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

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 Skillfully interpreting reams of declassified memorandums, unpublished memoirs, and in-depth interviews with key U.S. players, LeoGrande and Kornbluh uncover the intriguing secret dialogues that 11 American presidential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.