Newspaper article International New York Times

The Secret Trail to U.S.-Cuba Relations ; Diplomatic Achievement Shadowed by Subplots, Suspicion and Mistrust

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Secret Trail to U.S.-Cuba Relations ; Diplomatic Achievement Shadowed by Subplots, Suspicion and Mistrust

Article excerpt

The path to a diplomatic opening was very nearly a dead end, shadowed at every turn by suspicion and mistrust, calcified over decades.

Before the United States and Cuba could seal a historic diplomatic rapprochement brokered in 18 months of secret talks, they first had to hide a pregnancy.

Late last year, when President Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba were only weeks away from a stunning announcement that they were ready to end a half-century of hostility, White House officials negotiating the thaw learned of a problem that could derail their clandestine work.

A surreal subplot to the negotiations -- a covert plan to allow a Cuban prisoner held in the United States to artificially inseminate his wife in Havana -- had succeeded. But the woman, who is famous in Cuba, was now visibly pregnant. The White House officials found themselves in the bizarre situation of pressing the Cuban government to keep her out of the public eye for fear that her appearance would raise suspicions and upend the talks at a critical moment.

The story of America's reconciliation with Cuba, culminating on Friday with the ceremonial raising of the United States flag over a newly reopened embassy in Havana, is one of near misses, crossed wires, political stalemates, freelance interference and unexpected challenges that could have changed the course of history. While presented with a flourish to a surprised world public, the path to a diplomatic opening was very nearly a dead end.

Driven by the ambitions of a president eager to make a fresh start with a Cold War-era adversary and eventually blessed as a moral imperative by Pope Francis, it was fueled at key points by more human considerations: the mounting desperation of Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor jailed in Havana, and the wish of the wife of a Cuban man imprisoned in California to bear his child before it was too late. It was shadowed at every turn by suspicion and mistrust, calcified over decades.

The drive for reconciliation, handled by just two White House aides and bypassing diplomats at the State Department, defied normal conventions. At one point in the summer of 2014, when White House aides feared that Mr. Gross might commit suicide in prison, Mr. Obama intervened directly by scratching out a letter imploring him not to give up hope, delivered in the president's distinctive left- handed scrawl rather than typed out, to emphasize his personal commitment.

"When we initiated the discussions, we didn't know exactly where it would lead," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the top Obama aide who spent more than a year sneaking off to secret negotiations in Canada and finally at the Vatican along with Ricardo Zuniga, the National Security Council's top Western Hemisphere official. "The talks frankly ended up leading in all kinds of directions that we couldn't have anticipated in the beginning."

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1953, but every president since then engaged in some form of talks with Havana, sometimes through secret channels or intermediaries. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton each made concerted efforts to transform the broken relationship, only to be frustrated, leaving the two sides frozen in a conflict long after the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Obama came to office determined to succeed where his predecessors had failed, convinced that the trade and commercial embargo had failed to undermine the Castro government while worsening Washington's standing in Latin America. Campaigning for the White House in Miami in 2008, he told a Cuban-American group that he would meet with Mr. Castro "at a time and place of my choosing."

At his Chicago transition office after winning the 2008 election, the president-elect told Senator Richard J. Durbin, a fellow Illinois Democrat, that overhauling American policy on Cuba was a priority but that the circumstances would have to be right. "I thought it is long overdue, and it will take this president to step up and do it," Mr. …

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