No matter how tense hostilities between the U.S. and Castro’s Cuba escalated, both countries always kept little-known communication channels open, argues William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh in their book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.
As the U.S. and Cuba approach another potential period of uncertainty, Back Channel to Cuba offers rigorously researched lessons on what stalled—and what accelerated—U.S.-Cuba relations over the last 57 years.
Each chapter chronicles how U.S. presidential administrations from Eisenhower to Obama dealt with the Castro brothers. The book is loaded with little-known stories that explain how presidents, diplomats, revolutionaries, voters, vigilantes, journalists, and migrants all shaped a half-century relationship that has teetered between détente and nuclear war.
LeoGrande and Kornbluh argue that due to the polarizing nature of U.S.-Cuba relations, communication channels often rested in the hands of unlikely sources. ABC journalist Lisa Howard (she delivered a message to former President Lyndon Johnson from Fidel Castro), author Gabriel García Márquez (he delivered a letter to former President Bill Clinton from Fidel Castro), and Pope Francis (he assisted secret negotiations to normalize relations between the two countries) are just some of the icons who filled the diplomatic gaps.
While those back channels helped resolve some urgent conflicts (prisoner exchanges, migrant crises, and airplane hijackings) they never produced a diplomatic breakthrough until President Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014 announcement that relations would be normalized. For decades, too many thorny issues kept both countries away from the negotiating table. Property seized during the Cuban Revolution was, and continues to be, a persistent thorn. So were the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Angolan Civil War, the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue plane, and the Elián González custody battle. The lingering impact of those conflicts are a reminder that U.S.-Cuba relations are delicate despite any recent thaw.
Even though Back Channel to Cuba was updated in 2015 to include an epilogue on how Obama and Raúl Castro reached a breakthrough, the work as a whole still feels incomplete. The death of Fidel Castro and President Donald Trump’s threats to undo Obama’s Cuba opening means the first draft of history is still being written.
Leaders carving the future for both countries will benefit from reading Back Channel to Cuba, especially its penultimate chapter, “Intimate Adversaries, Possible Friends.” Instead of examining a U.S. presidential administration, this chapter lists ten lessons for leaders to consider in future negotiations. It explains why both countries continue to put domestic issues on the negotiating table, even when neither is willing to budge on them. It also explains why Cuba has a hard time understanding the difference between gestures and concessions, and why small successes don’t necessarily lead to big ones.
While it still isn’t clear how far Trump will stray from the opening to Cuba, or to what extent Raúl Castro will ditch the leadership style of his brother, Back Channel to Cuba has important historical context for both administrations to consider.
Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, by William M. LeoGrande & Peter Kornbluh, UNC Press, 2015, www.uncpress.unc.edu