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5 ex-chiefs of USINT-Havana offer advice on how to avoid past mistakes in Cuba
CubaNews / December 2007

By Larry Luxner

One hot, humid afternoon, shortly after arriving in Havana to run the U.S. Interests Section, Vicki Huddleston decided to take a drive along Quinta Avenida in her official air-conditioned black Ford Crown Victoria.

“I saw a group of kids waiting for a ride, so I stopped and six or seven teenagers jumped in,” she recalled. “They leaned back, obviously enjoying the air-conditioning. One of the kids asked me, ‘Where did you get this car?’ I said it was the property of the U.S. government.

“Then, another kid asked what I did. I told her I was the chief of USINT-Havana. The girl leaned forward and said: ‘Please be our mother. Take us to Miami.’” Huddleston, who has since retired from the Foreign Service, said that little exchange made a lasting impression on her.

“We would like to see a future for Cuba’s young people — not in Miami, but in Havana,” she said. “We all think this relationship we have with Cuba, if it were the right one, might be able to positively influence that outcome.”

Tropical breezes, friendly people and beautiful beaches aside, running USINT-Havana isn’t an assignment for the faint-hearted. A long-running propaganda war takes place every day just in front of the old Swiss Embassy annex fronting the Malecón — while U.S. access to top Cuban officials has become virtually impossible.

And as relations between the United States and the Castro regime continue to deteriorate, the job will only get more and more difficult.

On Nov. 14, Huddleston and four of the men who preceded her as chief of USINT spoke about their experiences at a Washington conference organized by the Brookings Institution.

If there was one theme that ran through the presentations of these former U.S. diplomats, it was the constant frustration they felt with their superiors at the State Department, which often didn’t take their cables seriously and sometimes ignored them altogether.

James Cason, appointed by President Bush to head USINT-Havana from 2002 to 2005, was perhaps the most controversial diplomat ever to hold the post. His tough-talking style and determination to enforce the Bush administration’s policies following Castro’s 2003 crackdown on dissent earned him many enemies in Havana.

Unfortunately, Cason (profiled in the February 2004 issue of CubaNews, page 8)is now the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and as such was unable to participate in the Nov. 14 event. Nor was the current head of USINT-Havana, Michael Parmly.

Nearly 200 people attended the reunion of the five now-retired diplomats. Here’s a summary of what each of the speakers had to say:

WAYNE SMITH (1979-82)

A veteran diplomat who’s since made a second career out of his Cuba experience, Wayne Smith first came to Havana in 1958 as third secretary at the U.S. Embassy. He stayed until 1961, when President Kennedy broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. Smith was transferred to Brazil, and later was posted to the Soviet Union and Argentina. He eventually returned to Washington, where he became director of Cuban affairs at the State Department.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter — who two years earlier had lifted travel controls as an initial step towards improving relations with Cuba — appointed Smith to head the new U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

“Ramón Sánchez Parodi was chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and the two of us discussed how we would handle the two issues that had to be solved first: compensation for nationalized U.S. properties, and No. 2, a lifting of the U.S. embargo,” Smith said. “We agreed we weren’t going to lift the embargo until they compensated our properties, and that we’d have to negotiate the two things simultaneously.”

Things were going smoothly until Nov. 16, when Smith heard on his car radio that a top U.S. government official had announced that the White House would freeze relations with Cuba because of a buildup of Soviet troop strength on the island.

But Smith said the move by Zbigniew Brzezinski — then Carter’s national security advisor — was wrong “because he gave the statement on his own, without clearing it with anyone, on the basis of a two-page CIA estimate.”

Immigration talks were also a major issue.

“There were growing pressures because of all these Cuban-Americans returning to Cuba,” he said. “Cuban officials came to us several times to suggest we had to negotiate this and find some normal channel for people to leave under acceptable circumstances. I sent a cable up to Washington suggesting that we do this. I never got an answer to any of these cables.”

As a result, he said, the United States was totally unprepared for what happened next: the Peruvian Embassy crisis and Castro’s subsequent announcement that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba was free to do so.

Between Apr. 15 and Oct. 31, 1980, an estimated 125,000 Cuban refugees crowded onto boats sent by Cuban-American exiles and sailed from Mariel to South Florida. Relations worsened as soon as Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. Smith called the policies of the Reagan administration “outright lies” and later quit in disgust.

What brought things to a head was Cuba’s announcement in December 1981 that it had halted all weapons shipments to Central America. The regime hoped this would improve the atmosphere for bilateral negotiations, and Smith relayed this information to the State Department. Six weeks later, Smith received his answer: no negotiations of any kind.

Shortly thereafter, the Reagan administration reimposed travel controls, it said, because of Cuba’s increasing arms shipments to Central America, even though no evidence of this existed.

