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    opinion | Mark Schneider and Robert Hunter

    Castro told Ted Kennedy 40 years ago that Cuba was ready for change

    Senator Ted Kennedy.
    Globe file 2009
    Senator Ted Kennedy.

    A secretary of state told an audience in Houston that the United States was ready to consider ending its policy of isolating Cuba. Three days later, a senator introduced legislation to revoke the presidential proclamation establishing the trade embargo against Cuba. The year was 1975, the secretary of state was Henry Kissinger, and the senator was Edward M. Kennedy. The presidential proclamation had been issued by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, 13 years earlier.

    Two months earlier — 40 years ago — as members of Senator Kennedy’s staff, we had traveled to Havana to meet Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro to lay the groundwork for a potential trip by Kennedy, seeding the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba, as the senator had urged five years earlier. Kissinger personally blessed the trip.

    Virtually every recent action taken by President Obama to relax travel, financial, and commercial restrictions on Cuba was included in Kennedy’s bill, introduced on March 4, 1975, which also would have triggered negotiations on normalization. At the time, it would have gone further by legislating an end to the embargo.

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    We emerged from a three-and-a-half hour conversation with Castro, which covered every obstacle to US-Cuban relations, judging that a negotiated agreement might be possible. Had it occurred, much of Cuba’s negative behavior in subsequent years — all counter to US interests — from Cuban troops to Angola, support for Central American insurgents, and support for the Soviet Union on any East-West issue — might have been avoided. Normal diplomatic and economic ties could have also created fundamental openings inside Cuba in ways that the policy of isolation had failed to produce then — and in the 40 years since. Obviously, there is no way of knowing whether Castro would have chosen to free his country from crippling western sanctions over continuing to burnish his revolutionary credentials and using anti-US rhetoric to cling to power The United States did not try then; it must not fail to follow through on Obama’s efforts now.

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    But it is easy to see what could have happened, given a chance. At the very least, had the US-Cuban relationship been on solid ground when the Soviet Union imploded, Cuba would surely have taken steps toward economic reform long before now. With its people fully participating in the telecommunications and web-based information age, political changes would have been far more likely. After the Soviet Union died, there was certainly opportunity for the same dramatic changes in Cuba that we saw both there and had already been happening in Eastern Europe.

    During that visit to Cuba, we spent Jan. 2, 1975, in Havana sitting around a small conference table with Castro, Vice Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, and the secretary of the Council of Ministers, Osmany Cienfuegos. The discussion started with a moment of banter on Castro’s part: “Cubans [exiles] are doing very well in the United States. Indeed ‘my Cubans’ make the best Americans!”

    We then led the discussion to humanitarian issues, covering family visits when there was illness or special family occasions, family reunifications and immigration, generally. Castro expressed his concern over the likelihood that normalization of relations with the United States would produce massive inflows of American tourists and Cuban exiles or outflows of Cubans who would be attracted by life in the United States. But he added that Cuba probably would have to live with these problems as one of the “negative” aspects — his adjective — of normal relations.

    On political prisoners, we noted that church and human rights groups had long lists of prisoners and we urged their release. We also sought permission for the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International to enter Cuba to see the conditions of prisoners and settle the argument about numbers. Castro ridiculed the exaggerated number that had been used by some exile groups of 150,000, but when it came to giving his own estimate, both he and Carlos Rafael Rodriguez were hard-pressed to come up with their own figure. At one point Rodriguez said 2,600, but that did not include those who were in something like halfway-houses, having either completed their sentences or, out of desperation, agreed to apologize. The estimate at the time, used by Amnesty, but also viewed as likely to understate all categories of prisoners, was 4,000 to 5,000.

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    While Castro was disinclined to release prisoners immediately after our trip, he made clear to us that if Kennedy traveled there, many would have been able to leave. Subsequently, when Cuban military involvement in Angola and other actions abroad scratched any trip, Castro still made good on his commitment t to release several political prisoners over time, including Cuban dissident poet Heberto Padillo, whom Kennedy received at the airport on his arrival into the United States, and much later, the last Bay of Pigs prisoner.

