Capsule Review

Back Channel to Cuba; Economic Normalization With Cuba

In This Review

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana
Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana
By William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh
The University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 536 pp. $35.00 Purchase
Economic Normalization With Cube: A Roadmap for US Policymakers
Economic Normalization With Cube: A Roadmap for US Policymakers
By Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Barbara Kotschwar
Institute for International Economics, U.S., 2014, 130 pp. $23.95 Purchase

LeoGrande and Kornbluh’s exhaustive and masterful diplomatic history will stand as the most authoritative account of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations during the five decades of Cuban President Fidel Castro’s rule -- at least until scholars gain better access to Cuban archives and officials. Skillfully interpreting reams of declassified memorandums, unpublished memoirs, and in-depth interviews with key U.S. players, LeoGrande and Kornbluh uncover the intriguing secret dialogues that 11 American presidential administrations conducted with Castro’s shrewd emissaries and sometimes with Castro himself. The authors focus on the central question of why so many attempts by so many seasoned diplomats repeatedly collapsed, sometimes after promising beginnings. LeoGrande and Kornbluh highlight a number of factors. On the Cuban side, they note Cuba’s insistence that the United States lift its economic embargo at the outset of any talks (which would eliminate a key source of U.S. leverage); Cuba’s refusal during the Cold War to compromise on its policy of international solidarity with leftist allies and the Soviet Union; and, perhaps, Castro’s reliance on an acrimonious relationship with the United States to cement his domestic rule. On the U.S. side, the book reveals the American tendency to fumble the sequencing of quid pro quo offers; the way that, within every presidential administration, tenacious Cuba policy hawks sabotaged doves; the disruptive effects of U.S. domestic politics; and, perhaps most important, Washington’s utter refusal to recognize Cuban autonomy. Facing so many potential veto points, back-channel diplomacy was bound to fail.

Hufbauer and Kotschwar peer into a post-Castro future where Cuba is already well on the path toward liberal democracy and a market economy. But rather than advocate for an immediate normalization of economic relations, the authors suggest that Washington maintain sanctions to keep up the pressure for deeper reforms in Havana. LeoGrande and Kornbluh would probably counsel that such an approach would likely fail to influence the Cuban government today, but perhaps a post-Castro Cuba would react differently. Hufbauer and Kotschwar hope that Cuba will welcome market capitalism with a “big bang” and enact reforms on its own but worry that Cuba might go the way of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its crony capitalism. The United States, they suggest, should engage in gradual, reciprocal negotiations to force market competition and to secure most-favored-nation treatment for U.S. firms. For example, in exchange for regaining access to the U.S. sugar market, Cuba would remove remaining restrictions on U.S. agricultural exporters. This hard-nosed approach represents a tortured, but possibly realistic, resolution to the U.S.-Cuban imbroglio.

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