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Re-establishing Ties with Cuba, 1977

“Cuba ought to be free and independent, and the government should be turned over to the Cuban people.” That in many ways summarizes decades of U.S. policy towards its island neighbor. However, the quote is not by John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush, but rather by President William McKinley — which demonstrates rather clearly that the intense feelings each has towards the other are rooted in a history that long pre-dates Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.

Attempts to improve relations and ultimately lift the U.S. trade embargo have stalled for various reasons over the years, until President Barack Obama’s historic announcement on December 17, 2014, that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba. In many ways, the U.S. has been here before: back in 1977, the Carter administration decided to establish ties with Cuba, with the goal of ultimately lifting the embargo and establishing embassies. While there was initial progress, relations were again put on the back burner over Cuban troops in Africa and increasing involvement in Central America.

Terence Todman was Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of American Republics Affairs (or ARA, now WHA or Western Hemisphere Affairs) and was the first U.S. diplomat to travel to Havana for negotiations. He was interviewed by Michael Krenn beginning in 1995. John Bushnell was the Deputy Assistant Secretary in ARA and had to deal with the nitty gritty of re-opening a U.S. mission in Havana; he was interviewed by John Harter in 1997. Jon Glassman was Deputy Principal Officer at USINT right after it opened and was charged with enticing the Cubans to improve relations in exchange for lifting the embargo. He was interviewed in 1997 by Peter Moffat.

You can also read about how the Cuban government vilified the head of the U.S Interests Section and how Cuban agents killed actress Kathleen Turner‘s family pet when she was a child living in Havana. Go here to read about the negotiations that led to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.


With the Spanish gone from the area, Cuba was, for many purposes, part of the United States”

BUSHNELL: Cuba was a big issue in one way or another all during the time I was in ARA [American Republics Affairs, now WHA or Western Hemisphere Affairs]. Before I was assigned to ARA, the new Carter administration launched an initiative to improve relations with Cuba. The objective was to improve contacts with Cuba and encourage improved human rights by a series of small steps. Among the most visible was to open an interests section in Cuba and allow the Cubans to open a similar office in Washington.

Although the U.S. and Cuba are close neighbors, there had been no diplomatic relations since January 1961, soon after Castro took power, nationalized major investments of the private sector, and turned to the Soviet Union for large-scale military and economic assistance. Interests sections, which consist of a small number of diplomatic officers who act as part of a friendly embassy, not under their own flag, are a big first step toward diplomatic relations.

When, as in the Cuban case, both nations actually staff the buildings that were previously their embassies with a substantial number of people, the difference between interest sections and embassies becomes mainly a matter of protocol. The heads of the interest sections are not ambassadors and thus rank below all ambassadors.

Q: How do you explain this extraordinary sensitivity to Cuba throughout history, going back to the administration of President Jefferson? 

BUSHNELL: If you think of the original 13 states along the Atlantic Ocean, Cuba was considered by many Americans to be the 14th state. Inevitably, in the 20th century, with the Spanish gone from the area, Cuba was, for many purposes, part of the United States. It was close, only 90 miles South of Florida. Moreover, the situation is unlike that of Mexico, where Mexico City is over 400 miles south of the nearest point in American territory. Havana is less than 200 miles from Miami. Northern Mexico is largely desert near the Mexican border. All of Cuba is geographically close to the U.S. and has therefore long been part of many things going on in the United States.

Cubans adopted baseball as their national sport. Entertainers traveled regularly between the two countries. For many wealthy Americans in the 1930’s through the 1950’s, Havana was the winter destination, not Miami. Most found Havana a more sophisticated and metropolitan city than Miami in that period. US companies dominated many areas of the Cuban economy.

Fidel Castro came along in 1959 and, in effect, drove the Cuban upper class into exile, largely in the United States. Nearly 10 percent of the Cuban population left for the U.S. over a period of years, including most of the wealthier and better educated. These Cubans, for the most part, went to Miami and made Miami largely a Cuban city. The perception is not wrong that there are two large Cuban cities: Havana and Miami. Not surprisingly, given their capabilities, the Cuban refugees have done well economically and professionally in the United States.


“We decided the administration would not allow itself to be controlled by the Cuban community in the United States”

Terence Todman

Assistant Secretary, ARA, 1977-78 

Q: There seemed to be a different approach toward Cuba during the Carter Administration and you were Assistant Secretary during some of those changes. 

TODMAN: It was a very different approach. We decided right at the very beginning of the administration that we would seek to reach some negotiated understanding with Cuba and that the administration was going to do this and not allow itself to be controlled by the Cuban community in the United States. Therefore, we made the arrangements for establishing the contacts without consulting with anyone. And once the contacts were established, then we let them know.

