Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana


History is being made in U.S.-Cuban relations. Now in paperback and updated to tell the real story behind the stunning December 17, 2014, announcement by President Obama and President Castro of their move to restore full diplomatic relations, this powerful book is essential to understanding ongoing efforts toward normalization in a new era of engagement. Challenging the conventional wisdom of perpetual conflict and aggression between the United States and Cuba since 1959, Back Channel to Cuba chronicles a surprising, untold history of bilateral efforts toward rapprochement and reconciliation. William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh here present a remarkably new and relevant account, describing how, despite the intense political clamor surrounding efforts to improve relations with Havana, negotiations have been conducted by every presidential administration since Eisenhower's through secret, back-channel diplomacy. From John F. Kennedy's offering of an olive branch to Fidel Castro after the missile crisis, to Henry Kissinger's top secret quest for normalization, to Barack Obama's promise of a new approach, LeoGrande and Kornbluh uncovered hundreds of formerly secret U.S. documents and conducted interviews with dozens of negotiators, intermediaries, and policy makers, including Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter. They reveal a fifty-year record of dialogue and negotiations, both open and furtive, that provides the historical foundation for the dramatic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba ties.


Our relations are like a bridge in war-time. I’m not going to talk about who blew
it up—I think it was you who blew it up. The war has ended and now we are
reconstructing the bridge, brick by brick, 90 miles from Key West to Varadero
beach. It is not a bridge that can be reconstructed easily, as fast as it was de
stroyed. It takes a long time. If both parties reconstruct their part of the bridge,
we can shake hands without winners or losers.

—Raúl Castro to Senators George McGovern and James Abourezk, April 8, 1977

In early April of 1963, during talks in Havana over the release of Americans being held in Cuban jails as spies, Fidel Castro first broached his interest in improving relations with the United States. “If any relations were to commence between the U.S. and Cuba,” Castro asked U.S. negotiator James Donovan, “how would it come about and what would be involved?”

Sent to Cuba in the fall of 1962 by President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert to undertake the first real negotiations with Cuba’s revolutionary regime, Donovan had secured the freedom of more than one thousand members of the CIA-led exile brigade that Castro’s forces had defeated at the Bay of Pigs. In addition to the prisoners, Donovan also secured Castro’s confidence. Through trips in January, March, and April 1963, he built on that confidence to negotiate the freedom of several dozen U.S. citizens detained after the revolution. In the respectful nature of their talks, Castro found the first trusted U.S. representative with whom he could seriously discuss how Havana and Washington might move toward restoring civility and normalcy in the dark wake of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. “In view of the past history on both sides here, the problem of how to inaugurate any relations was a very difficult one,” Castro observed.

“So I said, ‘now do you know how porcupines make love?’” Donovan remembered responding. “And he said no. And I said well, the answer is ‘very carefully,’ and that is how you and the U.S. would have to get into this.”

As Donovan pursued his shuttle diplomacy during the spring of 1963, some Kennedy administration officials sought to use his special relationship . . .

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