We offer three loud, enthusiastic cheers to our friends Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. Their new book, Back Channel to Cuba, immediately made news and refocused discussion on the decrepit state of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy.
“Clobber the pipsqueak” was Henry Kissinger’s call to war against Cuba.
Using documents obtained from President Gerald Ford’s presidential library, LeoGrande and Kornbluh detail the former Secretary of State’s rage at Cuba for disrupting the détente he had designed with Russia and the opening of China by sending its troops to help Angola preserve independence against attacks from South Africa, then our anti-communist ally.
As the New York Times reports, Kissinger set in motion the creation of contingency plans whose options included blocking Cuban ships from carrying troops and weapons to Africa to the bombing of Cuban bases and airfields.
A decision to strike the island was delayed until after the 1976 presidential election since, as one document said, “Escalation to general war could result.” Had President Ford beaten Jimmy Carter at the ballot box, we might well have found that out.
That even the idea of war was contemplated just fifteen years after the Cuban missile crisis is astonishing, as the authors said on MSNBC, since the agreement which ended it reflected a U.S. promise not to attack Cuba.
Although war fever spiked again during the Reagan years, diplomatic isolation, interrupted by episodes of engagement on matters like migration, has defined U.S. policy toward Cuba even under President Obama.
Yet, as Kornbluh and LeoGrande write in The Nation this week, “Obama can’t dodge the Cuba issue much longer. The Seventh Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Panama next spring, will force Cuba to the top of the president’s diplomatic agenda.”
Created in 1994, the Summit of the Americas has convened leaders of Western hemisphere nations six times without Cuba at the table. Cuba is barred, chiefly at the behest of the United States, because it is not a democracy.
But, as Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Almagro told the Miami Herald this week, Latin America has united behind the position “that Cuba should be part of the 2015 Summit.” By inviting Cuba, Panama “has welcomed this desire and I believe that the invitation sent to Cuba is good news for the inter-American family.”
Panama has put President Obama in a pickle.
As Nick Miroff, writing for the Washington Post, frames the choice:
“(If) Obama skips the conference, or sandbags it by sending Vice President Biden, it would render the already-weak OAS even more hobbled, and potentially deal a fatal blow to the possibility of future summits.
“If Obama does attend, it could lead to some awkward shoulder-rubbing with Raul Castro.”
This choice is not complicated for hardline supporters of our current policy like Senator Robert Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman. In a rather apocalyptic letter to the president of Panama, Menendez wrote:
Not to be outdone, Mauricio Claver-Carone, Director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, predicts in the Miami Herald “a veritable unleashing of authoritarian ambitions in the hemisphere” if Cuba is seated at the summit.
Tiptoeing for time, the U.S. State Department approaches the problem as if it weren’t imminent. As Jen Psaki, State’s spokesperson said in a briefing: “Well, as I understand it, it was an announcement of (an) intention to invite.”
But, denial is not diplomatic. As Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg write this week, “Latin America sees Cuba as a full member of the hemisphere and has lost all patience with those in Washington who would deny that.”
The theme connecting Kissinger’s arrogance in 1976 to Senator Menendez’s easy dismissal of the prerogatives of Panama’s democratically-elected president is the inherent disregard that U.S. diplomacy has for Cuba’s existence as a sovereign nation.
That’s how we used to treat Vietnam. Now, the Obama administration is selling its government lethal weapons, “to help Hanoi strengthen its maritime security as it contends with a more assertive China.”
There are much better reasons – such as rebuilding U.S. ties to the region – for the U.S. to drop its pipsqueak approach to Cuba and adopt a more robust diplomacy based on engagement.
A lesson drawn by Kornbluh and LeoGrande from six decades of back channel dialogue is that replacing hostility with reconciliation is not only possible, but capable of serving “the vital interests of both nations.”
Time, as they say, is running out, but President Obama can still rise to the occasion.