I was then authorized to enter into negotiations with Cuba. Cuba wanted to get the right to fish in U.S. waters. We were also faced during this time, as you recall, with numerous incidents at sea over presumed violations of maritime boundary. People were always being arrested and released; a lot of problems. And it seemed worthwhile to negotiate and establish a maritime boundary with Cuba and a fisheries agreement.

We held our first meetings in New York. I remember that day very well. A very bleak, cold day. And I saw the Cuban delegation coming down with real fear in their faces. They’re coming up, you know, as supplicants to the Yanquis. And I walked down the hall to greet the delegation; greeted them in Spanish and apologized for the miserable, cold New York weather, and assured them that the warmth of our meeting and our reception would try and compensate in some way for this. Ah…relief on their faces and smiles, and we went to the delegation meetings.

And I knew things about the head of the Cuban delegation. He had an ulcer, so we would break periodically so he could go and have something. We had milk in there. Also, I was able to hold discussions with him on the side in Spanish. Whenever we got into very tight, tense situations at the table, and I would call a break and go over and talk to him, alone, and examine what the parameters were and where we could find some agreement, and then go back and sit down and work it out. We came pretty close to final agreement; in fact we could have concluded the agreement on the text of both treaties during the New York meetings.

“If you don’t think that I’m able to take care of our interests in dealing with Castro, then I shouldn’t be Assistant Secretary of State”

But the Cubans decided that they wanted to have meetings in Havana. And so they dragged their feet for the last few days, and came in the day before the end and said, “We can’t finish it now. We didn’t get our instructions. But Fidel would like you to come down, leading a delegation, so we can conclude the negotiations.” And this brought about, I guess about the only near breach that I had in the State Department, because I recommended, then, to the Secretary that I be authorized to go, lead the delegation, and conclude the negotiations.

And he checked with the White House, and the answer that came back was that over there, [at right, National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski felt that the Cubans would make mincemeat of me. This would be a senior U.S. official going down to Havana at the mercy of these devils; they would tear us apart. And so I was told I couldn’t go; I wouldn’t be authorized to go. To have it in some third country, that would be fine.

And I said, “Look, it’s common diplomatic practice for negotiations to be held alternately in each other’s country, unless you’re doing it in all in a third country. But you don’t do one round in your own country and then switch to a third country. And if we really believe in the equality of the nations, equality of treatment that we’re talking about, then we do this. So, first there’s the principle — do we go or don’t we? Second, is, do I lead the delegation? And if you don’t think that I’m able to represent the United States and take care of our interests in dealing with Castro, then I shouldn’t be Assistant Secretary of State. You need somebody else here who can do the job, if you don’t think I can do that. Because that has to be part of what’s done.

Then I pointed out that if I were in Cuba there would be many advantages, many things I could do there, including getting some prisoners freed, getting the interest section established, getting back our property, that I couldn’t do outside the country. And so it made sense for me to go. So, the Secretary agreed to go back to the President with this and came back and said that I could go.

So, I did go down to Havana in late-April and it’s rather interesting. Because, again, we’re getting near the end of April and the foot-dragging started again, because they obviously wanted to have me there for May 1st, a great celebration in all the Communist countries. And I said, “Look, my plane is coming back to get me here on the last day of April at eight o’clock at night, and I’m leaving on that plane. If we have signed agreements, fine. Then we can go ahead on the ratification and implementations. If we don’t, we’ll have another round back in the United States at some point. We’ll have to look for dates to have another round. But I leave on the 30th.”

Well, they hemmed and hawed. This was on the 28th that they had suggested postponing. They said Fidel wanted to meet with me, but he didn’t have any time until the 2nd to deal with these things. I said, “Well, that’s very nice.”

But I knew that they very badly wanted to get the fisheries agreement and so I figured that they weren’t going to want to wait too very much longer to do that. And so we concluded the agreement, the two agreements. They both were signed; they both were ratified by our respective parliaments. They’ve been in effect. And subsequent to that there have been no more troubles over the international waters and where the boundaries are. Those things don’t happen anymore.

The Cubans fully respect American law. So our people go aboard their vessels, inspect, insure that things are being complied with, and that relationship is working very well. We got back all the American property, the residence and the embassy. We established interest sections which allowed Americans to go in and actually look after American affairs which were being handled before by the Swiss. We had no Americans in the country. So we are informed directly by our own people of the situation there. They had people always in New York; we had no one at all in Cuba. We were able to do that so that we got relations going. We got a number of Americans released, some people with dual nationality, as part of the process. So, it became a major breakthrough.

