and major contacts were always with the Cuban government," she said.
The cautious diplomat only criticized Fidel Castro by name once, a faux pas that got her into hot water with Communist authorities.
"I said he was a man of the past, not a man of the future. After that, I realized that I shouldn't criticize him again."
Huddleston said she "pushed the envelope just as far as I could" with regard to handing out thousands of the cheap, $10 AM/FM/shortwave radios to anyone who would take them.
"Information is what we should not deny anyone. I always said they could use the radios to listen to Fidel's speeches, or Radio Martí, VOA, evangelical stations, the BBC, whatever they wanted. This is freedom of choice," she told us.
"For a whole year, the Cuban government never complained about the radios, only when I began distributing them outside Havana. After they began criticizing the program, I gave out more radios to human-rights activists. They would run out the back door. We gave them out at the residence. Whenever I traveled, I'd leave them in restaurants, hotels, give them to kids on their bicycles.
"I always remember these girls on the side of the road. They had been visiting their brother in prison, who had been sentenced to 20 years for killing a pig. For them, the radios were like a gift from heaven."
Huddleston said the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration that followed both "had good policies toward Cuba," such as people-to-people exchanges, cooperation on anti-narcotics programs and the spread of information.
"For 18 months, the [current] Bush administration continued and in fact expanded this. They authorized the outreach program in which USINT spent $280,000 to distribute books and radios. We distributed 40,000 books, which was the genesis of the independent library movement. We were given more money for representation. We got journalists to talk with dissidents. We were really having an impact within the wider dissident movement."
But this wasn't enough for the Bush White House, which wanted to squeeze Castro even further — and that annoyed Huddleston.
"I told the administration we've gone about as far as we're gonna go, that we had to have some kind of relationship here. But the administration turned to the right. They didn't want to consolidate, they wanted to do more. They wanted to be in their face. And that's not the mandate you should give a diplomat."
She added: "You don't want somebody representing your government who doesn't agree with the policy, such as myself. That wouldn't work."
In late 2002, Huddleston was reassigned as ambassador to the sparsely populated West African nation of Mali, a move investigative journalist Ann Louise Bardach — writing in her book "Cuba Confidential" — attributes to none other than Cuban-born ultraconservative Otto Reich.
"During his one year at State, Reich lost no time in reconfiguring the administrtion's Cuba team. Suspected moderates from the Cuba desk at the State Department and CIA were marginalized, with special attention paid to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana," according to Bardach. "Respected veterans such as Jeffrey De Laurentis were gently ushered out of Havana while Vicki Huddleston, chief of the Interests Section, was transferred to Mali and was replaced by veteran Latin American hand James Cason. The new Interests Section replacements have been instructed to shift their attention away from migration issues, said a former State Department Cuba officer, to focus on subversion of Castro's government."
And what a shame that is, said Huddleston — because that's no way to win the hearts and minds of the Cuban people.
During her three years in charge of USINT, said the diplomat and mother of two, she encouraged the issuance of U.S. visas to elderly people hoping to visit their children in South Florida and elsewhere. Such visas jumped from 10,000 to 40,000 annually, earning her praise from Cuban-American groups.
"But my proudest moment was when Jimmy Carter went to the University of Havana, saying 'Allow the Varela Project,'" she recalled with glee. "The dean attacks Carter, Carter defends the Varela Project and this is all live on the radio. There was real opportunity, real hope. This was the Cuban Spring. This was when Cubans really thought something could change. It seemed to me the same attitude prevailed in Miami."
And for awhile it did. That is, until one more in a series of what she calls "mobilizing incidents" brought things crashing back to reality — the March 2003 arrest and imprisonment of 75 dissidents, journalists and activists opposed to the Castro regime.
Other such "mobilizing incidents" include the presidential elections of 1992, which put Bill Clinton into the White House; Castro's 1996 shootdown of Brothers to the Rescue airplanes, which led directly to passage of the Helms-Burton Act, and of course the 2001 tangle over Elián González.