“In the spring of 1982, I asked to be removed from the post and given a job unrelated to policy until I could take early retirement,” said Smith.

As bad as things were under Reagan, U.S.-Cuba relations are even more chilly now. “This administration has the worst policy towards Cuba imaginable,” said Smith, who’s now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. “Our policy has been a failure, and if our objective is to bring about positive change, we have not. In the last few years, we’ve pushed in the other direction.”

Asked about the man who now occupies his old job in Havana, Smith had this to say: “Michael Parmly is a fine guy and he’d be the perfect one to carry on the dialogue. But given our policy — and that bloody sign on the front of the U.S. Interests Section broadcasting all sorts of propaganda messages like Times Square — there’s no chance at all. The Bush administration is not interested in any kind of dialogue with the Cubans.”

JOHN A. FERCH (1982-85)

Over the course of his lengthy Foreign Service career, John Ferch specialized in Latin America and economics. He served in eight countries; in addition to being chief of USINT-Havana, he was also U.S. ambassador to Honduras and deputy chief of mission in Mexico.

But nothing in Ferch’s experience had prepared him for the realities awaiting him in Havana, where he served during the height of the Cold War.

At that time, the Reagan administration was helping the right-wing contras in their war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and giving massive economic and military assistance to the government of El Salvador, which was also engulfed in civil war.

“Frankly, I got very few instructions,” Ferch said. “I was given one briefing which was quite revealing. I was advised that if the Cubans put MiGs into Central America, there would be bad consequences. So I went down there, and within days made an appointment with Alarcón, and I gave him this message.”

From the U.S. perspective, it was Cuba’s support of rebel troops in Angola which explained why USINT-Havana didn’t mature into a full-fledged embassy.

“There was also evidence of drug-trafficking in Cuba. This is how we saw it. And the Cubans saw a Reagan administration whose rhetoric had escalated tremendously. The U.S. was more unpredictable than before, and more threatening from their perspective.”

Ferch maintained regular communications with many of the contacts established by his predecessor, Wayne Smith. Besides Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, these included Carlos Aldana, then-head of the Cuban Communist Party’s departments of ideology and international relations; José Luís Padrón, a minister of tourism who had close ties to the Cuban state security apparatus, and Carlos Salsamendi, an assistant to Vice-President Carlos Rafael Rodríguez who is now Cuba’s ambassador to The Gambia.

“I thought that in addition to those people, I could meet some Cuban economic types. So I asked for an appointment with the minister of economics, but I didn’t get that appointment for at least 18 months,” he said.

“But these four people I met at least once a month. Even if we had nothing to say, we kept up the contacts. It took awhile for me to realize that the Cubans had made it possible for me to see the right people immediately.”

Ferch recalled a few specific instances of the Castro regime trying to get him to send messages to Washington.

“We indicted some Cuban officials for drug-running in Florida. Fidel sent Padrón over to tell me that Washington was barking up the wrong tree. Another time, they called me in to persuade me to be forceful with Washington about not opposing Cuba’s bid to host the Pan-American Games.”

Ferch’s tenure at USINT-Havana coincided with the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983.

A bloody coup on that tiny Caribbean island provided the Reagan administration with the perfect excuse to get rid of a Marxist regime that had allied itself closely with Castro.

“I wasn’t told in advance about it, but on the morning of the invasion, I received a cable from Washington that was right out of the 19th century, saying I should tell the Cubans something like ‘we’re not fighting with you, you can leave with honor, with flags flying.’ I gave it to Alarcón, and he was pissed off.”

Cuban troops eventually left Grenada, but Cuba’s continued military presence in Angola was a major sticking point in bilateral relations. So it came as a surprise when, one day,

Ferch was reading Granma and came across a “very favorable” article about U.S. negotiations over that war-torn African country.

“I sent a cable up to Washington. They told me to begin talking about Angola [with Cuban officials], but nothing came of it,” he said.

At one point, Ferch said he was “called into Fidel’s inner sanctum” to discuss the December 1984 bilateral migration accord.

“During the time I was there, a great deal of reality was displayed by both sides. Our objective was not regime change; I never heard that phrase. And it wasn’t normal relations either. I’d call it ‘cultivate your own garden.’”

Ferch added: “After 18 months, I was finally allowed to see the minister of economy. I did some good reporting on Soviet involvement in the Cuban economy, but to my knowledge, no one in Washington ever cared about those reports.”

JAY TAYLOR (1987-90)

A career foreign service officer, Jay Taylor served as deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. Among other things, he was director of analysis for Asian and Pacific affairs, and political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

By the time Taylor arrived in Havana, the Soviet Union was no longer officially an “evil empire” in the eyes of President Reagan.

“Glasnost and perestroika were already at work in the Soviet Union. This openness and readiness to accept more dissent suggested the world was changing,” he said. “Castro and the Cuban hierarchy recognized that this was a totally new situation.”

