The ostrich that never says sorry

MAY Back channel to Cuba A1Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana
William M LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh
2014, University of North Carolina Press
524 pages, hardback


ONE thing at least can be concluded from the meeting between the US and Cuban leaders on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, and it is that the press narrative of changing relations between these countries has never let the truth get in the way of the story.

Indeed, as if it were a bottomless tub of Ben and Jerry’s offering a familiar Cold War flavour, we continue to wolf down the Superman version of US political and moral leadership endlessly served up by the pliant journalism from which American history appears to be written.

The sickly sweet talks and handshake between presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro – most definitely not the first between these two pragmatic men – was dressed up by hacks hungry to secure their front row seat to an “historic” set piece as providing further evidence of a thaw in relations. Plucky little Cuba is belatedly being welcomed back in from the cold, its pride intact but its ideological intransigence nevertheless in tatters.

This version of the US narrative suggests that recent developments began with friendly contacts initiated by Washington at events with mutual significance for both countries – past summits and Nelson Mandela’s funeral. A Latin American pope (Francis) determined to bring peace to the hemisphere steps in. The contacts become official talks, diplomatic breakthroughs and eventually morph even into kindly words that bring a warm glow to everyone who values stability and prosperity in the hemisphere.

The love-in has since then reached such a frenzy among the wide-eyed journalists who take their cues from the White House that we are to believe that if the harsh and illegal US embargo has held the island back for 50 years, it will hopefully all soon be nothing more than a painful memory. Now we can all be friends and get on with the job of … drilling for oil.

As ever, the US has been able to dominate the all-important English-language version of this story, with the initiative portrayed as a generous shift in priorities by a visionary leader in the face of stiff opposition from diehard Republicans and their Cuban-American lapdogs fluent only in the language of 50 years of confrontation. With all due magnanimity, Obama has even erased the laughable status imposed on Cuba by Washington’s secret service lobby as a “state sponsor of terrorism”. The emperor wants to look forward to the future, not back towards history.

The Superman narrative in the English-speaking world is high-minded enough to ensure Cuba can take away a few crumbs of dignity, while ensuring that it is depicted as the guest who arrived late to the feast, cap in hand, hungry, and without a tuxedo.

But the truth – the untold story as William M LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh’s point out at the start of their magnificent Back Channel to Cuba – is that these hostile neighbours have been negotiating ever since the early 1960s. Indeed, the truth is history, ignoring which seems to be an Anglo-Saxon speciality. The authors write:

“There is, however, another side to the history of US-Cuban relations, far less known but more relevant today: the bilateral efforts at dialogue, rapprochement, and reconciliation. Every president since Eisenhower has engaged in some form of dialogue with Castro and his representatives … every US president, Democrat and Republican alike, has seen some advantage in talking to Cuba.”

It is time the untold story became the mainstream story, and that the US machinery of government and political class – supported by their robotic cheerleaders in the media – stops portraying Cuba as a country absent from some kind of noisy hemispheric party celebrating the global triumph of American values. It is time Cuba is understood and portrayed as a sceptical neighbour who remains deaf to Washington’s boasts.

This is because history demands it. The real story – and Back Channel to Cuba merely provides more documentary evidence of this – is that the Obama initiative is an overdue and rather panicky effort to address serious failures in US foreign policy and diplomacy. Washington has fallen dangerously behind other countries in its capacity to realign following the end of the Cold War, and its security strategy is hopelessly out of date. As Matt Kennard recently wrote, gone are the days of the all-American army hero – these days, the US military is more like a sanctuary for racists, gang members and the chronically unfit.

Cuba and other Latin American states have in the past portrayed the US crudely as a great octopus – el pulpo – whose imperialist tentacles reach out across the hemipshere and attach like strong suckers to interests in each country. A more accurate portrayal today would picture it as an ostrich with its head buried in the sand, unwilling to see the momentous changes occurring throughout its habitat.

What’s really at stake here is not principle, but oil, commerce and US geopolitical calculations in the era of Russian resurgence, Chinese assertion and multipolarism. Given the strength of historic denial, however – the real sub-text of Back Channel to Cuba – we must always be sensitive to the fact that the US remains capable of repeating the same mistakes again. As Nicolás Maduro the president of Venezuela – the latest target of US aggression – said at the same summit: “I respect Obama but I do not trust him.”

Back Channel to Cuba provides valuable insights into why US foreign policy has failed so consistently. It is fitting that the authors begin this book with the story of US negotiator James Donovan, sent by President John F Kennedy to begin the complex task of rebuilding ties with Castro in April 1963 and secure the release of the CIA-led exile brigade that Castro’s forces defeated at the Bay of Pigs.

When the CIA itself learned that Donovan was planning to give Castro the gift of a scuba-diving suit, they plotted to lace it with deadly bacteria in an effort to assassinate the Cuban leader. It was an early example of how security agencies repeatedly subvert efforts to heal political wounds.

The authors pay due attention to the ways in which the untold story has been skewed and subverted in order to fit the political narrative. They write:

“In the absence of an accessible historical record, scholarship and analysis on US-Cuban relations has largely focused on the more prominent and visible history of antagonism, skewing the historical debate over whether better ties were possible – or even desirable. The dearth of evidence on the many efforts to find common ground has empowered the ‘anti-dialogueros’, as one US official called them, to cast serious diplomacy with Cuba as an oxymoron at best, a heresy at worst. Long after the end of the Cold War, talking with Cuba remained a delicate and controversial political proposition – even as the benefits have become increasingly obvious to both countries.”

The foremost lesson that emerges from this excellent book is that the US could have normalised relations with Cuba decades ago, but domestic politics, inter-agency competition, the power of lobbying, and populist politicking always ensured that it did not.

It is up the reader ultimately to decide why this was the case, but if you look at the faces of the main critics of Obama’s policy and those whom they represent or are bankrolled by it is not difficult to conclude quickly that waspish, Anglo-Saxon attitudes have been a prominent factor in prolonging this confrontation. It is simply no coincidence that Obama, as the first black US president, has duly turned this illogical state of affairs on its head and with such apparent ease.

Havana long understood this underlying flavour of US hostility towards those of its neighbours who seem ungrateful about its civilisational largesse: after all, the Cuban Five – jailed for espionage in 2001 and freed by Obama as part of the negotiating process – formed part of the so-called Red Avispa (Wasp Network).

Take those unspoken lessons from Back Channel to Cuba away and apply them to other parts of the world and other instances of historical intransigence, and the real narrative of US foreign policy – the one that the press appears so doggedly reluctant to report – becomes a lot clearer.