Back Channel to Cuba Summary By William M. LeoGrande & Peter Kornbluh

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Back Channel to Cuba is an eye-opening account of the long and complex history of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba over the last 50 years.

Based on unprecedented access to declassified documents, this book covers what has become too complicated for much of the public to understand.

Authors Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande uncover a wealth of information showing how secret negotiations have taken place behind closed doors since the Eisenhower administration.

Here, discover how both countries have been unable to move forward in any meaningful way despite countless attempts at reconciliation—and get a closer look at the historic moments when hope was restored and broken again.

With Back Channel to Cuba, readers will gain deeper insight into America’s longest-running foreign policy failure.

Back Channel to Cuba

Book Name: Back Channel to Cuba (The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana)

Author(s): William M. LeoGrande & Peter Kornbluh

Rating: 4.6/5

Reading Time: 32 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio

William M.

LeoGrande is a renowned author and professor at the School of Public Affairs at American University, known for his in-depth studies of politics and foreign relations.

His most notable works include "Back Channel to Cuba" which looks back on his unique perspective as a journalist, diplomat and analyst through USA's relations with Cuba during 1992-2008, and "Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992", which examines how policies enacted by the US during this period continue to impact their political environment today.

With a wealth of experience in international affairs in Latin America, William M.

LeoGrande presents essential insights into politics and our place within the world's current state of affairs.

The Story of Negotiating Between the US and Cuba: From Kennedy to Clinton

Story of Negotiating Between the US and Cuba

Back Channel to Cuba provides an in-depth analysis of a complicated geopolitical relationship.

For the last 50 years, the United States and Cuba have been at odds, with tensions often boiling over into heated conflict.

Despite this, negotiations between them have continued throughout the years, taking different forms depending on which US administration was in power.

In this book, you’ll get insight into these negotiations and how they’ve evolved over time.

From John F.

Kennedy’s use of an ace negotiator to sustain relations with Cuba all the way up to Clinton’s elecction-related influences which shaped U.S-Cuba policy, all the bases are covered here!

You’ll also read about the Freedom Flotilla which challenged the Carter administration as well as other important events that influenced US-Cuban politics.

This book provides illuminating insights on a complex geopolitical relationship between two countries that continue to exist side by side in tandem

The US-Cuba Relationship: From Friendship to Friction in Just 6 Months

The history of US-Cuban relations begins in 1959, when a revolution overthrew former ruler Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to power.

Cubans welcomed the new government, hoping for a better future, while the US was wary of this unpredictable leader who had just overthrown their ally.

Despite these concerns, Castro set out on a “goodwill tour” of the United States in April of 1959, hoping to mend ties with the US government.

Yet things were soured when President Dwight D.

Eisenhower chose to go on a golfing trip during his visit, an affront which deeply insulted Castro.

Matters quickly went further downhill when Castro began implementing socialist reforms such as nationalizing all Cuban estates over 1,000 acres and consolidating his leadership by kicking out politically moderate members in favor of radical and communist-minded leaders.

By November of 1959, the United States had seen enough: enacting numerous secret programs aimed at overthrowing the Cuban government led by Fidel Castro.

And thus modern US-Cuban relations began with a revolution in 1959 – one that sparked decades of mistrust and struggle between two nations with vastly different ideologies.

The Explosion of La Coubre Sparked An Irreversible Chain of Events That Led to the Breakdown of US-Cuba Relations

Explosion of La Coubre Sparked

By the time Eisenhower’s administration was coming to a close, it had become clear that formal diplomatic talks between Cuba and the United States were no longer an option.

This was primarily due to Russia’s involvement in Cuba following the signing of the $100 million trade agreement.

When La Coubre exploded in Havana’s harbor, killing 15 people and wounding 200 more, Castro was convinced it was the work of the CIA, an allegation which only made tensions between both countries worse.

When Eisenhower signed a document to begin covert operations in order to overthrow Castro, advisor Philip W.

Bonsal spoke out against this decision.

The reaction from the US government only further provoked Castro.

First, they cut off all exports except food and medicine as a form of economic pressure on Cuba.

Then, taking advantage of this opportunity, Russia offered to buy sugar from Cuba—further solidifying a relationship between Cuba and Russia that would severely strain U.S.-Cuba relations for decades to come.

Consequently, by the end of Eisenhower’s term, an attempt at formal diplomatic talks had become virtually impossible; thus setting a dangerous precedent for future administrations to follow.

JFK’s Failed Attempts at Regime Change in Cuba Leads Him to Start Secret Diplomacy With Che Guevara

John F.

Kennedy was no stranger to strategic planning and, when it came to tackling the challenging relationship between Cuba and the United States, he made sure to put every option on the table.

