Spies, artificial insemination and the pope – how Cuba came in from the cold
Spies, artificial insemination and the pope: how Cuba came in from the cold
The restoration of US relations with the Castro regime is seen by many
as a triumph for Barack Obama. The story of how it happened is extraordinary
Sunday 26 April 2015 11.00 BST
Behind the faded doors of what once ranked among the grandest diplomatic
buildings in Washington, a team of craftsmen have flown in from Havana
to quietly restore the old Cuban embassy to its former glory.
Empty for two decades after the revolution and occupied since then by a
“Cuban interests” section that is officially part of the Swiss embassy,
the mission has been frozen in a cold war time warp as rigid and
unforgiving as its government’s relationship with the US.
Ceiling fans, dark wood panels and the even darker coffee served to
guests suggest hints of Havana. Yet the 110-year-old mansion on 16th
Street flies no flag and its half-dozen Cuban diplomats are not even
allowed US bank accounts, receiving only cash from home and rumoured
surveillance from the Americans.
But Cuba is coming in from the cold. After this month’s historic meeting
with President Raúl Castro in Panama, Barack Obama’s decision to remove
the communist government from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism
has dismantled the final barrier to normalising relations, clearing the
way to finish a secret deal that was first announced to incredulous
international onlookers in December.
To the shock, too, of some of those who work there, a rapid thaw in
diplomatic relations could soon see the Washington embassy’s formal
reopening – and by the look of the refurbished Ernest Hemingway bar,
dusted-down chandeliers and polished new ballroom floor, it will be
quite a party.
Yet as the dust settles from these tumultuous few months and both
countries look forward to an opening up of trade and tourism that could
transform both Cuba and the reputation of the US in Latin America,
several mysteries remain.
Why now, after so many years of false starts? How did negotiations that
appeared deadlocked over US demands for the unconditional release of
Cuba’s prisoner Alan Gross get resolved? Who persuaded two countries
that once brought the world to the brink of nuclear war to trust each
Partial answers began to emerge, largely from American sources, in
December. There were glimpses of backroom pressure from Pope Francis and
secret meetings in Canada, but little sense of how it all fit together,
particularly as many tracks were made in parallel by participants
sometimes unaware of each other’s progress.
Now, mounting optimism that the deal will hold has finally emboldened
those involved to reveal a fuller picture, and a shift in US attitudes
with far-reaching consequences.
A seminal moment
Though attention focused on the Cuban agreement to release Alan Gross
from Havana, interviews conducted by the Guardian with half a dozen key
players from both countries suggest the more significant concessions
came first from the Americans.
It began with a phone call from Congress to the State Department,
outlining one of the more bizarre requests in diplomatic history.
Tim Rieser, a senior aide to the Senate appropriations committee, wanted
to know if US diplomats could help arrange for the collection of frozen
sperm from a Cuban spy locked up in the desert outside Los Angeles, so
it could be sent to a Panama clinic to inseminate his wife.
The spy in question, Gerardo Hernández, had been sentenced to two life
terms for his role in a Miami espionage ring. His government claimed it
was aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on Cuban soil, but it led to
him being convicted of conspiracy to commit murder after the shooting
down of two planes operated by a Cuban-American group that Hernández had
The “Cuban Five”, as the spies were quickly dubbed, were better known
than Alan Gross – a State Department subcontractor who was imprisoned
after he was caught supplying telecommunications equipment to groups in
Havana – and their treatment was a major source of grievance long before
Gross became a US cause célèbre.
During a peace-making trip to Cuba with his wife in February 2013, US
senator Patrick Leahy – Rieser’s boss and a longtime advocate of
rapprochement – was approached by Hernández’s 44-year-old wife, Adriana
Pérez, with a very personal plea. Pérez was worried that she and her
husband would never be able to have children if he stayed in US prison
A sympathetic Leahy saw a chance to turn a humanitarian gesture into
something that could also help improve prison conditions for Gross, who
had severe health problems, and the senator asked his aide to raise the
matter with US officials.
“I asked the Bureau of Prisons about artificial insemination, and they
were able to tell me that there was at least one case they were aware of
when that had been done,” recalls Rieser, whose earlier suggestion of a
conjugal visit was rejected.
