On January 3, 1961, the Eisenhower administration severed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. The revolutionary government headed by Fidel Castro had only been in power for two years.
That decision, based on an overarching goal supposedly quickly achievable through other non-diplomatic channels—regime change—had unintended consequences. Among them, that Washington continued to conduct its Cuba policy without having normal contacts with Havana.
Many subsequent decisions by the United States had unsuccessful results, among other causes, due to an erroneous assessment of what was happening on the island.
Not having an embassy in a country means, in most cases, that there is neither a fair appreciation of the situations nor an adequate instrument to protect one’s legitimate interests.
Although there are formal diplomatic relations today, they are far from normal. The responsibility lies with the Trump administration, which, with its unilateral and arbitrary acts, has brought them to the brink of rupture.
The previous restoration process is known to have been slow and lengthy. Its main milestones were the establishment of quasi-diplomatic relations in September 1977, through the creation of interest sections, and the reopening of the embassies in July 2015, after the agreement between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama on December 17, 2014, by which it was decided to resume diplomatic relations.
It should be recalled that Cuba then demanded, as a precondition to which the United States agreed, the removal of the country from the list of “States Sponsoring Terrorism,” in which it had been arbitrarily and unfairly included by the Reagan administration in 1982. The decision was made after the legal process that guides these cases, according to U.S. regulations, had been processed.
Although in 1959 the Eisenhower administration used as an excuse a Cuban demand that the principle of reciprocity be applied in the number of diplomats from both countries in their respective missions, the evidence shows that, long before, the embassy in Cuba was not functional to the policy approved since the early 1960s.
On March 17, 1960, the National Security Council had approved the “Program of Covert Actions against the Castro regime” proposed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). On October 28, the State Department had ordered the return of its ambassador, Philip W. Bonsal. 1
The breaking of relations was the prologue to many other aggressive actions, including the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and the establishment of the economic, commercial and financial blockade in February 1962. The calculation made by the State Department was that the embassy and relations would be reopened quickly, since it was impossible for the government of Fidel Castro to survive the approved Program, as Wayne Smith, third secretary of that mission and one of the career U.S. diplomats who got to know Cuba best, has recalled in his memoirs, “The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic History of the Castro Years”. 2
Although over the years Washington has sent officials with the rank of ambassador to Cuba to put them in charge of its mission, quasi-diplomatic (the interests section between 1977 and 2015) and diplomatic (the embassy, since its reopening in 2015 until today), for one reason or another it can be said that Philip W. Bonsal, between 1959 and 1960, was properly the last ambassador.
The rank and behavior of U.S. diplomatic officials in Cuba has been a good barometer to measure the true purposes of the different administrations.
When diplomatic relations were re-established and embassies were reopened in 2015, President Barack Obama proposed as ambassador the hitherto head of the interests section, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a career official who had already served two previous missions in Cuba (1991 -1993 and 1999-2001), and who served as charge d’affaires since the opening of the embassy, in 2015, until the end of his mission in the summer of 2017. DeLaurentis had the advantage of already holding the rank of ambassador. However, the Senate in Republican hands did not approve him for Cuba, although it had already approved him as the alternate representative of the United States to the UN in 2011.
The probability that President Biden will take steps to resume the process of normalization of relations has led to the inference that one of them could be the appointment of an ambassador in Havana. This has been hinted at on the website of the U.S.-Cuba Trade & Economic Council by its director, John Kavulich, who has even suggested a list of 15 possible candidates, mostly businessmen, former congressmen and senators. It is striking that among those mentioned there is no career official from the State Department.
This circumstance indicates that the issue deserves some attention and may be of importance in channeling bilateral relations on a more positive track.
Unlike other previous cases, such as those between the United States and China or Vietnam, the agreement reached in 2014 placed the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of embassies and the appointment of ambassadors at the center of the normalization process and prioritized them over other steps.
It can be said that maintaining diplomatic relations with open embassies and headed by ambassadors constitutes a kind of shield to guarantee the success of the path started.
The appointment of ambassadors is not a minor event in the world of diplomacy. This is an important issue not only for the foreign ministries, but also for the presidential offices.
A case example was the appointment of Bonsal as head of the embassy in Havana, in January 1959, which was not without some controversy.
During his two presidential terms, Dwight Eisenhower had preferred to offer the embassy in Havana as a reward to businessmen who had contributed funds to his two campaigns. Those were the cases of Arthur Gardner (1952-1957) and Earl Smith (1957-1959). For the career officials of the State Department, both were indiscreet in displaying openly and exaggeratedly their sympathy for the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, as I have written in my book “Crónica de un Fracaso Imperial: la Política de Eisenhower Contra Cuba y el Derrocamiento de la Dictadura de Batista”.
When the Revolution triumphed in 1959, the U.S. State Department rushed to propose a career ambassador to replace Smith, despite the fact that Eisenhower wanted to keep him in Havana. The damage caused by non-professional ambassadors had to be repaired and for this they sought the personal intervention of John Foster Dulles, a trusted man of the president and the secretary of state, despite being hospitalized with terminal cancer. The opinion of this influential Republican operator prevailed and Philip Bonsal was appointed ambassador to Cuba.