On April 17, 1961, just after his swearing in as President of the United States, Kennedy authorized an ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion against Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba.

The mission was almost doomed from its inception; within three days all 1,200 Cuban exiles had been captured.

In retaliation for this setback, Kennedy enacted a full economic embargo on Cuba in an attempt to contain their influence and weaken their power over US relations throughout Latin America.

economic embargo on Cuba

However, although Operation Mongoose involving plans for assassinating Castro, as well as “isolating and impoverishing” him were set in motion during this time by Kennedy’s administration – he also wished to entertain negotiations with Castro with a “secret rapprochement track”.

The first positive step towards such negotiations came wholeheartedly from Che Guevara himself at a meeting of the Alliance for Progress held in Uruguay on August 18, 1961.

In attendance was Richard Goodwin who was then actng White House aide representingKennedy’s interests.

Guevara presented Goodwin with a box of Cuban cigars – symbolic of his hope that constructive dialogue might take place to normalize US-Cuban relations once again; despite all odds (and secret plotings).

James B. Donovan: The Diplomat Who Negotiated Peace in the Cuban Missile Crisis

When it came to negotiating the release of 1,200 prisoners, the United States turned to ace negotiator James B.


He arrived at Cuba on August 30, 1962 with a mission from Robert Kennedy: talk Castro down from his demands for $62 million and an additional $26 million in food and medicine.

The negotiations seemed to be proceeding well, and both sides were hopeful that relations between their countries could improve.

But then came the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis, putting a stop to all negotiations before they had really even begun.

However, thanks to a secret back channel with Brazil, the White House was still able to communicate behind the scenes and offered Castro a way out: cutting off all ties with the Soviet Union.

Although Khrushchev backed down without informing Castro directly and hopes of normalizing relations between the US and Cuba was put aside temporarily, it still gave an opportunity for prisoner negotiations to continue through Donovan’s efforts.

On December 21st, a memo was signed for the release of all prisoners in exchange for $2.9 million and an additional $53 million in medicine and food – showing that despite external forces turning talks sour, there was always scope for peaceful negotiation if both parties were willing to stay at it!

Keeping the Dialogue Going: The Attempts to Sustain Better US-Cuba Relations in 1963

James Donovan and an ambitious news reporter kept the possibility of negotiations alive even when it seemed there might be no hope for success.

After Castro’s revolution, Donovan worked to release several dozen US citizens who had been arrested, and even brought his teenage son on his fourth visit in April of 1963 for fishing trips and baseball games.

At that point, the White House instructed him to tell Castro that normal relations could only return if Cuba severed ties with the Soviets.

But despite this impasse, Castro was still interested in continuing negotiations.

Through their talks, they were building a mutual friendship and worked to develop potential solutions.

Fate then intervened when successful TV news reporter Lisa Howard visited Cuba.

Howard got along well with Castro and he agreed to appear on her show, where he explained that Cuba was ready to discuss many options for moving forward—which he did on May 10th of that year, much to the attention of the nation.

This led to such a positive effect that the White House eventually gave Howard her own back channel so she could contact Cuba and ask whether Castro would agree to meet with William Attwood from Look magazine.

It’s thanks in large part to James Donovan and Lisa Howard’s efforts that talks continued between America and Cuba; they kept the possibility of negotiations alive.

Kennedy’s Assassination Leads to Escalating & Strained Relations Between the United States and Cuba

Kennedy's Assassination Leads to Escalating & Strained

The assassination of John F.

Kennedy was a tragedy that had far-reaching effects, particularly on the talks between Cuba and the United States.

Just as Jean Daniel was talking to Fidel Castro about the opportunity for peace between the two nations on November 22, 1963, he received a phone call informing him of the president’s death.

This changed the situation drastically – no longer were there any hopes for improved relations.

Furthermore, President Johnson’s administration did not have time to read Cuba’s response which Margaret Howard sent prior to Kennedy’s assassination and so it was lost in the shockwave over his sad demise.

Johnson wanted to look strong in front of communism and refused outright to take part in any negotiations with Cuba, suspecting them of aiding revolutions in Brazil and Venezuela.

This caused him to put pressure on Castro through an embargo and heightened travel restrictions, resulting in thousands of desperate Cubans leaving for refuge in America.

When Nixon Took Office, He Refused to Negotiate With Cuba on Plane Hijackings – Until Henry Kissinger Intervened

When Richard Nixon assumed the presidency in 1969, he had already established a hard-line policy of refusal to negotiate with Cuba.

His words on the matter were clear – as long as he was president, there would be no change in policy.

