How Obama outmaneuvered hardliners and cut a Cuba deal
How Obama outmaneuvered hardliners and cut a Cuba deal
BY WARREN STROBEL, MATT SPETALNICK AND DAVID ADAMS
WASHINGTON/MIAMI Mon Mar 23, 2015 1:06am EDT
(Reuters) – The December breakthrough that upended a half-century of
U.S.-Cuba enmity has been portrayed as the fruit of 18 months of secret
But Reuters interviews with more than a dozen people with direct
knowledge of the process reveal a longer, painstakingly cautious quest
by U.S. President Barack Obama and veteran Cuba specialists to forge the
As now-overt U.S.-Cuban negotiations continue this month, Reuters also
has uncovered new details of how talks began and how they stalled in
late 2013 during secret sessions in Canada. Senior administration
officials and others also revealed how both countries sidelined their
foreign policy bureaucracies and how Obama sought the Vatican’s blessing
to pacify opponents.
Obama’s opening to Havana could help restore Washington’s influence in
Latin America and give him a much-needed foreign policy success.
But the stop-and-start way the outreach unfolded, with deep mistrust on
both sides, illustrates the obstacles Washington and Havana face to
achieving a lasting detente.
Obama was not the first Democratic president to reach out to Cuba, but
his attempt took advantage of – and carefully judged – a generational
shift among Cuban-Americans that greatly reduced the political risks.
In a May 2008 speech to the conservative Cuban-American National
Foundation in Miami, Obama set out a new policy allowing greater travel
and remittances to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, though he added he would
keep the embargo in place as leverage.
“Obama understood that the policy changes he was proposing in 2008 were
popular in the Cuban-American community so he was not taking a real
electoral risk,” said Dan Restrepo, then Obama’s top Latin America adviser.
Six months later, Obama was validated by an unexpectedly high 35 percent
of the Cuban-American vote, and in 2012 he won 48 percent – a record for
With his final election over, Obama instructed aides in December 2012 to
make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope,”
recalled Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor who has played a
central role in shaping Cuba policy.
Helping pave the way was an early 2013 visit to Miami by Obama’s top
Latin American adviser Ricardo Zuniga. As a young specialist at the
State Department he had contributed to a 2001 National Intelligence
Estimate that, according to another former senior official who worked on
it, marked the first such internal assessment that the economic embargo
of Cuba had failed.
He met a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National
Foundation, and young Cuban-Americans who, according to one person
present, helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who
have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo.
But the White House wasn’t certain. “I don’t think we ever reached a
point where we thought we wouldn’t have to worry about the reaction in
Miami,” a senior U.S. official said.
The White House quietly proposed back-channel talks to the Cubans in
April 2013, after getting notice that Havana would be receptive, senior
U.S. officials said.
Obama at first froze out the State Department in part due to concern
that “vested interests” there were bent on perpetuating a
confrontational approach, said a former senior U.S. official. Secretary
of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared
they might be fruitful, officials said.
Cuban President Raul Castro operated secretly too. Josefina Vidal, head
of U.S. affairs at Cuba’s foreign ministry, was cut out, two Americans
close to the process said. Vidal could not be reached for comment.
The meetings began in June 2013 with familiar Cuban harangues about the
embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes used his relative youth to
“Part of the point was ‘Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put
in place … We want to hear and talk about the future’,” said Rhodes, 37.
“THE CUBANS WERE DUG IN”
Obama’s people-to-people Cuba strategy was complicated by one person in
particular: Alan Phillip Gross.
The U.S. government had sent Gross, a USAID contractor, on risky
missions to deliver communications equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community.
His December 2009 arrest put Obama’s planned “new beginning” with Cuba
The secret talks were almost derailed by Havana’s steadfast demand that
Obama swap the “Cuban Three,” a cell of Cuban spies convicted in Miami
but considered heroes in Havana, for Gross.
Obama refused a straight trade because Washington denied Gross was a spy
and the covert diplomacy stalled as 2013 ended.
Even as Obama and Castro shook hands at the Johannesburg memorial
service for South African leader Nelson Mandela, the situation behind
the scenes did not look very hopeful.
“The Cubans were dug in … And we did kind of get stuck on this,” Rhodes
Rhodes and Zuniga spent more than 70 hours negotiating with the Cubans,
mostly at Canadian government facilities in Ottawa.
By late spring 2014, Gross’ friends and family grew alarmed over his
physical and psychological state. The White House and the Cubans knew
that if he died in prison, repairing relations would be left to another
With Gross’ mother, Evelyn, dying of lung cancer, the U.S. government
and his legal team launched an effort to convince the Cubans to grant
him a furlough to see her.
That bid failed, despite an offer by Gross’s lawyer Scott Gilbert to sit
in his jail cell as collateral.
But a turning point had occurred at a January 2014 meeting in Toronto.
The Americans proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – throwing Rolando
Sarraff, a spy for Washington imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, into the
deal, U.S. participants said.
The White House could claim it was a true “spy swap,” giving it
political cover. But it took 11 more months to seal the deal.
Castro did not immediately agree to give up Sarraff, a cryptographer who
Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the United States.
And Obama, stung by the outcry over his May 2014 exchange of five
Taliban detainees for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, was wary of
another trade perceived as lopsided, according to people close to the
He weighed other options, including having the Cubans plead guilty to
the charges against them and be sentenced to time served, according to
Gilbert worked with the Obama administration, but urged it to move
faster. From his vantage point, the turning point came in April 2014,
when it became clear key Obama officials would support a full
commutation of the Cuban prisoners’ sentences.
“TEARS IN OUR EYES”
The last puzzle piece slid into place at a Feb. 2014 White House meeting
with lawmakers including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Sen. Dick
Obama hammered home his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three
trade, two people present said. Durbin, in an interview, said he “raised
the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.”
Pope Francis would bring the Catholic Church’s moral influence and his
status as the first pontiff from Latin America. It was also protection
against harsh critics such as Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez.
Leahy persuaded two Catholic cardinals to ask Francis to raise Cuba and
the prisoners when he met Obama in March. The Pope did so, then wrote
personal letters to Obama and Castro.
“What could be better than the president being be able to tell Menendez
or anybody else, ‘Hey, The Pope asked me?'” a congressional aide said.
The deal was finalized in late October in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban
teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together.
Rhodes and Zuniga met the Cubans again in December to nail down
logistics for the Dec. 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of
U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing
of 53 political prisoners.
Gilbert was aboard the plane to Cuba that would bring Gross home.
Landing at a military airfield, Gilbert met Cuban officials who had been
in charge of Gross for five years. “Many of us from both countries had
tears in our eyes,” Gilbert said.
Castro and Obama, whose Cuba policy still faces vocal opposition from
anti-Castro lawmakers, will come face to face at next month’s Western
Hemisphere summit in Panama. Aides have dared to imagine that Obama
could be the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in
“We’re in new territory here,” Rhodes said.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Anna Yukhananov, Lesley
Wroughton and Mark Hosenball in Washington, and Dan Trotta in Havana.
Editing by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings)
Source: How Obama outmaneuvered hardliners and cut a Cuba deal | Reuters