Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

X

The “Leaky Bucket”—Brazil and the Cuban Missile Crisis

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy sought to maintain an open dialogue with Brazil with the intent to create an intermediary in communications with Fidel Castro in Cuba. However, the troubled U.S.-Brazil relationship was riddled with distrust and hidden motives. In particular, the Brazilian president at the time, João Goulart, was infamous for his financial mishandling and leftist leanings, ultimately prompting anxieties and doubts concerning the use of U.S. foreign aid in Brazil among American congressional leaders.

Kennedy and Goulart review troops 1962 | Wikimedia
Kennedy and Goulart review troops 1962 | Wikimedia

Washington also wanted to ensure that Brazil would not be gradually influenced by Cuban communism. However, Brazilian politicians desired a healthy relationship between the United States and Cuba. At the same time, they hoped that by serving as a successful mediator between the United States and Cuba they would secure their standing and prove Brazil’s legitimacy as an exemplary, Latin American powerhouse in the international community—showing that they could maintain significant influence in the international system beyond Latin America. As such, they viewed the relationship as a primary diplomatic bridge between the United States and other Latin American countries. However, Brazilian and American intentions clashed with each other. Specifically, Brazil wanted to bring Cuba into Latin American politics, and the United States worked to ensure that Cuba would not spread communism throughout the southern hemisphere. These difficult dealings required a very intricate and carefully executed approach.

Patricia Burns Ryan, wife of former Foreign Service Officer Henry “Duke” Ryan, would become a witness to these proceedings when they relocated to Brazil in October of 1961. At their first post in Rio de Janeiro, she was present for the tense negotiations. She recounts that her husband Duke and his fellow officers were determined to find consensus on economic aid. During a dinner with former Congressman Strom Thurmond in 1962, Mrs. Ryan observed a conversation that would showcase the complexity and art of negotiations.

Patricia Burns Ryan’s interview was conducted in February 1992 by Linda Bell.

Read Ryan’s full interview HERE.

Drafted by Desirée Winns

ADST relies on the generous support of our members and readers like you. Please support our efforts to continue capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats.

Excerpts:

“I remember at some press conference they were talking about how giving Brazil aid is like pouring water into a leaky bucket, which infuriated the Brazilians and then there was a lot of backpedaling about what they meant to say.”

           
Panorama at night of Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro city, with the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Hill) in the background, in June 2014 | Wikimedia
Panorama at night of Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro city, with the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Hill) in the background, in June 2014 | Wikimedia

The Debate Over American Economic Support to Brazil: So we spent six weeks, seven weeks, something of that nature there. It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened while we were out there. There was a man who was the head of the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was a U.S. election year so that most parliamentarians from the United States could not come because it was in October and they were contesting an election. The only congressmen who were free to come were southern Democrats for whom the primary was indeed the election. They knew that their jobs were secure, or people who were not going to run.

We had Strom Thurmond. He was old then. And then a man named Robertson from Virginia. And this made a very interesting experience for both of us because there were a lot of social events having these people from Congress there which gave us an opportunity to meet them and to talk to them. I remember Strom Thurmond pushing back at the dinner table and turning to Duke who was a JOT, and had been in the country for a total of five months, maybe, most of it in language school, and saying, “Well now if you were us in Congress, where would you cut aid to Brazil?” And Duke’s diplomacy won through because he said, “Well I’m not sure exactly where I’d cut. I’d certainly be able to tell you where I would not cut.” And then proceeded to do that, which I think was all of the things that we were doing then. It was an interesting experience close up. They were trying to take some kind of a position. I remember at some press conference they were talking about how giving Brazil aid is like pouring water into a leaky bucket, which infuriated the Brazilians and then there was a lot of backpedaling about what they meant to say.

“Duke’s job every day was to take the news off the local news and translate it into English and provide a written resume of updated news for these congressmen who were understandably just going crazy.”

Political Isolation: One of the most interesting things was that during the Cuban Missile Crisis itself, as it was brewing, somebody, as is the way in the Third World, had managed to do something which had knocked out communications. I think there were no telephone lines open to Rio—they had accidentally cut the cable. The only source of information from the outside was short-wave and local radio. Duke’s job every day was to take the news off the local news and translate it into English and provide a written resume of updated news for these congressmen who were understandably just going crazy. Many of them worked for the Foreign Relation Committee in the Senate. This was the biggest post-war political event and international crisis and here they are in Brazil. One man said “Here I am in the middle of this Godforsaken countryside at a conference which is by definition inconsequential while the most important thing in the world that has happened in years is going on.” And they were really just going crazy over their isolation. But fortunately it was over fairly quickly and they were all deciding whether they would go or stay. Plane service was not such that you could hop on a plane the next day. There were just a couple of planes a week going to the States from Brasilia that they could have taken. But anyway the crisis passed successfully, blessedly for all of us, and they were able to finish the conference and go home as planned.