Sunday, November 23, 2014

Back Channel to Cuba

I read Leogrande and Kornbluh's fantastic book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana (2014). It is really well researched and just fascinating to read.

My 10 year old daughter has a hamster, which gets into her little wheel and runs like crazy. Sometimes she even gets on top of the wheel and runs like she's on a treadmill. The poor thing never gets anywhere, but keeps trying, or at least there is the illusion of trying. So goes U.S.-Cuban relations.

Thus, one remarkable point of this book is that many different go-betweens--reporters, business leaders, exiles, diplomats, you name it--have spent countless hours traveling and talking, with very little to show for it. Sure, there are periodic breakthroughs, but the core sticking points remain equally sticky after 50+ years. As Robert Gates once remarked after a meeting, "The initiative had been worthwhile, but had failed utterly" (p. 184). But they keep trying. Each chapter starts to sound amazingly similar even though the names change (for obvious reasons they do so much more frequently on the U.S. side).

Talks have floundered in large part because both sides consider the preconditions too steep. In the 1970s, Cuba would not abandon Africa. Meanwhile, the U.S. would not abandon the embargo. More recently, Cuba would not hold elections while the U.S. still would not abandon the embargo. The U.S. wanted compensation for nationalized property, but Cuba would only discuss that if there was compensation for damages wrought by the embargo and exile attacks.

One great feature of the book is its judicious tone. Leogrande and Kornbluh don't often take sides--they just dig deep into the historical record. The book cries out, though, for a framework. For example, I am not convinced about Fidel Castro's commitment to negotiations. Sometimes, as in 1975, he happily blew off months of talks. We need a better grip on his own goals to know when he wanted advancement, when he didn't, and how far he really wanted them to go. The U.S. was committed to negotiations only to the extent that they required concessions solely from Cuba. So at what times was a positive outcome even possible or likely? Conceptually, what should we realistically expect?

And just now, we have a U.S. official saying maybe we can negotiate, but Cuba needs to take more steps first. The more things change...


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