Taylor said he spent his first few months in Havana getting his feet wet, meeting with 200 government officials, students, intellectuals and others. The big topic at the time was Angola, and how to disengage from that mess.

“I told Washington that they needed to cooperate with Cuba. I got a zinger back that said I didn’t know what I was talking about, that Castro would not get out of Angola until South Africa became communist,” he said.

Taylor was finally able to convince his superiors — through back-and-forth cables — that if Washington wanted Castro to move on other issues like human rights, he had to understand there would be some payoff for removing his troops from Angola, where the situation had been heating up for some time.

“The Angolan government had launched an offensive against UNITA, [but] we didn’t make a huge issue of the fact that Cuba had sent reinforcements to Angola,” he recalled.

“We had talks in Luanda and Havana, and Castro was totally committed, totally enthusiastic. He saw himself now as actively involved in diplomatic accords with the United States, and we recognized him as such. These talks went on for a year, and finally an agreement was signed in December 1988. Secretary of State [George] Shultz thanked the

Cubans for playing a cooperative and supportive role.” To everyone’s surprise, Taylor said, “Cuba withdrew all its forces ahead of schedule. This led to South Africa’s withdrawal from Angola as well as elections in Namibia and eventual independence. All the objectives the United States wanted were achieved.”

But, Taylor said, there was a glitch.

“During our early talks, I had been authorized to tell the Cubans that if this happened, it would result in improved relations. By 1989, the Cubans were out of Angola, and they had also withdrawn from Ethiopia. So I sent a cable to the State Department suggesting that we think about our options. We could do nothing, or make some gesture, or begin a process or take a step in relaxing the embargo.

“I got another zinger back from State saying we had never made that commitment. So I sent them back the [index] numbers of the cables authorizing me to say that. I never heard anything about it again.”

During the time Taylor served in Havana, human rights became an increasingly important issue. Taylor said that for the first time, the Castro regime allowed the International Red Cross to interview political prisoners.

“Before, if you were a Cuban dissident, either you were in Miami, or you were in jail,” Taylor quipped. “But Castro began to accept that there could be dissent, and we began visiting dissidents at home for the first time.”

Nevertheless, relations continued to deteriorate, and in March 1990 — as the Soviet Union was quickly disintegrating — the decision was made to put TV Martí on the air.

“By that time, Castro had realized what was happening with glasnost,” said Taylor, now an associate at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. “Instead of putting a human face on communism, it was a death mask for communism.”

ALAN FLANIGAN (1990-93)

During his 31-year career in the Foreign Service, Alan Flanigan served in Lima, Izmir, Ankara, Lisbon and Havana, finishing up as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. After retiring, Flanigan served for three years as co-chairman of the Foreign Service Institute’s Ambassadorial Seminar.

The three years Flanigan spent as head of USINT-Havana were undoubtedly the most desperate times in post-revolutionary Cuba.

“I arrived in September 1990, not long after Iraq invaded Kuwait,” he said. “The United States was concerned with the Middle East, not with what was going on in Havana.”

Flanigan realized Cuba was in a tailspin.

“Economically, it was imploding. Its economy had shrunk by 40%, and they weren’t sure they could survive,” he said. “By the time I left, they were beginning to pull out of the tailspin, but it was a different country.”

In 1987 — the year Flanigan began his Havana assignment — there were 50,000 bicycles in Cuba.

“Three years later, there were 800,000 bicycles, mostly the heavy Chinese kind, and no fat people at all,” he said. “It was a sad time to be there. We of course sat and watched. People thought the end was near. When I stopped in Miami on my way to Havana, I saw bumper stickers reading ‘Christmas in Havana,’ and those people actually believed it.”

Yet Flanigan says this was wishful thinking on the part of the Cuban exile community.

“What most people seem to forget is that this was a country under the control of a very rigid army and Ministry of Interior. They control all the communications and all the weapons — and there was no desire on the part of Fidel Castro to permit anything to open up. Sure there were dissidents, a handful of them, but they were arrested and put in prison.”

Regarding U.S.-Cuba relations during his tenure, Flanigan said: “Inertia is an important thing in diplomacy, and inertia took hold for the three years I was there. Not much happened. Cuba wanted to make sure the U.S. wasn’t a problem, so they tried to maintain a decent relationship, though they didn’t do anything to make it a more productive one.”

Neither did the United States, apparently.

“We had very few opportunities to make real progress,” he said. “One of them might have occurred while I was there, but it didn’t.

“After all, we had an election and a new administration which at least had some people who were sympathetic to improving the relation a little. But in the end, they just continued the same old policies.”

Flanigan seems not to have had much luck cultivating official sources at the top.

“Carlos Aldana was considered the prime minister, but he quickly disappeared from the scene [in September 1992]. I never talked to him,” he said.