“I didn’t get into the logistics. My job was to find out if there was
precedent for this and to encourage the State Department and the Justice
Department to explore it, knowing that it could potentially help Alan at
a time when Senator Leahy was trying to improve the way both governments
dealt with each other.”
Washington’s willingness to help, an unusual step that – after one
failed attempt – eventually led to the birth of baby Gema Hernández, was
the first clue that within a year US officials would be prepared to
drastically relax their view of the prisoners still further.
“The breakthrough, in my view, was in April of 2014, when key officials
in the administration for the first time agreed that not only did the
Cuban Five issue need to be addressed, but that commutation of the Cuban
Five sentences was appropriate and would be supported,” says Scott
Gilbert, lawyer for Alan Gross.
“If there is a watershed moment, this was it, because I knew there was
no possibility of a deal being done otherwise.”
Tim Rieser agrees: “Had we not been able to show [the administration]
and help them recognise that the cases of the Cuban Five were flawed –
that they had already served 17 years and some resolution of those cases
was necessary to get Alan Gross out and to get to a new policy – if
Senator Leahy hadn’t convinced them of that, then we would not be where
we are today.”
Cuban sources also confirm that Leahy’s early move to ease prisoner
conditions was seen in Havana as a vital first step in restoring trust.
Without doubt, it helped pave the way for the next stage: secret talks
that began soon afterwards in Ottawa.
‘Very businesslike discussions’
The pair of White House officials dispatched in June 2013 to meet the
Cubans in the relatively neutral territory of a ceremonial building in
the Canadian capital were nonetheless still viewed with suspicion.
The more senior of the two, deputy national security adviser and Obama
confidant Ben Rhodes, brought credibility: proof of a direct channel
back to the Oval Office.
But the other, Ricardo Zúñiga, the national security council’s senior
director for western hemisphere affairs, had a more troubling
background, as far as some Cubans were concerned.
Born in Honduras to a family of prominent conservatives, Zúñiga had
spent time in Havana as a human rights specialist at the US diplomatic
mission and was suspected of attempts to undermine the regime.
“Zúñiga is a traveling salesman, distributing the most backward,
anti-Cuban ideas wherever he lands,” wrote the state-run newspaper
Granma when he was put in charge of White House relations with the
country in 2012.
Despite this legacy, Zúñiga’s expertise gradually helped win respect,
and the secret group made steady, if slow, progress at the start of what
proved to be seven meetings in total, including one in Toronto.
“These were very businesslike discussions,” says one White House
official. “They were not invective-filled. We had very different points
of view and talked about our differences very openly … We tried to keep
this as pragmatic as we could.”
It helped that neither the US State Department nor the Cuban foreign
ministry, let alone anyone outside government, was aware of just what a
major reset of US policy in the region was being attempted.
“These were off the beaten path in areas that the Canadian government
helped set up in a discreet location away from public eye,” adds the
White House official. “We wanted to do something that was going to
remove this as a point of friction in our relationship with the Americas.”
By December 2013, in what was the only sign of progress visible to the
outside world, Obama and Castro acknowledged their newfound respect by
shaking at hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in Soweto.
Yet something was still missing. Those close to him say Obama was keen
to do a deal but did not feel compelled, or sure it would survive an
inevitable assault from Congress.
Two men helped change that: the Pope and Alan Gross.
‘The pope and the president spoke at length’
The Vatican had long been keen to help restore Cuba to the international
fold, particularly since the inauguration of reform-minded Argentinian
pontiff Pope Francis in March 2013.
Ahead of a planned meeting with Obama a year later in Rome, it was far
from clear that the issue of Cuba was going to come up, however.
Boston cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, once a contender for the papacy
himself and a close ally of Francis, had been asked to recommend
suggested discussion topics for the Vatican to raise with Obama. He is
said to have confided later that Cuba was not initially on his list.
But several sympathetic Americans believed that support from the Vatican
could be vital in helping Obama overcome political resistance and
persuaded O’Malley to write a second memo to the pope suggesting he
bring it up.
