Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana
by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh
UNC Press, November 2015
Fifty years later, James Donovan’s “metadiplomacy” shows that normal relations are possible.
CIA Debriefing Report on Donovan/Castro talks.
Washington D.C., February 26, 2016 – With covert support from the CIA, James Donovan, who is the central figure in the Oscar-nominated movie, “Bridge of Spies,“ conducted the first secret negotiations ever with Fidel Castro, according to White House and CIA records posted today by the National Security Archive--providing a little-known historical foundation for President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Cuba.
The documents show that in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, Donovan engaged Castro in discussions on improving U.S. relations with Cuba and predicted that, eventually, “an accommodation of views could be worked out.“
Directed by Steven Spielberg and nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay and three other Oscar awards on February 28, “Bridge of Spies“ depicts the Cold War history of New York lawyer James Donovan’s tenacious efforts to negotiate the famous prisoner swap of captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet intelligence agent Rudolf Abel. The dramatic February 1962 exchange on the Glienicke bridge between West Berlin and a suburb of Potsdam earned Donovan—played by actor Tom Hanks in the movie—the designation of “meta-diplomat.“
But only a few weeks later, Attorney General Robert Kennedy secretly recruited Donovan to undertake an even more dramatic mission, equally worthy of a Hollywood spy thriller: negotiating with Fidel Castro for the freedom of more than 1100 imprisoned members of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion force; and thereafter, the release of some two dozen U.S. citizens imprisoned in Cuba for counterrevolutionary crimes, among them three members of the CIA’s Technical Services Division caught installing listening devices in Havana.
The story of Donovan’s secret mission to Cuba—code named “Project Mercy“—and his extensive deliberations with Castro is told in the recently published book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. “In the respectful nature of their talks,“ according to the book, “Castro found the first trusted U.S. representative with whom he could seriously discuss how Havana and Washington might move toward restoring civility and normalcy in the dark wake of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis.“
After Donovan negotiated the Christmas Eve 1962 return of 1113 Bay of Pigs prisoners—he also obtained Castro’s permission for over 5000 of their family members to leave—CIA officials pressed him to obtain the release of the three covert operatives who had been detained in 1960 while planting microphones in the ceiling of the Chinese news service building. During the course of multiple meetings in Havana between January and April 1963, Castro expressed a clear interest in using the prisoner release to open the door on talks for more normal relations. After a meeting in late January, Donovan reported to the White House and the CIA that Fidel’s top aide had even “broached the subject of reestablishing diplomatic relations with the United States.“
The CIA, State Department and NSC all attempted to influence President Kennedy on the U.S. response to Castro’s interest in a rapprochement. State Department officials suggested that Donovan “go for a week-long walk on the beach with Castro“ and establish non-negotiable pre-conditions for talks on better relations: cutting Cuba’s ties with the USSR, and ending Cuban interference in other parts of Latin America. A CIA memo titled “Instructions for James Donovan“ (quoted in Back Channel to Cuba) added that Castro “should be persuaded to throw the Communists out of his government.“
If Castro did not agree to all U.S. demands, the CIA’s proposed instructions stated, Donovan should “paint for Castro…the permanently black picture that will prevail—with only one ultimate result—if Cuba continues to make the United States her enemy.“
President Kennedy, however, took a far more tactful position. In a meeting with his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, he suggested that “we don’t want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines.“ In a Top Secret/Eyes Only March 4, 1963, memorandum of conversation, Bundy reported that “the President, himself, is very interested in this one.“
According to an internal CIA history declassified last year, the CIA played a major behind the scenes role in the Donovan mission to Cuba. Director John McCone met secretly with Donovan several times; McCone established a CIA task force, codenamed MOSES, “to provide covert support for Donovan’s discussions,“ and designated a top agency lawyer, Milan Miskovsky, to be his main handler. (Miskovsky’s name is redacted from the history, titled John McCone As Director of Central Intelligence, 1961-1965, but appears in many other declassified CIA records.) The CIA provided Donovan with a code-sheet for telephone and text communications while he was in Cuba and Florida. Fidel's codename was "Erie." Che Guevara's was "Fulton."
McCone also acted as a key intermediary with members of Congress and the pharmaceutical companies which contributed the medicines to barter the release of the Bay of Pigs brigade; the CIA even secretly created a special multi-million dollar account to underwrite the drug companies’ bill of lading that Donovan would present to Castro. In the end, no CIA funds were used to pay for the food and medicines.
During the talks, the CIA’s deputy director overruled an “earthy appeal“ from the head of Operation Mongoose, Edward Lansdale, for a classic black propaganda operation: printing Castro’s image on the inside sheets of toilet paper that would be part of the food and pharmaceutical supplies Donovan offered in return for the Bay of Pigs prisoners. According to a memo from Lansdale cited in the internal history, the doctored toilet paper would “really get [the Cubans] to laughing at Fidel.“
As the missile crisis began in October 1962, McCone convinced John and Robert Kennedy to suspend Donovan’s secret trips to Cuba, fearing that word of the negotiations would leak; after the crisis ended McCone once again lobbied the White House to delay restarting the secret talks until late November.
But the most sinister episode came when a team of CIA officers decided that they could use Donovan’s unique access to Castro to assassinate the Cuban leader. The declassified CIA history mentions only in a footnote on page 137 that “at some point during Donovan’s negotiations with Castro“ several officials in the covert operations division “devised a plan to have Donovan be the unwitting purveyor of a diving suit and breathing apparatus, respectively contaminated with Madura foot fungus and tuberculosis bacteria, as a gift for Castro.“ The plot was shelved after Miskovsky alerted Donovan to secure the diving suit he had already obtained for Castro to prevent any tampering and contamination by the “executive action“ side of the CIA.
During one of his last trips to Cuba in early April, 1963, Donovan gave Castro the wet suit and a diving watch, as a confidence builder. “They fished at the Bay of Pigs and Castro gave an on-site explanation of the Bay of Pigs invasion,“ Miskovsky reported to McCone after debriefing Donovan. As they worked out the final details for a prisoner exchange—the U.S. citizens and CIA agents for four Cubans imprisoned in the U.S.—Castro shared his interest in restoring relations with Washington:
“If relations were to commence between the U.S. and Cuba,“ Fidel asked, “how would it come about and what would be involved?“
According to a CIA transcript of his debriefing, Donovan responded:
“Now, do you know how porcupines make love? Well, the answer is, ‘very carefully,’ and that is how you and the U.S. would have to get into this. I think an accommodation of views could be worked out.“
More than half a century later, President Obama and President Raul Castro have finally worked out that “accommodation of views.“
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