Deal between U.S., Cuba culminated 18 months of secret talks
Deal between U.S., Cuba culminated 18 months of secret talks
BY GLENN GARVIN GGARVIN@MIAMIHERALD.COM
12/17/2014 10:34 PM 12/18/2014 12:40 AM
During a 2007 campaign debate when his White House prospects still
seemed mostly like a pipe dream, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was asked
if, as president, he would sit down to talk to with leaders of countries
like North Korea, Venezuela, Iran and Cuba. “I would,” he bluntly replied.
On Tuesday night, seven years later, President Obama finally carried out
at least part of the pledge of Candidate Obama, talking with Cuban
leader Raul Castro for 45 minutes by phone to put the finishing touches
on 18 months of secret negotiations that restored diplomatic relations
between the two countries for the first time in over five decades.
The process was carried out under an extraordinarily effective shroud of
secrecy. “I hadn’t heard even the tiniest buzz that anything was up,”
one senior State Department official who follows Latin American affairs
confessed Wednesday after the president’s announcement.
In the clamor for the details of the agreement, which ranges from the
number of cigars American visitors can bring home from Cuba to a spy
swap involving a convicted murderer and a mysterious and unnamed CIA
agent, relatively little has emerged about the negotiating process.
But interviews and statements throughout the day by officials in
Washington, Havana and countries that lent aid to the process offer at
least a glimpse of the road that led to the historic agreement.
Cuba seemed to drop off President Obama’s radar during his first term in
office, aside from his occasional public complaint about the arrest of
USAID official Alan Gross, charged with crimes against the Cuban state
for distributing satellite phones to the island’s Jewish community.
But White House officials said Obama ordered a top-to-bottom review of
U.S. policy toward Cuba after winning reelection in 2012. By June of
2013, talks between the two countries were under way, led on the U.S.
side by Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security for
strategic communications, and Ricardo Zúñiga, National Security Council
senior director for the Western Hemisphere.
At least seven meetings took place in Canada. “I don’t want to
exaggerate Canada’s role,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the
Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “We facilitated places where the two
countries could have a dialogue and explore ways on normalizing
relations. We were not trying in any way to direct or mediate the talks.
We just wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to have the kind of
dialogue they needed to have.”
But the host of two other meetings played a more active role. The
Argentine-born Pope Francis not only welcomed the negotiating teams to
the Vatican, he issued an extraordinary “personal appeal” for better
relations in personal letters sent to Obama and Castro after a meeting
Their reaction was positive enough to schedule another meeting at the
Vatican, where the deal was sealed. “The Holy See received delegations
of the two countries in the Vatican last October,” said a a Vatican
statement issued Wednesday, “and provided its good offices to facilitate
a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions
acceptable to both parties.”
Both leaders thanked the pope Wednesday. He “played a very important
role,” Obama told ABC News, calling Francis “the real deal, a remarkable
Much remains unknown about the talks, including who negotiated for the
Cubans and whether they were carried out with the blessing of Raul’s
88-year-old brother Fidel, who ran the country for 50 years until his
retirement in 2008.
The irascible Fidel torpedoed several attempts at rapprochement between
the United States and Cuba during his rule, notably by sending troops to
Africa in the midst of negotiations with President Ford’s secretary of
state, Henry Kissinger, in the mid-1970s and unleashing a wave of
100,000 refugees on Florida in 1980, soon after President Carter
restored partial relations between the two countries.
The ill health that forced Fidel to step down has continued to take a
toll, and the extent of his influence on the Cuban government and even
the degree of his lucidity these days is unknown. Cuba watchers are
waiting to see if he makes a statement about the agreement with the
“If Fidel does not come out and endorse this fully, you’ve got to wonder
what’s going on,” said Brian Latell, a senior research associate at the
University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies and
formerly the CIA’s top Cuba expert. “Is this being done over his
objections? Or is he completely comatose?”
Also shrouded in mystery: the identity of a spy being freed by Havana as
part of the agreement. “We have decided to release and send back to the
United States a spy of Cuban origin who was working for that nation,”
Raul Castro said during his televised announcement of the deal Wednesday.
“We recovered a highly valued intelligence asset, probably the most
highly valued intelligence asset on Cuban soil in American history,”
confirmed White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at a news briefing
Wednesday. “And that individual is now on American soil.”
A statement released by the office of National Intelligence Director
James Clapper said the spy “provided the information that led to the
identification and conviction” of the so-called Wasp Network, the ring
of Cuban intelligence officers arrested in South Florida in 1998. (Three
convicted members of the Wasp Network were released by Washington
Wednesday, the other half of the swap.)
His information also helped identify three other Cuban spies in the
United States: Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) senior analyst Ana
Belen Montes, former Department of State official Walter Kendall Myers
and his spouse Gwendolyn Myers.
Those clues led some retired U.S. intelligence officials to speculate
that the man released Wednesday by Havana is 51-year-old Rolando
Sarraff, a former Cuban intelligence agent arrested by the Castro
government in November 1995.
“He’s the only one who really fits those details,” said Chris Simms, a
former Defense Intelligence Agency spycatcher who specialized in Cuba.
Former intelligence officials say Sarraff was a cryptography expert for
Cuba’s Interior Ministry who, with two others, passed huge amounts of
information to the CIA that allowed Washington to break Cuban spy codes,
read their reports, and identify and arrest them. “He just destroyed
their communications,” Simms said.
But Sarraff and two other men helping him eventually fell under
suspicion. Noting Cuban government surveillance, they sent a message
asking the CIA to rescue them. Two of the men were extracted from Cuba.
(One, José Cohen, lives in South Florida, where he’s a top Amway
salesman. He did not respond to Herald emails asking for comment. The
other has never been publicly identified.)
Sarraff, however, was arrested and has been in prison ever since. “And
at Cuban intelligence headquarters in Havana, a film of those guys
leaving the message for the CIA to come to the rescue has been used in
training ever since,” said Simmons.
Source: Deal between U.S., Cuba culminated 18 months of secret talks |
The Miami Herald –