    It was clear that Castro thought Kennedy at some point would run for the presidency and, in his view, win.

    Before our trip, we also had reached agreement with Cuban representatives at their United Nations Mission to be allowed to talk with political prisoners and any other Cuban citizens we wanted, without interference. The Cubans kept their word, permitting us to walk into any store, apartment building — of our choosing — knock on doors and talk to anyone we wanted while our “minders” remained outside. The one qualifier was that the political prisoners we could see were those who already had served their time and were being reintegrated back into society. While they were free to talk with us without any prying ears, their critiques were understandably minimal given where they were. However, we heard a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction, both with the Cuban government and the US embargo, from some of the ordinary Cubans we met.

    Our discussion with Castro and a later, more extensive, conversation with Rodriguez, covered the impact of the embargo. Castro acknowledged that Cuba would benefit most from ending the restriction on what it could buy from or sell to the vast US market. But he hastened to add that the United States would benefit the most from relations with the rest of the hemisphere. He also added that Cuba had withstood the embargo for 15 years and could manage without US goods for however long was necessary if that meant getting to normalization in a way that respected Cuban sovereignty.

    We also raised other issues on a normalization agenda, some still unresolved:

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    ■ Export of revolution in the Americas. Castro argued that this was no longer a problem, noting that it was only aimed at the countries which conspired against Cuba. However, by the time we met him, Castro said that most countries had opened relations with Cuba and it understood what was necessary to maintain those ties. He added that this development in Cuba’s practical approach to relations with other Latin American countries didn’t mean that it would not feel sympathy for other revolutionaries; but there is a difference between sympathy and conduct.

    ■ Reducing relations with the USSR. Castro said he did not see any conflict in Cuba’s with having trade relations with both the Soviet Union and the United States. He also cited examples of detente between the US and the USSR on missile treaties and other ongoing talks (which led later that year to the Helsinki Final Act).

    ■ Compensation for expropriated properties. Castro was adamant that Cuba had no intention of compensating companies which, he argued, had taken far more from Cuba than they had given. If indemnification was to be on the normalization agenda, then Cuba had some of its own claims. However, when we provided examples of foreign claims settlements with other countries, Castro did not reject the possibility of some agreement on the issue being reached.

    ■ The US military base at Guantanamo. We raised the issue of Cuban harassment of the US presence in Guantanamo; Castro said that was absurd. But he also said that Guantanamo had never been a principal issue for Cuba since it had the potential for a military clash if Cuba ever tried to evict the United States from the base. He just noted that, as a principle of sovereignty, ultimately it would need to revert to Cuba as part of a normalization of relations.

    On all of these issues, our conversation with Castro never produced any sign of rejection of the principle of negotiating an agreement for normalization that met both countries’ concerns.

    When we returned from Cuba, and after we reported all our conversations to the State Department, Kennedy introduced his legislation to promote talks on normalization. His argument was that the embargo had pushed Cuba even closer into the arms of the Soviet Union. Also, the fact that most Latin American nations had already opened relations with Cuba essentially undermined to the export-of-revolution argument, and that experience 15 years later (now 55 years later), have shown that the U. embargo could not really isolate Cuba and bring about democratic change.

    Kennedy spoke in the Senate, saying that the policy of isolating Cuba had failed and served “now only to diminish our own opportunities for improved relations with Latin America. . . . It also serves to delay movement in important areas of humanitarian concerns — from political prisoner release, to family reunification, to restrictions on cultural, educational and scientific interchange.”

    He was right then, and Obama is right today.

    Mark Schneider is senior vice president of the International Crisis Group and former director of the Peace Corps. Robert Hunter is senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations and former US ambassador to NATO. In the 1970s, they served on the staff of Senator Edward M. Kennedy.