“Everything died on the issue of the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Africa”

And we were then beginning to move towards a further major step in normalization which revolved around the withdrawal of the Cuban troops from Africa. And the Cubans agreed in principle that they could do so, but it would have to be on a gradual basis. The position taken in the administration was that it had to be all at once. And, of course, Cuba could not absorb all of those people, either in terms of the economy or the political situation, or anything else.

There was no way that this was going to happen. And we insisted that failing that, we would not continue the normalization process. And so, by the time I left, a chill developed in the relation that just remained that way.

But, enormous progress had been made and things were going in the right direction and there were a number of other things that we had envisioned which could have worked out. I looked very much at the idea of petroleum products they were getting from the Soviet Union. There’s no reason that Cuba should get petroleum products from the Soviet Union, with all that’s available in this hemisphere. So, my intention was to seek an arrangement where you would have a petroleum swap so that you would decrease the dependence of Cuba on the Soviet Union, begin weaning it away and typing it more into the Americas system. This was something that had been already thought out. And we were thinking of how to go about putting this into effect.

But everything died, basically, on the issue of timing, the speed of the withdrawal from Africa. And it died on the decision that it had to be all now. But the basic policy earlier was one of engagement and one of getting Cuba back into the system, because of the certainty that once it came back into the system, democracy would prevail; because the Communist system was corrupt and it couldn’t last.

And if people were free to move, to do things, to have contacts, to get reading materials, to see people, it would undermine the system that’s there now. And the things that happened couldn’t be blamed exclusively on the United States. It made an enormous amount of sense, and was moving well. But it was stopped in the last part of the administration, and, of course, this was something easy to continue when the administrations changed.


“The Carter Administration adopted its policy without realizing what a strong reaction it would generate in the Cuban community”

John Bushnell

Deputy Assistant Secretary, ARA, 1977-1982

BUSHNELL: I had the Cuban portfolio through much of my time in ARA [Bureau of American Republic Affairs]  The big move to warm relations with Cuba occurred early in the Carter Administration. By the time I got to ARA, interest sections were being set up in each others’ capitals and there was considerable excitement that we would be able to resolve long pending problems related to such issues as migration, prisoner exchanges, and air hijacking. I think Terry Todman made at least one trip to Cuba, if not two. I was quite comfortable with the Carter Administration revision of our Cuba policy, and I think Todman was too.

However, those on the American right who opposed the Panama Canal Treaties were strongly against our moderate warming with Cuba as another part of the Carter sell-out of American interests.. I don’t think I ever saw the policy papers leading up to the warming of relations with Cuba, assuming there were some.

Of course the warming with Cuba did not last as the Cuban military role in

Africa expanded. But during my first year in ARA opening the Interests Section in Havana was a big budget problem. We hadn’t budgeted in ARA for an Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy in Havana. In fact, the Interests Section ultimately was established in the old Embassy on the Malecon in Havana (in phot0). The big old building had to be cleaned and everything aired and repaired. The Interests Section was very expensive, even though we had a small staff, as supplies were flow in from Florida and security was expensive.

However, we had no choice. We had to spend money on this. I had either to squeeze funds from elsewhere in ARA or else fight with the central authorities of the Department of State to try to get money….

The problem, when I arrived in December 1977, was that we were spending money as if it had no end. The Department budget officers had come up with substantial funding, and our staffing costs were of course covered. Communications costs were not an ARA responsibility. But the Foreign Building Office did not have the funds to restore our Havana building at top speed. I was able to squeeze some funds from the ARA budget and beg some more from the budget people, but we had to leave many sections of the Havana building in disrepair for lack of funds….

Q: Did you feel the impact of that huge, expatriate Cuban community while you were in ARA? 

BUSHNELL: Absolutely. Perhaps I haven’t had enough experience to make a generalization, but I think one could make a case that, after the Jewish lobby, the next most powerful lobby of foreign origin or interest is made up of the Cubans. The Cubans have made a lot of money, and beginning in the 1970’s they became big contributors to political campaigns, both in Florida and nationally. Moreover, the Cuban community has focused its political interest on policies regarding Cuba. In many respects Cuban views are as diverse as any other group of Americans, but on Cuba, until recently anyway, there has been great unity in being anti-Castro, even among the generation that has spend all, or almost all, their lives here. The Cubans consider that they were kicked out of Cuba by Castro….

My impression was that the Carter Administration adopted its warming policy toward Castro without realizing what a strong adverse reaction it would generate in the Cuban community. Its lack of decisive influence in the early days of the Carter Administration made the Cuban-American community realize it needed a major presence in Washington. It hired lobbyists, and its leaders began coming to Washington with some regularity. In Florida it organized to have greater impact on foreign policy, meaning for it Cuban policy.

