Diplomat Robert Pastor reflects on Cuban relations, looks ahead to new opportunity
Posted on Sunday, 10.25.09
Diplomat Robert Pastor reflects on Cuban relations, looks ahead to new
Robert Pastor, who played a critical part in negotiations with the Cuban
government in 1977, reflects on the moves he made and the potential
moves the Obama administration could make.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
WASHINGTON — Robert Pastor says that when he sees Israelis and
Palestinians at each other's throats, he sometimes tells himself, “Boy,
this sure reminds of something.''
And well it should, for Pastor played a lead role in the deepest and
broadest U.S. effort to normalize relations with Cuba since 1959, a
campaign by President Jimmy Carter that achieved dramatic successes but
eventually led to the chaos of the Mariel boatlift.
Today, he watches the Obama administration's gestures toward Havana with
a measure of impatience and the sense that knowledge of the Carter
administration's experience could help the new effort to improve
relations — this time with a new Castro at the helm in Havana.
“I am an inveterate optimist,'' he told El Nuevo Herald in an
interview. And 78-year-old Raúl Castro, he added, “is very much aware
that he doesn't have a lot of time to secure the future of the revolution.''
Ending decades of animosity between Havana and Washington was not and
will not be easy — but needs to be done, Pastor argued in the interview
and an unpublished academic paper in which he recounts the history and
impact of Carter's Cuba initiative.
Pastor was just 30 years old when Carter was sworn into office Jan. 20,
1977, and appointed him to head the Western Hemisphere section of the
White House's National Security Council, making him the president's top
in-house advisor on Latin American affairs.
At least five U.S. presidents since John F. Kennedy tried, to some
degree or another, and failed to negotiate an understanding with Fidel
Castro. But Carter's vision was by far the most ambitious.
“Our objective is to set in motion a process which will lead to the
establishment of diplomatic relations . . . and advance the interests of
the United States with respect to . . . human rights; Cuba's foreign
intervention; compensation for American expropriated property; and
reduction of Cuban relations [political and military] with the Soviet
Union,'' said a secret presidential directive that Carter signed just
three weeks after his inauguration. At that time, “foreign
intervention'' referred largely to Cuban troops in Angola.
During several rounds of public and secret talks with Havana, Carter's
various envoys even took up the thorniest of issues in the bilateral
relations — the full range of U.S. concerns over human rights in Cuba,
lifting the U.S. trade embargo and returning the U.S. naval base in
Guantánamo, Pastor recalled.
Carter's initiative sparked dramatic changes, he added:
• Castro freed 3,600 political prisoners, and about 1,000 left for the
• The two countries opened diplomatic missions in each other's capitals,
called Interests Sections because they fall short of being embassies.
• All restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba were lifted from 1977-82,
allowing even American tourists to go to the island.
• The U.S. Coast Guard and its Cuban counterpart began cooperation on
drug interdiction and search-and-rescue operations.
• Cuba released 10 American prisoners, allowed U.S. officials to
interview six others and permitted 450 dual Cuban-U.S. citizens to leave
• Carter ordered the U.S. attorney general to “take all necessary steps
permitted by law'' to prevent Cuban exile attacks on the island.
• The U.S. military stopped flights over Cuba by SR-71 spy planes.
The year 1977 seemed full of promise, Pastor said. Yet it all came
crashing down quickly.
“Within months, we became frustrated with signs that Cuba was
increasing its involvement in Africa, and the lack of Castro responses
to the very significant steps that we had taken to improve relations,''
Castro began sending Cuban troops to Ethiopia, to fight an invasion from
neighboring Somalia, and thumbing his nose at a stern U.S. warning
against expanding his military presence in Africa beyond Angola.
Eventually, 17,000 Cuban troops went to Ethiopia.
“The ruling circles in the United States are wasting their time by
obstinately making an improvement in state relations . . . dependent on
the withdrawal of the international Cuban troops in Angola,'' Castro
declared in late 1977. “Cuba's solidarity with the African peoples is
Shortly afterward, amid suspicions of Havana involvement in fighting in
Zaire, the Carter administration ordered the SR-71s to overfly Cuba
again, staged a large naval exercise near the island and stepped up its
public criticism of Cuba's meddling in Africa.
“We made a profound effort, but the opportunity for normalizing
relations opened and closed in one single year — 1977,'' Pastor said.
The final nail came when Castro unleashed the Mariel boatlift in 1980,
sending 125,000 Cubans to South Florida in a chaotic exodus that helped
Ronald Reagan defeat Carter in the elections that year.
Pastor is now a professor of international relations at American
University and has helped monitor the election process in Palestinian
territories. But he is still deeply interested in Cuba, and last
traveled there in March.
After the Carter initiative collapsed, Pastor said, he “came to believe
that Fidel Castro did not really want to normalize relations, did not
really want the U.S. to lift the embargo.''
“This is how Fidel has mobilized Cuban nationalism,'' he said. “The
U.S. has played a role as foil for all of Cuba's problems . . . so
there's a profound ambivalence that Castro must feel toward good
relations with the United States.''
He recalled Castro once telling him in a private meeting “essentially
that if the U.S. lifted the embargo, he would be imposing restrictions
the next day in order to control the flow of goods.'' Good Havana
relations with Washington, Pastor added, “would sink Cuba.''
But there's now another major opportunity for warmer relations, Pastor
added, with President Barack Obama willing to make some friendly
gestures and a new Castro ruling Havana — Fidel's younger brother Raúl,
who has a reputation as a pragmatist.
And while he once believed that only Fidel had the power to manage a
full opening toward the United States, he now believes Raúl also can do
it because he controls the Cuban security forces and has the
revolutionary and family credentials.
What is needed now, Pastor said, is a test of Raúl Castro's thinking on
relations with Washington.
“This is a cautious administration,'' he said, “and we have not really
begun to explore the idea that Raúl is different, that he's more
pragmatic and more open to U.S. relations, that with Raúl maybe we have
“The president should send a personal envoy to spend time listening and
probing Raúl Castro's perspective,'' he said. “If the envoy had similar
experiences with Fidel, he would be able to detect any differences . . .
and thus any opportunities to advance U.S. interests.''
Asked later if his words meant he was interested in the task, he wrote
in an e-mail, “My purpose was not to put myself forward.''
Without a U.S.-Cuba understanding, Pastor wrote in his academic paper,
bilateral relations could well return to the hostilities that have
marked some periods in the past 50 years.
“Except during a crisis, the United States can afford to forget Cuba,
and indeed, the political incentives within the United States encourage
the status quo,'' he wrote. “Because of the differences in power, Cuba
will always be obsessed with the United States — wanting attention but
fearing control, seeking respect but not knowing how to gain it.
“This may continue to characterize the relationship unless or until
American or Cuban leaders demonstrate real political courage, or Cuba
becomes unstable. If instability precedes leadership [courage], the two
countries may revert to a tragic confrontation.''
Diplomat Robert Pastor reflects on Cuban relations, looks ahead to new
opportunity – Issues & Ideas – MiamiHerald.com (25 October 2009)