by Dalia Gonzalez Delgado
Granma spoke with Ramón Sánchez-Parodi Montoto, first Chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC, between 1977 and 1989
He is reluctant to talk about himself, but has been protagonist of historical moments. The author of Cuba-USA: Ten Moments in a Relationship, has studied relations between the two countries not only in theory but from real-life experience. Ramón Sánchez-Parodi Montoto took part in the confidential talks between the two governments in 1975, with a view to a possible normalization of relations, and then in the negotiations that led to the opening of the Interests Sections in each country. He headed the Cuban Interests Section in Washington between 1977 and 1989. In addition, he served as Deputy Foreign Minister until 1994, and from then on served as ambassador to Brazil until 2000.
Through dominance or hostility, bilateral relations with the US have contributed to shaping the nation we are today. When we now dream of an even better country, the Cuban government has reiterated its willingness to move towards the normalization of bilateral relations and the establishment of a constructive, serious dialogue, on an equal footing, and based on respect for our sovereignty.
Granma spoke with Sánchez-Parodi so he could tell us, from his viewpoint, how a possible normalization of relations could come to pass, and when have we been closer to achieving this.
When the Interests Sections were opened, how would you describe the relations between Cuba and the U.S.?
After the break in January 1961, there was always some kind of communication -first informally and then formally- between both governments on what to do about our bilateral relations.
In 1974 Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, taking advantage of the visit of a group of Americans who came to interview Fidel, sent a message to him. The essence of the letter was the sentence: Cuba and the United States are countries with different political, economic and social systems; they disagree on the most fundamental international issues, but that’s no reason for perpetual hostility. The recognition that there are differences and that this does not mean that there cannot be a relationship is, as The Godfather would have put it, an offer one cannot refuse. The Cuban government responded positively to the possibility of starting direct contacts that had not existed until then.
The first meeting lasted a half hour or 40 minutes, in a cafeteria at La Guardia Airport in New York City, in January 1975.
What topics were discussed at that first meeting?
I had been appointed to represent Cuba, and Lawrence Eagleburger, Kissinger’s personal assistant secretary, to represent the United States. We discussed general issues related to the interest in normalizing relations. The most concrete element on the part of the U.S. was the announcement of some measures including the authorization to U.S. subsidiaries in third countries, such as Argentina and Canada, to trade with Cuba.
And did that happen?
Yes. From Argentina we began to get cars, namely Fords. In the case of Canada the authorization specifically referred to a number of companies that had contracts with Cuba to sell us office supplies. Another measure was to remove restrictions on the movements of Cuban UN staff, who were limited to a 25-mile radius.
In those talks what did the US ask of Cuba?
Just to talk. The measures were taken as a symbolic gesture; and also to solve problems with the governments of Argentina and Canada. After that, another conversation took place in July 1975, at a hotel in New York. Present were Eagleburger and William Rogers, Undersecretary of State for Inter-American Affairs; on the Cuban side, Néstor García Iturbe, Counselor at the Cuban UN mission and I.
At that meeting we moved forward. The main topic was that the United States would favor the adoption by the OAS of a resolution eliminating the multilateral nature of the sanctions against Cuba. OAS sanctions against Cuba were multilateral, meaning that all member countries had to comply. It was not appropriate for the United States to violate the agreement by having bilateral talks with Cuba; so it was also a way to avoid a problem. From that moment on, every country had the right to manage its own bilateral relations with Cuba. We talked about other issues, but that was the most important.
We agreed to have a new round of talks in August. But later the U.S. government announced that it was not possible to continue the negotiations on account of Cuba’s support for the independence of Puerto Rico. They used that argument.
Was it an excuse?
I believe so, because then they began to link that with the presence of Cuban troops in Africa. And there was a standstill. In my opinion, the real problem was the electoral campaign (the general election would be in 1976). There was a confrontation within the Republican Party between Ronald Reagan and Ford, and the latter did not want to give Reagan ammunition to attack him. The decision then was to stop talking to Cuba.
But later, near the end of the campaign the following year, the two presidential candidates: Ford and James Carter sent us messages indicating that if they won the elections, they would resume the talks. Carter said he did not want those conversations to be confidential, but public. After his victory came his executive order on the process of normalization of relations with Cuba, and that included the opening of the interest sections.
At the time when the Interests Sections were opened, was it thought that the dialogue would progress further and the interests sections would become embassies?
Yes, by both the US and us. But the circumstances were always very complex and there were many opposing interests.
Reagan himself was active in promoting agreements with Cuba, such as the migration agreements of 1984 which had been interrupted before. He not only promoted these agreements, but also when we signed a memorandum of understanding the announcement was made by the White House, not the State Department. This gave it an authority that it had not had before. This shows that there has always been an interest on their part. The Carter presidential statement of March 1977 says clearly “to normalize relations with Cuba.”
Why normalization was not reached then?
Among other things there were contradictions within the Carter administration which were expressed in foreign policy. These not only involved Cuba but also Iran and the Soviet Union. At the same time, there was the subject of Africa where we had conflicting interests, and also the processes of armed insurrection in Latin America, particularly in Nicaragua.
When were we closer to normalize relations? Was it under Carter?
Sure; because he was the one who made the decision to normalize relations.
There has not been a similar moment after that?
I don’t think so. It was believed that maybe with Barack Obama, but really since he secured the nomination as the Democratic candidate in 2008 he began to move to the center and to adopt more conservative positions.