By the time I came into ARA at the end of 1977 the Carter Administration was already working harder at improving relations with the Cuban-Americans than with Castro. There was little interest in additional warming even before the Cuba military role in Africa and the Mariel sea invasion of Cuban immigrants ended and reversed the warming process.

The experience at the beginning of the Carter Administration showed the Cubans that groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations with a broad membership can be more important during the turmoil of a presidential transition than more narrow groups such as the Cuban American Foundation, which might not have a seat at a key transition table.


Holding out lifting the embargo as an incentive

Jon Glassman

Deputy Principal Officer, U.S. Interests Section, Havana, 1979-1981

Glassman:  We were asked to begin dangling in front of the Cubans the idea of eventual lifting of the United States embargo on trade with Cuba. When we opened the Interests Section in Cuba, the Cubans told us that their participation in Angola, where they had sent 20 thousand troops and received material support from Soviets, was an exception. This was going to end, it would not be repeated elsewhere. There would be a normal state-to-state relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

What the Carter Administration was dangling was an incentive for that to occur. Once the Cubans were out of Angola, we would resume trade relations with them. My job as a deputy was to begin visiting the various Cuban foreign trading entities, and to tell them that, when the U.S. embargo was lifted, a number of opportunities would open up. We were definitely holding that out as an incentive to the Cubans.

We were received very well initially by the Cubans; they allowed us to move back into the American Embassy building – which had been occupied previously by about four Swiss secretaries. They were quick to give us ten houses which we began to restore. They gave us back the Ambassador’s Residence (at left) which was a magnificent 1930s building. We began to restore all these things. The Cubans were very free initially with access….

The first three months we were there almost all our requests were granted; we were able to see almost any Cuban official we wanted in the trading entities and the Foreign Ministry and the government in general. Also during these early months, we had a number of Congressional visits and these Congressional visitors were almost always received by Castro personally….

I remember when we first arrived in Havana, we talked to the Somalis. The Somalis were very close to the Cubans and the Russians. All of a sudden the roles were reversed. The Cuban leadership, Castro’s entourage, told me that what happened was Castro was fascinated by the Ethiopian revolutionary leader Mengistu. Castro saw him as a man who wore a military uniform, a revolutionary like Castro himself. Castro convinced the Soviets to shift their bets. Whether this is true or self-serving is not clear. But what is evident, is that the prospect for normalization with the United States was there; the Americans opened up in Havana.

But three months later the Americans, Cubans and Russians are at each others’ throat. Despite the fact that we had dangled all this business about lifting the embargo, and the influx of Cuban visitors from the so-called Cuban community (the Cuban exiles in Miami) which created an inflow of foreign exchange immediately, Castro threw this all to the winds. Whether the Soviets told him to do this, or whether he convinced the Soviets to do this, it’s hard to know. But what we do know is that, in December 1977, after we moved in, there was a change in the tone of our relationship with Cuba.

After Soviet-Cuban intervention in Ethiopia, the Carter administration could no longer be dangling the prospect of embargo lifting there. The Cubans, for their part, began to clamp down on our contacts. Pending appointment requests started to build up and by the time I left Cuba in 1979, I had 45-50 outstanding appointment requests which had not been granted. They were really tightening up on us. So to pursue our tasks there, we began meeting more and more with the Soviets and Eastern Europeans and talked about their economic ties with Cuba. But the tone with the Cubans turned to confrontation and Castro had precipitated this.

“The Soviets preferred a succession arrangement in which Raul would take over”

While this was going on in Ethiopia, Castro was also putting money, goods into the support of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. At the end of my tour, I had a meeting with Osmany Cienfuegos, a member of the Cuban Communist party Politburo at the time and very close to Castro. He said, “You know, you have seen our hand in Nicaragua and you’re going to see it again soon in El Salvador and Guatemala.” He was telling the truth, of course. That was the next phase in the confrontation.

There are those such as Wayne Smith who defend the Cubans but the reality is that the Cubans had a golden opportunity. They had said that Angola would be unique. They had been offered implicitly the lifting of the embargo and yet they moved against U.S. interests. They dispatched troops to Ethiopia. We used to see these troops at the airports flying out there; it was really a rush operation.

As the Cubans began to clamp down and close off contact with us, we began to see more and more of the Russians. They were very open about their economic relationship with Cuba. They professed to have a disdain for Castro but they had a different point of view regarding Fidel and his brother Raul. The Soviets generally would tell us that they considered Raul to be a disciplined fellow whereas Fidel was more emotional and problematical. It was clear that they preferred a succession arrangement in which Raul would take over; he was, of course, head of the armed forces….