Millennium Post

When JFK secretly reached out to Castro

When JFK secretly reached out to Castro
President Barack Obama’s surprise effort to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, concurrent with an economic embargo, recalls the two-track approach - economic and sometimes military force, along with secret, sporadic attempts to find some kind of accommodation - that formed US policy toward Cuba during the most dangerous years of that relationship.

On Monday evening, Nov. 18, 1963, at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach - four days before his assassination - President John F Kennedy, wearing black tie, said that only one issue separated the US from Fidel Castro’s Cuba: Castro’s “conspirators” had handed Cuban sovereignty to “forces beyond the hemisphere” (meaning the Soviet Union), which were using Cuba “to subvert the other American republics.” Kennedy said, “As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible,”, The NYT reported. The president had asked his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, for language that would open a door to the Cuban leader, although, as Sorensen later said, the audience was “a tough anti-Castro group.”

That same day, Ambassador William Attwood, a Kennedy delegate to the UN, secretly called Castro’s aide and physician, Rene Vallejo, to discuss a possible secret meeting in Havana between Attwood and Castro that might improve the Cuban-American relationship, which had been ruptured when President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke diplomatic ties in January 1961.

Attwood had been told by Castro’s UN ambassador, Carlos Lechuga, in September 1963, that the Cuban leader wished to establish back-channel communications with Washington. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy worried that such talks would leak and embarrass his brother on the eve of his 1964 re-election campaign, but the president encouraged Attwood to pursue the matter.  Kennedy’s national security adviser told Attwood that Kennedy wanted to “know more about what is on Castro’s mind before committing ourselves to further talks on Cuba.”

He said that as soon as Attwood and Lechuga could agree on an agenda, the president would tell him what to say to Castro.

Had Kennedy survived, the Attwood back channel might conceivably have led to some improvement in the relationship between Havana and Washington, but the odds against it were formidable.


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