"That stopped in its tracks Clinton's new measures designed to weigh the costs of isolation against the benefits of empowering the Cuban people, providing humanitarian aid and getting information into the country," said Huddleston. "Castro used [the Elián saga], I am convinced, so that it would not continue. I believe he felt the end game of the Clinton administration would be to lift the travel ban, and Cuba wasn't ready for that yet."
Of course, none of these events compares to what many pundits are now calling the "biological solution."
"I believe that probably the major mobilizing event we're going to see in our time is Fidel Castro's death. That's why I'm particularly worried," Huddleston said. "I'm very concerned that our policy is controlled by a very hardline approach to Cuba.
"One approach to policy says we want change — peaceful, democratic change — and it will come because we've empowered the people and helped the dissidents. Another side says it has to be imposed. This is basically the far right-wing position, that Cuba is corrupted, and there's no way you can have change in Cuba because the system is corrupt."
In the meantime, charges Huddleston, recent U.S. policy toward the Castro government has only served to isolate American diplomats from the realities on the ground.
"The United States is absolutely without information about what's going on in the Cuban government. Our Interests Section is clearly not dealing with the government. There are really no back channels. That makes it even worse. On both sides, we're gonna be on alert with our military, the Cubans will be worried about the same things, so we're setting ourselves up for an incident."
She continued. "The strongest institution in Cuba is the military. After Castro dies, they will back someone or put their own person in power. They will clamp down because they'll fear a mass migration. If that happens, the U.S. might retaliate. Things could get out of hand. There could be an incident in which Cuban-Americans clash with security forces. If we're not talking to each other, if we have both our militaries on alert, the policy we have right now could possibly lead to an invasion, either by accident or by circumstance. That's what you want to avoid."
On a more practical level, says Huddleston, USINT staffers may no longer leave the Havana metro area because of a Cuban government decree that was ordered in retaliation for a State Department prohibition against Cuban diplomats venturing past Washington's Beltway.
"We told the Cubans they couldn't travel outside Washington, and I fought against this, warning that they'd do the same to us," she said. "They did, and visits to activists throughout the island ended. That's all gone. Even more, USINT doesn't know what's going on in the countryside. Those visits provided valuable insights into the daily lives of average Cubans. You can't think that you're going to carry out the kind of programs we did in Eastern Europe in Cuba if we're just sitting there in our beautiful building."
Huddleston also has a word of advice for U.S. diplomats when it comes to handling Cuban dissidents: treat them with caution.
"My rule was, never tell them what to do. Let them make up their own minds. No. 2, always find out if they want you there. They didn't always want me there. No. 3, the worst thing you can do is connect the human-rights activists to anything negative."
Huddleston also advises keeping a low profile about what you're going to do.
"One of the keys to success in Cuba is, 'don't talk about it,'" she advised, recalling that at one point, the administration was mulling the idea of U.S. scholarships for deserving young Cuban students. "The more you do without talking, the better, but the administration announced the program. And once they made clear that the scholarships were for sons and daughters of dissidents, it was dead on arrival."
Huddleston, along with her retired diplomat husband Robert, now lives in New Mexico. In between occasional lectures, she's working on her new book, tentatively called "The Cuban Spring." She envisions the book to be a sort of guide on how to bring a peaceful, democratic transition to Cuba once Fidel Castro is gone from the scene.
"In all these things, there has to be something in it for the Cuban government. But you can't give Cuban-Americans a veto on these things," she offers. "That's why you have an executive branch that should be making policy. You can't have a peaceful transition without the Cuban-Americans, but we shouldn't be allowing them or any nationality to control our foreign policy."
On that score, the Bush administration's new regulations allowing family travel to Cuba only once every three years instead of once a year like before— and then only to immediate family members — "is just plain terrible" from a humanitarian point of view.
"I want to see us go back to the policies [of the Clinton and first Bush administration]. Go back to allowing Cuban-American travel so we can get information into Cuba. The Cuban-Americans are automatic bridge-builders," Huddleston argues. "Lifting the travel ban is fine. It will help, but I don't want people to say, she's just another person that as soon as she retires says this is a crazy policy. I want people at least to listen."
Though Vicki Huddleston also suggests — ever so gently — that "if Cuba policy is in the hands of women, maybe there is hope."