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OPINION: JFK’s Secret Negotiations with Fidel

This is the second of three articles written by Robert F. Kennedy – son of late U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy – which address relations between the United States and Cuba during the 60-year period of the U.S. embargo against the island nation. The first article – “We Have So Much to Learn From Cuba” – was run on December 30, 2014, and the third – “Sabotaging U.S.-Cuba Détente in the Kennedy Era” – will run on January 6.

WHITE PLAINS, New York, Jan 5 2015 (IPS) - On the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, one of his emissaries was secretly meeting with Fidel Castro at Varadero Beach in Cuba to discuss terms for ending the U.S. embargo against the island and beginning the process of détente between the two countries.

That was more than 50 years ago and now, finally, President Barack Obama is resuming the process of turning JFK’s dream into reality by re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Robert F Kennedy Jr

Robert F Kennedy Jr

Those clandestine discussions at Castro’s summer presidential palace in Varadero Beach had been proceeding for several months, having evolved along with the improved relations with the Soviet Union following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

During that crisis, JFK and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, both at odds with their own military hardliners, had developed a mutual respect, even warmth, towards each other.  A secret bargain between them had paved the way for removing the Soviet missiles from Cuba – and U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey – with each side saving face.

Fidel, on the other hand, was furious at the Russians for ordering the withdrawal of the missiles without consulting him.  After the missile crisis, Khrushchev invited an embittered Fidel to Russia to smooth over the Cuban leader’s anger at the unilateral withdrawal of Soviet missiles.

Castro and Khrushchev spent six weeks together, with the Russian leader badgering Fidel to seek détente and pursue peace with President Kennedy.  Khrushchev’s son Sergei would later write that “my father and Fidel developed a teacher-student relationship.”  Khrushchev wanted to convince Castro that JFK was trustworthy.

Castro himself recalled how “for hours [Khrushchev] read many messages to me, messages from President Kennedy, messages sometimes delivered through Robert Kennedy [JFK’s brother]…”.  Castro returned to Cuba determined to seek a path toward rapprochement.

“I cannot help hoping that a leader will come to the fore in North America (why not Kennedy, there are things in his favour!), who will be willing to brave unpopularity, fight the corporations, tell the truth and, most important, let the various nations act as they see fit. Kennedy could still be this man” – Fidel Castro in an interview with French journalist Jean Daniel, one of JFK’s secret channels to Castro

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was spying on all parties.  In a top secret January 5, 1963 memo to his fellow agents, Richard Helms (later to become Director of the CIA in 1966) warned that “at the request of Khrushchev, Castro was returning to Cuba with the intention of adopting with Fidel a conciliatory policy toward the Kennedy administration for the time being.”

JFK was open to such advances.  In the autumn of 1962, he and his brother Robert had dispatched James Donovan, a New York attorney, and John Dolan, a friend and advisor to my father Robert Kennedy, to negotiate the release of Castro’s 1500 Cuban prisoners from the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Donovan and Nolan developed an amiable friendship with Castro.  They travelled the country together.  Fidel gave them a tour of the Bay of Pigs battlefield and then took them as his guests to so many baseball games that, Nolan told me, he vowed to never watch the sport again.

After he released the last 1200 prisoners on Christmas Day 1962, Castro asked Donovan how to go about normalising relations with the United States.  Donovan replied: “The way porcupines make love, very carefully.”

My father Robert and JFK were intensely curious about Castro and demanded detailed, highly personal, descriptions of the Cuban leader from both Donovan and Nolan.

The U.S. press had variously caricatured Fidel as drunken, filthy, mercurial, violent and undisciplined. However, Nolan told them: “Our impression would not square with the commonly accepted image. Castro was never irritable, never drunk, never dirty.”  He and Donovan described the Cuban leader as worldly, witty, curious, well informed, impeccably groomed, and an engaging conversationalist.

From their extensive travel with Castro and having witnessed the spontaneous ovations when he entered baseball stadiums with his small but professional security team, they confirmed the CIA’s internal reports of Castro’s overwhelming popularity with the Cuban people.

JFK was intuitively sympathetic towards the Cuban revolution.  His special assistant and biographer Arthur Schlesinger wrote that “President Kennedy had a natural sympathy for Latin American underdogs and understood the source of the widespread resentment against the United States.”

He said that “the long history of abuse and exploitation had turned Fidel against the United States and toward the Soviets at a time when he might have turned toward the West.  JFK’s objection was to Cuba’s role as a Soviet patsy and platform for expanding the Soviet sphere of influence and fomenting revolution and Soviet expansion throughout Latin America.”

