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Cuba: Documents Chart History of Secret Communications

Raúl Castro meets with President Obama on the sidelines of the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama in April, 2015. Estudio Revolucion/Xinhua/ZUMA

Published: Dec 15, 2017
Briefing Book #614

Edited by Peter Kornbluh

National Security Archive Publishes Major Collection of Records on History of U.S.-Cuba Dialogue

Documents Provide Historical Foundation for Obama-Castro Breakthrough

Cuba: Documents Chart History of Secret Communications

Washington D.C., December 15, 2017 - With the approach of the 3rd anniversary of “17-D”—the iconic date of December 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro made public a historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations—the National Security Archive today announced the publication of a major collection of declassified records on the history of talks between the two nations.

The collection, Cuba and the U.S.: The Declassified History of Negotiations to Normalize Relations, 1959-2016, provides the historical foundation for the 18 months of back-channel diplomacy between Obama and Castro’s special emissaries, and the December 2014 agreement to resume full diplomatic ties.

Made up of over 1,700 declassified reports, memoranda of conversations, options papers, cables, intelligence assessments and secret communications between Washington and Havana, the new collection charts the initial breakdown of relations during the Eisenhower era, and subsequent bilateral attempts to re-build channels of communications, including secret talks to improve or normalize relations during subsequent administrations. Through the documentation, the collection tells the comprehensive stories of top secret efforts by Presidents Kennedy, Ford, Carter and Clinton to negotiate solutions to the conflict with Cuba, as well as Fidel Castro’s personal initiatives to reach out to multiple U.S. presidents with gestures of peaceful co-existence.

The collection includes a number of pivotal and revealing records, among them:

  • Vice President Richard Nixon’s comprehensive report to President Eisenhower on his first, and only, meeting with Fidel Castro in April 1959, in which he concludes that “the one fact we can be sure of is that [Castro] has those indefinable qualities which make him a leader of men,” and predicted that “whatever we may think of him he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally.”
  • Castro’s private messages, transmitted to Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Carter, offering an interest in normalized relations and an olive branch of peaceful coexistence.
  • The comprehensive efforts initiated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to find common ground with Cuba, including secret, but formal talks at the Pierre Hotel in New York to normalize relations in mid 1975.
  • The complete and complicated record of President Carter’s personal secret diplomacy with Castro, using the CEO of Coca-Cola, J. Paul Austin, as a secret intermediary.
  • The dissent cables from the heads of the U.S. interest section during the Reagan and Bush administrations that argued for comprehensive talks, without unwarranted pre-conditions, with the Castro government.
  • The declassified FAA file on the repeated incursions of Cuban airspace by the anti-Castro group, Brothers to the Rescue, and the shoot down of two of their Cessna aircraft by the Cuban Air Force in February 1996.
  • The Presidential directives and communiques related to President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.

The collection was built around the research files compiled by Archive Cuba Documentation Project director, Peter Kornbluh, and American University professor, William M. LeoGrande for their award-winning book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.  Like the book, the collection charts the history of communications, dialogue, secret and public negotiations between Washington and Havana, from 1959 to the end of the Obama era in 2016.

“Here, for the first time in one collection, are contemporary records documenting half a century of secret diplomacy with Cuba,” notes Professor LeoGrande. “These declassified documents provide an inside view of the diplomatic failures and successes of Washington’s back channel to Cuba.” The documents, according to Kornbluh, “provide the declassified historical roadmap to the breakthrough in relations on 17-D.”

The last document in the collection is a private letter President Obama provided to members of the Cuba policy advocacy community who attended the White House commemoration last year on the 2nd anniversary of “17-D.” “I am pleased to join in marking two years of progress since the historic decision made by the United States and Cuba to begin normalizing relations after decades of conflict,” Obama wrote. “By continuing to work together, we can further change an outdated approach that has failed to advance either of our interests and forge a future of greater peace and security.”

Cuba and the U.S.: The Declassified History of Negotiations to Normalize Relations, 1959-2016 is available through the digital publisher ProQuest; it can also be accessed by researchers in the reading room of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Read a “top ten” selection of documents from Cuba and the U.S.: The Declassified History of Negotiations to Normalize Relations, 1959-2016