One of these supporters was Tim Phillips, a Boston-based expert in
conflict resolution who had been holding meetings with with Cuban
Americans in Florida that gave him confidence change was possible.
“There was a shift going on in Miami,” says Phillips, whose group,
Beyond Conflict, arranged for local community leaders to meet speakers
from South Africa and East Germany who shared their experiences of
“The older generation was passing away. There was a new generation who
weren’t born in Cuba who don’t have that same anger and attachment.
Later generations of Cuban exiles came for economic, not political
reasons, so they had a different mindset.”
Briefed on this by Philips and encouraged by a letter via Rieser from
Senator Leahy, Cardinal O’Malley succeeded in getting the issue on to
the Pope’s agenda for Obama.
“That was actually a really important meeting,” confirms a White House
official. “We knew in general terms that the pope was supportive of an
effort along these lines. At that meeting, the president was able to say
we were trying to do something. The pope and the president spoke at
length for most of an hour; it was a broad-ranging conversation, but
Cuba featured heavily.”
After further letters of encouragement from the Pope, an even more
significant meeting was hosted by the Vatican in October 2014, for the
two delegations to finalise the deal they had been hammering out in Canada.
“The contrast between Ottawa and Rome was pretty remarkable,” adds the
administration official. “When we did this meeting at the Vatican, there
were portraits of past popes all around us. It was very ornate. It felt
‘Alan became an involuntary catalyst’
Though theories differ on the relative contributions of Pope Francis and
Alan Gross, there was no doubt that when Obama returned to Washington
there was a newfound urgency and a recognition that the US had to give
something up if it wanted to secure the release of the increasingly
unwell State Department contractor.
The change of heart by the White House was also driven by deepening
concern about whether Gross would survive much longer in captivity,
especially after he went on hunger strike in 2014.
“Everyone was keenly aware that Alan had vowed he would not see his 66th
birthday in 2015. This created a limited time window in which to get a
deal done,” says Gilbert.
“Alan’s perspective, which was quite rational, was that he had served
five years of a 15-year sentence and had no objective basis to believe
he wasn’t going to have to serve the remaining 10, which he was
unwilling to do.”
A decision by worried Cuban authorities to move Gross to a military
hospital only worsened the problem, according to his US supporters.
He lost more than 110lbs in captivity, suffered from hip problems that
made it difficult to walk or stand up, had a problem with his eyes and
lost five teeth from suspected nutrition issues.
Gross’s arrest had helped choke off earlier progress in talks with the
Obama administration. And yet without the prospect of a prisoner
exchange to drive negotiations forward, it is possible that Cuba and the
US may never have resolved their differences.
“Alan [Gross] became an involuntary catalyst in the decision to change
the policy,” concludes Rieser. “It was clear the Cubans were using Alan
Gross as a bargaining chip for their own prisoners. And like it or not,
we had to face that.”
Those who secured his release believe the key was indeed a recognition
from Washington that it could no longer simply make demands on Cuba; it
needed to offer the country’s communist leadership a way to evolve with
“This has probably been the most dysfunctional relationship between two
states in world history: the level of emotional and historical baggage
borne by both countries is staggering,” concludes Gilbert.
“I first sat down with the Cubans nearly four years ago and asked them
to identify the one key thing they wanted from the United States, and
they immediately said ‘respect’.”
The successful conclusion to one of the Cold War’s most intractable
stand-offs suggests they finally got it.
The US-Cuba thaw: a timeline
December 2009: Alan Gross arrested
February 2013: Senator Patrick Leahy approached in Havana by wife of
imprisoned Cuban spy
June 2013: US and Cuba begin secret talks in Canada
December 2013: Obama and Raúl Castro shake hands in Soweto
March 2014: Obama meets Pope Francis at Vatican
October 2014: Vatican hosts final meeting of two delegations
16 December 2014: Obama calls Castro to finalise negotiations
17 December 2014: Two leaders announce deal in televised addresses
April 2015: Obama moves to remove Cuba from state terror list
Source: Spies, artificial insemination and the pope: how Cuba came in
from the cold | World news | The Guardian –