Despite facing an epidemic of plane hijackings – 325 between 1968 and 1972 alone – Nixon refused to cooperate with Cuba to find a solution.

However, Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw things differently.

In 1973, Latin American countries such as Chile, Peru and Argentina had restored their trade agreements with Cuba, and it became apparent that economic sanctions and subversive actions were having little effect on Castro’s government.

Kissinger then sent political advisor Frank Mankiewicz to secretly open back-channel talks with Havana in 1974 while Nixon was focused on the Watergate scandal.

Kissinger’s Failed Attempts to Resolve the US-Cuba Conflict Despite Setbacks

During Gerald Ford’s difficult presidency, Henry Kissinger knew how important it was to keep back-channel talks going between the United States and Cuba.

To this end, he ushered in some much-needed progress when he approved US travel visas to Cuban representatives, allowing for the first face-to-face meetings in many years.

Kissinger wasn’t about to give up easily either, not even when tensions mounted further when Fidel Castro sent troops to Angola to help resolve an ongoing civil war.

Despite President Ford’s orders to cease negotiations, Kissinger continued his efforts in 1976 and kept a vital dialogue going.

Unfortunately, these backroom efforts weren’t helped by events that unfolded soon after – such as Cuban exiles launching attacks on embassies around the world and bombing a Cuban airline, which killed 73 passengers – as well as evidence that a former CIA operative orchestrated the abhorrent act.

But still Kissinger persevered and kept pushing for peace just enough to ensure talks could resume once there was justice served upon those responsible.

Jimmy Carter’s Liberal Approach to Cuban Exiles Leads to the Mariel Harbour Crisis

When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he believed that the best way to bring about change in a communist regime was through trade and commerce.

He followed this belief by opening an ‘Interest Section’ in Havana, eliminating spy plane fly-overs and recognizing dual citizenship.

Although initial talks between the US and Cuba were progressing, they hit an impasse when the US refused to lift their blockade until Cuba changed its foreign policy regarding Angola and withdrawal of support for Puerto Rico’s independence.

At the end of 1979, another Cuban crisis erupted as thousands of Cubans resorted to violence and hijacking boats in order to flee to the United States.

This prompted Carter to have a more lenient approach towards these refugees as a way of weakening the Cuban government’s hold.

However, this cautionary plea from Fidel Castro fell on deaf ears.

In April 1980, Castro opened a port at Mariel Harbor which resulted in 80,000 Cubans entering the United States – marking an embarrassing end to Carter’s presidency after trying so hard for talks with Cuba yet failing due to another crisis.

The Reagan-Bush Relationship with Cuba: Diplomacy, Insults and the End of the Cold War

Ronald Reagan and George H.W.

Bush only negotiated with Cuba when they were forced to.

When Reagan took office in 1980, he had a very aggressive policy towards Cuba and was determined to tighten embargos and sanctions.

In order to maintain peaceful relations with the new administration, Fidel Castro stopped sending support to guerrilla armies in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

When it came to the issue of excludables—the thousands of Cubans who had entered the United States with criminal records—the US was left without a policy on how to return them back to Cuba.

With no other option, the two countries finally had to enter formal talks in late 1984 which resulted in an agreement that would allow 2, 746 excludables back into Cuba in exchange for an immigration quota of 20,000 people per year from the US.

By 1991, most communist governments were collapsing and after talks with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s military aid to Cuba was almost completely cut off by January 1992.

The Bush Administration believed all they had to do was wait out Cuba until it fell apart just like the others; however this plan failed due largely in part because of Reagan’s hostile policies towards it earlier on.

Clinton Balances Hardline Anti-Castro Policy with Back-Channel Negotiations to Resolve Cuban Immigration Crisis

When Bill Clinton entered office in 1993, it was all too clear what he had to do to win the support of Cuban-Americans living in Florida.

Though he wanted to thaw the icy relations between Cuba and the U.S., he understood that this would be highly unpopular amongst his constituents, so he instead signed the Cuban Democracy Act into law, designed by anti-Castro lobbyists to tighten the embargo and cut off any direct access from one country to another.

But beneath this politically motivated action was a desire for improvement, and so Clinton found ways to communicate with Cuba through back-channel talks throughout his tenure within the confines of the act.

He began allowing Cuban scholars, musicians and artists United States visit visas and loosening travel restrictions once again – but then came an immigration crisis which necessitated further dialogue.

This was known as The Balsero Crisis of 1993 where thousands of Cubans once more resorted to taking homemade rafts out on sea in search of refuge in America.

The makeshift boats were spotted by Coast Guards in abundance – 3253 people on a single day – leading to a definite need for negotiation with Castro himself if Clinton hoped to win a second term while remaining true to his stance against Cuba.