Castro had his own nationalistic reasons to bridle at Soviet dependency, particularly after the missile crisis.  He made his desire for rapprochement clear during private talks with ABC newswoman Lisa Howard, who served as another informal emissary between JFK and Fidel.

Howard reported back to the White House that, “in our conversations [Fidel] made it quite clear that he was ready to discuss the Soviet personnel and military hardware on Cuban soil, compensation for expropriated American lands and investments, the question of Cuba as a base for communist subversion throughout the hemisphere.

Once the Cuban prisoners were free, JFK began seriously looking at rebooting relations with Castro.  That impulse took him sailing into perilous waters.  The very mention of détente with Fidel was political dynamite as the 1964 U.S. presidential elections approached.

Barry Goldwater [the Republican Party’s nominee for president in the 1964 election], Richard Nixon [Vice-President under Eisenhower and JFK’s rival for the presidency in 1960] and Nelson Rockefeller [Goldwater’s competitor for nomination as Republican presidential candidate] all regarded Cuba as the Republican Party’s greatest asset.

Certain murderous and violent Cuban exiles and their CIA handlers saw talk of co-existence as hell bound treachery.

In September 1963, JFK secretly asked William Attwood, a former journalist and U.S. diplomat attached to the United Nations, to open secret negotiations with Castro.

Atwood had known Castro since 1959 when he covered the Cuban Revolution for Look magazine before Castro turned against the United States.

Later that month, my father told Attwood to find a secure location to conduct a secret parlay with Fidel.

In October, Castro began arranging for Atwood to fly surreptitiously to a remote airstrip in Cuba to begin negotiations on détente.  On November 18, 1963, four days before JFK’s assassination in Dallas, Castro listened to his aide, Rene Vallejo, talk by phone with Attwood and agreed to an agenda for the meeting.

That same day, JFK prepared the path for rapprochement with a clear public message.  Speaking to the Inter American Press Association in the heart of Cuba’s exile community in Miami, he declared that U.S. policy was not to “dictate to any nation how to organise its economic life.  Every nation is free to shape its own economic institution in accordance with its own national needs and will.”

A month earlier, JFK had opened another secret channel to Castro through French journalist Jean Daniel, editor of the socialist newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur.  On his way to interview Fidel in Cuba on October 24, 1963, Daniel visited the White House where JFK talked to him about U.S.-Cuba relations.

In a message meant for Castro’s ears, JFK criticised Castro sharply for precipitating the missile crisis.  He then changed tone, expressing the same empathy toward Cuba that he had evinced for the Russian people in his June 10, 1963 American University speech announcing the nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets.

Kennedy launched into a recitation of the long history of U.S. relations with the corrupt and tyrannical regime of Fulgencio Batista. JFK told Daniel that he had supported that Castro’s Sierra Maestra Manifesto at the outset of the Cuban revolution.

Between November 19 and 22, 1963, Castro conducted his own series of interviews with Daniel.  Castro carefully and meticulously debriefed the Frenchman about every nuance of his meeting with JFK, particularly JFK’s strong endorsement of the Cuban Revolution.

Then Castro sat in thoughtful silence, composing a careful reply that he knew JFK was awaiting.  Finally he spoke carefully, measuring every word.  “I believe Kennedy is sincere,” he began.  “I also believe that today the expression of this sincerity could have political significance.”

He followed with a detailed critique of the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations which had attacked his Cuban Revolution “long before there was the pretext and alibi of Communism.”

But, he continued, “I feel that [Kennedy] inherited a difficult situation; I don’t think a President of the United States is every really free, and I believe Kennedy is at present feeling the impact of this lack of freedom.  I also believe he now understands the extent to which he has been misled, especially, for example, on Cuban reaction at the time of the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion.”

He told Daniel: “I cannot help hoping that a leader will come to the fore in North America (why not Kennedy, there are things in his favour!), who will be willing to brave unpopularity, fight the corporations, tell the truth and, most important, let the various nations act as they see fit.  Kennedy could still be this man.”

Castro continued: “He still has the possibility of becoming, in the eyes of history, the greatest President of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas.  He would then be an even greater President than Lincoln.” (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

*             Robert F. Kennedy Jr serves as Senior Attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and President of Waterkeeper Alliance. He is also a Clinical Professor and Supervising Attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic and co-host of Ring of Fire on Air America Radio. Earlier in his career, he served as Assistant Attorney General in New York City.

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