Those reading this week’s news about President Obama’s effort to open some level of diplomatic relations with Cuba won’t be seeing much – if any – mention of the fact that it is an effort actually begun over 50 years ago, by President John Kennedy. During 1963 JFK had begun a highly secret dialog with Fidel Castro, in an effort which he hoped would restore basic relations and some level of trade in 1964. The details of that effort are now well known, I describe them in SWHT and NEXUS and a great deal of the original source documents including phone calls are available at the National Security Archive web site.
The 1963 initiative actually began with an outreach by representatives of Fidel Castro. Castro had become greatly disenchanted with the Soviet Union and had recently moved to suppress Soviet oriented Communists within his own regime. He used personal and media representatives to extend an offer for talks on restoring relations – in turn JFK made it clear that he would demand that Cuba stop its efforts to spawn new Communist movements in Latin America and make moves towards a more neutral position in international relations, cooling its military alliance with the Soviets. In doing so, JFK demonstrated that he was one of the few politicians of the time who understood the impetus towards nationalism and the value of neutrality in third world nations and was prepared to take advantage of it to block further creation of Soviet client states. Of course Kennedy faced huge political danger in such a move, RFK warned him it could lead to impeachment if Congress found out about it before a deal could be reached. However Castro responded in a very open fashion, taking nothing off the table in agreeing to negotiations. It could have been a huge strategic gain for the United States, at a time when Communist expansion around the globe appeared to be increasingly successful. Kennedy had the nerve to explore the possibilities, and by November, 1963 arrangements were being made for the first meetings between personal representatives – then came Dallas.
Castro felt so strongly that improved relations were desirable that the made the same outreach to LBJ, going so far as offering him the option of Johnson publicly acting against Cuba to ensure his election – while secretly opening a dialog. Johnson refused to even acknowledge the outreach and certain parties – particularly Helms and Bundy – acted to block Castro’s representatives from presenting further offers to the White House.
Fast forward to 2014….and 50 years of inertia, including an ongoing economic embargo. Beginning in 2013, Putin’s militarily reinvigorated Russia began its own outreach to Latin America, leveraging its oil revenues to begin to restore relationships which had fallen apart with its financial crisis following the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Cuba was not the only opportunity for Putin, Venezuela was as well. The appearance of Russian bombers in Venezuela and the declaration of Russian military flights off the American coasts, including over the Gulf of Mexico, was something not even seen during the Cold War. The U.S. had chosen not to deal with the Cuban relationship for some five decades, it appeared very possible that the Russian Federation might be interested in setting the clock back a few decades, dramatically improving its relationship with a new Cuban government.
Then, anticipated by virtually nobody, the bottom fell out of the oil and gas market, the economies of both Russia and Venezuela began to tank. Venezuela had been acting as a financial surrogate for Cuba, supplying its energy needs virtually free of charge. Suddenly those days appeared to be coming to an end. At that point it appears the Cuban government once again put out its own feelers for an improved relationship with the United States and the Obama Administration responded. Of course any President can only do so much on his own and its very likely that Congress will attempt to block a truly expanded relationship – although numbers of agriculture oriented states have been lobbying for trade relations with Cuba for some years, touting the opportunity for real job growth and income from doing business with a market only 90 miles off shore.
Real opportunities – both geopolitical and trade – suddenly exist, largely based in the new-found energy sufficiency of the U.S. Kennedy missed an opportunity 50 years ago, obviously through no fault of his own. The question is whether the United States understands its own history and can get past the political opposition that will now erupt. We have no idea if good sense would have triumphed in 1964. We’ll see if we’ve learned anything at all from the establishment of relations and trade with Vietnam, with China and with other dire Cold War enemies since then.