But Bonsal’s mission proved impossible. He had been entrusted to mend the damage, to gain the confidence of Fidel Castro and the Cuban leaders, and to seek something that he had already achieved in his previous position as ambassador to Bolivia: to moderate a revolution then perceived as nationalist, but not radical.
Bonsal had the profile and habits of a seasoned diplomat, adept at conducting negotiations in adverse scenarios. Although the Cuban government was perfectly aware of his purposes, it did not refuse to negotiate the conflicts that arose with him. Bonsal’s worst enemy was his own government, which subverted his conciliatory efforts.
As can be seen in his memoirs, “Cuba, Castro, and the United States”, most of the time Ambassador Bonsal was “flying blind,” so to speak. He opposed the cutting of the sugar quota and the refusal of the oil companies to refine Soviet oil, two of the most important conflicts of his time in Cuba, claiming that this would prevent him from having a fruitful dialogue with the Cuban government. Confident that there were possibilities for negotiation, in early 1960 he traveled to Washington and proposed that President Eisenhower issue a public statement pledging that the United States would respect the principle of non-intervention in the internal
affairs of Cuba. In his memoirs, he complained that he was not informed that the CIA program was already running in those days and the necessary documents were being prepared for Eisenhower himself to approve it, as he did on March 16 of that year.
He never knew, for example, what Undersecretary of State Livingstone Merchant said at a meeting of the National Security Council in March 1960: since the summer of 1959 the Department had come to the conclusion that the United States’ objectives in Latin America could not be achieved with Fidel Castro in power. 3
Although Bonsal was not withdrawn from Cuba in March 1960, for all practical purposes, his diplomatic mission had barely begun.
When President Jimmy Carter made efforts to normalize relations and negotiate differences with Cuba, he used a career diplomat, Wayne Smith, putting him at the head of the Cuba Bureau in the State Department and later sending him to Havana in 1979. There is numerous evidence that Smith held dialogues with the highest Cuban officials, including Fidel Castro himself. I personally am witness to his favorable impressions of Raúl Castro after meeting him at a reception at the Palace of the Revolution in 1982. In 2014 he was offered a tribute at the
Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples due to his efforts to normalize relations.
As is known, Donald Trump, in his interest to please Marco Rubio, greatly damaged diplomatic relations. Among the most pernicious steps in this sphere were the false accusations that the Cuban government had not adequately protected its diplomats from fictitious “acoustic attacks” and the closure of the consular section of the embassy in 2017, using this lie as a pretext. Even today, three years later, what happened has not been clarified nor has the United States accepted cooperation with the Cuban government to do so.
Despite all the false accusations, the Trump administration has not taken a step similar to the one the Eisenhower administration took on January 3, 1961.
It has been reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is seeking to include Cuba again in the list of “states promoting terrorism,” a provocative action without any support and a last-minute recourse to continue putting obstacles to the Biden administration, even before its inauguration on January 21.
Although there have been no announcements of specific measures regarding Cuba, Joe Biden has affirmed that he will reverse the sanctions imposed on Cuba by Donald Trump. He has also said that he will reestablish the granting of visas to Cuban claimants, as foreseen in the Migration Agreements of 1994-1995. Both measures presuppose a return to Obama’s policy, which sought a normalization process at the center of which was the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of embassies and the appointment of ambassadors.
Faced with the aggressive and provocative acts of the Trump administration and its diplomats in Havana, the Cuban government has maintained the agreements in this and other areas. It did not break off relations, even though it could have.
However, it’s not an issue that takes Cuba’s sleep away, as Ambassador Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Director General of United States at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, clarified in statements to the press in December 2019.
On the contrary, the Cuban government did not close its embassy or withdraw its ambassador, José R. Cabañas, during all these years. In addition, it has prepared the conditions to maintain the diplomatic dialogue by announcing the transfer to Washington of its ambassador in Vietnam, Lianys Torres, an official who already has previous experiences in diplomatic negotiations with the United States.
So, as they say in sports: the ball is clearly on the American court. It’s up to Joe Biden to take the first step to renew the halted process of normalization. And nothing more conducive than taking it in the diplomatic field.
1. My work Diplomacia Imperial y Revolución is in the process of being edited by the Nuevo Milenio publishing house; in it I try to relate and analyze the diplomatic maneuvers of the Eisenhower administration with respect to Cuba between January 1, 1959 and January 3, 1961. Initially it will be published in digital form in 2021. Later the
printed edition will come out. In that text, which was a finalist for the 2013 Casa de las Américas Essay Award, I narrate, among other things, the vicissitudes of the Bonsal Mission in Cuba.
2. Smith always maintained the secret aspiration to be the first United States ambassador in Havana when relations were restarted. He traditionally opposed his government’s regime change measures. During Jimmy Carter’s administration, he held key positions as head of the State Department’s Cuba Office and Head of the Interests Section in Havana. He resigned from the latter position and left the United States Foreign Service in protest at the creation of the so-called Radio Martí by the Ronald Reagan administration in 1982.
3. See the documentary collection Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960 Volume VI Cuba, page 742.