The Elian Gonzalez Story – A Symbol of US-Cuba Tensions and the Instability in US Politics

By the end of Clinton’s first presidential term, thanks to his cooperation with Fidel Castro, there were no migrants crossing the sea from Cuba to the United States.

Things changed when Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR), an anti-Castro organization, started their illegal flights over Cuban airspace.

Because of this, Castro warned the US about stopping BTTR’s flights, or else he said that action would have to be taken by the Cuban military.

Despite his pleas, no action was taken and as a result two BTTR planes were shot down on January 22nd 1996.

Following this incident, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Bill which severely limited President Clinton’s ability to lift sanctions against Cuba.

But then something unexpected happened that could’ve improved relations between Cuba and America: a five-year-old boy named Elián Gonzalez was found floating in an inner tube off the coast of Florida.

As Elián’s father lived in Cuba negotiations began for Elián’s return to his father in Cuba.

The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of reuniting Elián with his father but this led to unfortunate Cuban-American riots and hurt Al Gore’s presidential bid against George W.

Bush in Florida.

Despite all these ups and downs throughout President Clinton’s second term it was ultimately ended on an encouraging note with improved US-Cuban relations compared to where they stood at its beginning – a perfect note for an idea humanitarian leader like him!

The Obama Administration’s Diplomatic Change in Cuba Renewed Cultural Exchanges but Also Unintentionally Enabled a Digital Divide

Obama Administration's Diplomatic Change in Cuba
April 11, 2015.”The culmination of years of talks resulted in this handshake between the President and Cuban President Raúl Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

During the presidency of George W.

Bush, he put a great deal of pressure on Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, instituting two initiatives that continued to place strain on its economy and power structure.

On Cuban Independence Day in 2002, Bush announced the Initiative for New Cuba, a policy that was intended to help bring about a democratic regime change within Cuba.

However, in the eyes of many Cuban citizens this initiative seemed unwelcomed by those already loyal to socialism.

In response, an eight million-signature petition was created declaring Cuba’s untouchable socialism, indicating just how unwelcome this intervention from Bush had been perceived.

Additionally, in 2003, Bush announced another reform called the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba which tightened US travel restrictions on the island and sought to undermine socially as well as politically with economic sanctions against Raul Castro’s government.

By contrast Barack Obama’s administration increased cultural exchange between both nations by making it easier for scholars and artists to travel freely between them and improved telecommunication lines and infrastructure significantly once elected into office.

His message of change toward Cuba included giving openings to those wishing to bear witness or visit friends and family while also promoting subversive actions meant at supporting democratic changes rather than undermining existing structures within it.

To that end he gave his support towards opening trade relations between both nations including easing up on restrictions popularly known as ‘The Embargo.’ Eventually his endeavors proved successful when Obama became the first president since Jimmy Carter in 1976 chosen to win Florida’s electoral college vote while campaigning heavily towards ending much of the bureaucracy upheld by the Bush administration regarding US-Cuba relations instead fostering proposals propelling more cooperation between them both in overcoming ideological divides rather than putting more emphasis on how different their views were politically or economically.

Obama Administration’s Changes in Cuba Policy Ushered In a New Era of Hope

When President Barack Obama first took office, many, including the Cuban government, had high hopes for a change in policy towards Cuba.

However, things didn’t start off so well.

Obama’s 2009-2010 budget included $20 million to fund “democracy promotion” – involving activities like supporting anti-Castro bloggers and sending Alan Gross into Cuba to set up a secret network amongst calls for dissidents.

This ultimately led to even more tension between the United States and Cuba when Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

But as Obama’s second term started his administration released Rene Gonzalez (a member of the Cuban Five) and allowed postal services between two nations, alongside opening up talks on migration issues.

In 2012 at former South African president Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, Raul Castro and Barack Obama actually shook hands – something that hasn’t happened in more than 50 years between US presidents and Cuban leaders due to their need for secret back channels of communication!

It was a positive sign of changing times – signalling that perhaps Obama’s second term could bring better relations between the two countries.

Wrap Up

Back Channel to Cuba provides readers with a comprehensive overview of the US-Cuban relationship over the past 50 years.

The key takeaway is that, despite numerous attempts to come to terms, neither side could agree or make concessions for fear of appearing weak or giving in to the other.

As a result, negotiations have failed and strained relations between the two countries remain.

Despite this, back-channel communication have persisted and there remains hope that progress can still be made.

This book serves as an important reminder that dialogue can be effective, even in times of conflict and disagreement.

Hopefully it will help both sides find common ground and achieve mutual understanding in future diplomatic talks

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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