“My contacts with the Cuban government were steady, regular and correct, but also testy and at a relatively low level.”

In the end, he said, “we missed opportunities, but I’m not sure they were real. Fidel needed us more as an enemy than as a friend. We could have taken steps to open up, but I’m not sure he would have reciprocated in any solid way.”

VICKI HUDDLESTON (1999-2002)

The first woman ever to head USINT, Vicki Huddleston had already served as coordinator of the State Department’s Office of Cuban Affairs before beginning her stint in Havana.

But she didn’t have a lot of breathing space, because the Elián González affair exploded onto the world’s headlines in January 2000, only a few months after her arrival.

“President Clinton had decided he’d change our policy on Cuba, even though when he was first elected, he had promised the Cuban American National Foundation that he’d bring the hammer down on Fidel, which he did. This led to passage of the Cuban Democracy Act,” she said.

Even so, Clinton permitted people-to-people travel, church exchanges and bilateral sporting events.

“Cuban-Americans were allowed to travel there at least once a year, and many people thought the Clinton administration would eventually lift the travel ban,” she said. “I believe that’s where we were headed, and I believe 100% that Fidel used that little boy Elián in order to stop the Clinton administration from moving any further. Much more than that, it reinvigorated a very tired revolution.”

Huddleston recalled gazing out the 5th-floor window of her office and seeing the anti-American marches growing larger by the day — first thousands of people, then tens of thousands, and finally hundreds of thousands.

“These were all organized demonstrations, and everyone had to come, but every Cuban I knew, from dissidents to civil servants, agreed that Elián had to come back. It gave Fidel the greatest cause he could ever hope for.”

Even after George W. Bush became president, Clinton’s people-to-people measures were continued; at the same time, Huddleston earned the wrath of some Cuban officials for distributing thousands of cheap, $10 AM-FM-shortwave radios to whoever would accept them (see our exclusive profile of Huddleston in the July 2005 issue of CubaNews, page 8).

“When the Bush administration came in, the new measures were continued. Our interests section began distributing books all over Cuba. It was a hugely vibrant time,” she said, noting that dissident Oswaldo Payá, founder of the Varela Project, was able to gain 10,000 signatures on a petition seeking a referendum to change Cuba’s constitution.

“My proudest moment was when Jimmy Carter went to the University of Havana and called for the Cuban government to allow an up-or-down vote on the Cuban constitution.

That was an amazing moment, and it showed just how much might be achieved in Cuba.”

Huddleston added: “Many people in Miami supported what we were doing, but the more conservative Cuban-Americans did not, and so the Bush administration decided to change the policy.”

After leaving USINT, Huddleston was named U.S. ambassador to Mali. In retirement, she’s now a visiting fellow at the Brook-ings Institution, where she directs the “U.S. Policy Toward a Cuba in Transition” project.

“It’s isolation that keeps Castro going. That is why U.S. policy is hugely at fault for propping up this regime,” she said.

“Unfortunately, our relationship has broken down, and Dagoberto [Rodríguez, ex-chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington] told me they haven’t spoken with the principal U.S. officer in Havana since I left five years ago. I wish they would; they need to.”

CONCLUSIONS

Huddleston’s colleagues have all reached conclusions of their own, with Smith insisting that Raúl Castro, the man now running Cuba, sincerely wants to reform the system.

“He’s in charge of the armed forces, and they are deeply involved in the economy, and in a very constructive way. They’ve shown themselves to be good businessmen,” said Smith. “But there is Fidel, still in the background. Many of the decisions Raúl wants to make, Fidel wouldn’t approve of. So Raúl doesn’t want to move too far too fast.”

Ferch discounted the idea Fidel remains a key factor in the decision-making process.

“Fidel Castro is already gone,” he said. “If you had a panel of physicians up here rather than ex-Foreign Service officers, you might be hearing that a man in his condition cannot be making decisions.

Ferch added: “The Cuban hierarchy was very realistic and pragmatic. I assume that characteristic is still there, so I have little doubt that if we engage them, they’ll engage us in a realistic manner. They’re not acting out of ignorance or emotions, but rational thinking.”

Taylor predicted a transition to a more open society.

“It’ll still be very controlled. It’ll be a system like China or Vietnam where you have no political rights,” he said. “But even the Chinese people are more free today than they’ve ever been in the history of China.”

Flanigan said anything Washington does now must be in its own interests “because I don't think we can expect reciprocity, especially given the current situation in Havana.”

However, he added that there’s a “risk-reward ratio” in dealing with Cuba that all political operatives must keep in mind.

“It’s not just a bilateral relationship; it’s emotional, and there are votes involved,” he said. “Yes, we’ve missed chances, but it’s not the end of the world. We should look forward and find opportunities to make it work.”

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