Obama has never been, in any way, searching for a normalization of relations. His policy is a light version of the same policy of George W. Bush (Junior). It has not changed. In addition there have been other complications affecting the U.S. and especially its policy towards Latin America. At this point, the foundations of US politics, the tools of that policy for the region, contained in the idea of the Inter-American system, have blown up in pieces. They need to rethink what will be their policy towards Latin America.
In the years when you headed the Cuban Interests Section in the US, what were the tensest moments of the relationships?
From the point of view of hostility, certainly the tensest moments occurred at the beginning of the Reagan administration. Among other things, because he had a project to roll back the process of normalization, as part of his foreign policy blueprint and all that followed as an expression of the ideas of the New Right. In particular there was the very clear position of Alexander Haig (Secretary of State) to promote even a military strike against Cuba. He proposed this to Reagan.
Has a military attack always remained an option?
Yes. The U.S. policy towards Cuba is a State Policy.
Reagan acted more wisely and rejected Haig’s proposal. I would say that was the tensest moment. Fidel told me that perhaps one of the things that saved us from a military confrontation then was the attempt that was made on Reagan’s life.
There were also moments of tension during the events of Mariel; but that was political tension, and we had a capacity for action.
You have expressed in more than one occasion that the policy of the United States towards Cuba is a State Policy. So, do you disagree with those who claim that the policy towards Cuba is run by the Cuban-American lobby in Florida?
That has nothing to do with it. We’ve given it a lot of propaganda. But that is against all logic and reality. First, the term ‘Cuban-American’ is one of the things we create when we use U.S. terms and take them as absolute truths. This is in fact a term of the census and speaks of social groups. The Cuban-American is that person who writes in its census declaration that he or she is Cuban. But what do Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have to do with Cuba?
However, even if we accept the term, what weight do they have on elections? In the counties of Florida where there are Cuban-Americans, the Democrats have always won since 1992, and almost always from 1960 to date.
Some of them are powerful. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is one…
But what did she do against Cuba during the time she headed the Foreign Relations Committee of the House? Zero.
When those Cubans who controlled Cuban society, Cuban politics, the economy, the businesses, and everything in Cuba, were here… all they could do was what they were told to do by the Yankees. And now that they have nothing in Cuba – and they know it- what do they do? We often fall into the trap of taking as true the U.S. arguments and their false explanations. This does not mean that the issue of Cuban migration is not important to us; and we have to solve it according to our interests.
When the Scarabeo (oil platform) was coming, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart sent an open letter to Obama, arguing that it was against the blockade and U.S. interests, and demanding that the President do something about it. Obama ignored them. They have no power; they are simply used.
To maintain the State Policy…
And the State Policy is clear. The executive order establishing the blockade, the Helms-Burton Law, the decision to make it a Federal Law, OFAC (Office for Foreign Assets Control), and all actions against Cuba are State Policy. Changing this would require the political will of the government and the institutions; and they need to do so.
Why would they need to change it?
How can the United States solve its policy toward Latin America without solving its relations with Cuba? We have full relations with all the Latin American and Caribbean countries, and even with the United States we have diplomatic links. This was the region where the United States advanced the most in its isolation policy against us. These countries will not change their policy towards Cuba. They already said there would be no Summit of the Americas (to be held in Panama in 2015) if Cuba does not participate. What will the United States do?
Do you believe the moment for the normalization of relations is near?
It doesn’t work like that. The lifting of the blockade does not occur by decree; it is a process that could take many years. Some things are being done, for example: the ongoing talks on the postal mail issue.
But even if they say “the blockade is over”, in the world relations are governed by a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements that would have to be negotiated between Cuba and the U.S. For example, air communications; Radio Marti; visas; consular fees. All of that must be negotiated; and all of that takes a long time, according to our interests and theirs.
Of course, the day the United States says, “The Torricelli and the Helms-Burton Acts are eliminated; Kennedy’s executive order is no longer standing,” it will have a huge impact, a tremendous impact.
I believe that with Obama this is not going to happen; it might happen in a future presidential term, whether Republican or Democrat. It is our mistake to think that it will be with the Democrats. Direct talks began with none others than Nixon and Kissinger.
I think conditions are ripe, they can’t hold much longer.
Then if it does not happen with Obama, do you think after him there will be progress towards an approach?
In fact, some progress is being made. And the political climate favors the lifting of the blockade. The U.S. is having a crisis and, as I said, they have to redesign their policy towards Latin America. This policy cannot be based on the Inter-American system. In addition, 188 countries voting for the lifting of the blockade means total isolation.
The goal of U.S. policy towards Cuba is to restore its domination over the island, and they do not settle for less.
I do think that, if not in the next government, perhaps in the one after that, there must be a substantial decision to normalize relations with Cuba. The easiest thing -and a thing that would bring about the change- is for the United States to lift the ban on U.S. citizens travelling to Cuba; that would necessarily transform other things related to the blockade.
The United States and Cuba have never had a quite normal relationship. There was a long period of dependence, then a hostile relationship or of no relationship at all. How would a normal relationship be?
Not normal, strictly speaking. It would be a beneficial relationship for both countries, but it has to be free from any attempt of domination. The kind of relations we have with lots of countries. This does not mean there will not be any conflicts. Our political and economic system is not an obstacle to having normal relations with anyone.
And do you think that at some point they will give up their intention of domination?
If they do not give up on that, there will not be a normal relationship. It has been demonstrated for over half a century that any attempt to restore that domination fails.