When Jimmy Carter entered the White House in January 1977, United States policy on Cuba revolved around three key issues: Africa, Puerto Rico and human rights.3 Upon assuming the presidency, Carter began immediate actions to communicate with the Cuban government. He hoped to influence Fidel Castro to withdraw his troops from Africa, cease his meddling in the Puerto Rican independence movement, and release Cuba’s political prisoners. The Cuban exile community consistently attempted to influence Carter’s Cuba policy. However, by analyzing Carter’s initial steps toward normalization, the various demands of the exiles, and the shift in Carter’s policy from 1977 to 1978, it is clear that the role of the exiles was relatively insignificant. President Carter ultimately followed Cold War policy and shifting domestic demands that called for a harder line towards the Soviets; this led him to abandon normalization with Cuba.
Juanita Castro represented one segment of the spectrum of Cuban exiles that attempted to influence the Carter administration’s policy toward Cuba. Some exiles, like Juanita Castro, rejected the idea of normalization with a nation that ignored basic human rights. Other exiles that opposed normalization engaged in terrorism to protest Cuba’s human rights abuses and Carter’s normalization efforts. Cuban-Americans moderates like Miami banker Bernardo Benes4 supported normalization as a means to improve human rights conditions on the island and promote family reunification and prisoner release programs.
Carter Policy 1977
A New York Times article commented on the growing political presence of the Cuban Americans. “More and more Cuban refugees are opting for United States citizenship as the dream of a free Cuba fades,” it noted in April 1977. “Seventy-five thousand have already been naturalized. Twenty to thirty others take the oath each day.” The majority of Cubans became Democrats in the aftermath of Watergate.5 Throughout the campaign, Carter worked to bring these voters to his side, carefully avoiding the topic of normalization.6 According to historian Gaddis Smith, “there were no votes to be won, and many to be lost, by indicating friendliness toward Castro” in the campaigns. Indeed, this was a wise choice. Though many issues divided the Cuban exiles, any glimpse of leniency toward the Cuban leader would surely have lost Carter much support from within the exile community.
As a result of immigration and naturalization, Hispanic Americans became “a significant political force in a rapidly growing Florida” throughout the 1970’s.7 In July 1972, Bay of Pigs veteran Manolo Reboso became the first Cuban exile appointed to the Miami City Commission. In November 1973, Reboso became Miami’s vice-mayor, and Puerto Rican Maurice A. Ferré became the first Hispanic mayor elected in Miami.8 During the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter appointed a Cuban exile, Miami’s Bernardo Benes, as Florida Director of Hispanic Affairs.9 Also at this time, Miami exile Alfredo Durán was Florida’s Democratic State Chairman.10 (Benes and Durán would later prove instrumental in negotiating the release of three thousand Cuban political prisoners.) During his first year in office Carter named Cuban-American Mauricio Solaun a United States Ambassador to Nicaragua.11
Winning over the exiles was an important step for the Democratic president. In the 1976 elections, Carter won Dade County (the county with the nation’s largest Cuban-American population12) with 58 percent of the votes. However, in the Dade precinct with the largest Cuban population, 62 percent of the votes went to the GOP incumbent, Gerald Ford.13 As Lars Schoultz highlights, from early in his presidency, Carter’s team debated “how to use U.S. policy toward Cuba to bolster the administration’s standing among Florida’s Cuban American community.”14 This would prove difficult, however, as Carter could not hope to satisfy the demands of one spectrum of the exile community without alienating another.
In response to Juanita Castro’s letter to President Carter in May 1977, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski explained Carter’s policy as outlined in an April 14 speech to the Organization of American States:
This response reflected the early platform of Carter’s foreign policy. Jimmy Carter promised a new foreign policy based on human rights and a global community rather than an obsession with possible Soviet communist expansion.16 This would prove one of Carter’s greatest difficulties throughout his presidency, as he shifted from the moderate position promoted by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to the hard-line policies of Brzezinski.17 A former champion of Operation Mongoose under President Kennedy,18 Cyrus Vance favored a more diplomatic approach to the Castro government by the late 1970’s, telling President Carter in an October 1976 memo, “our boycott has proved ineffective.”19 Brzezinski’s point of view did not undergo such a transformation. Schoultz explains, “Brzezinski brought an exceptionally narrow Cold War perspective to nearly every policy dispute, and in the case of Cuba this approach invariably meant interpreting moves by the Castro government as evidence of Soviet intentions.”20 Indeed, the Vance-Brzezinski divide concerning Cuba bears striking similarities to the moderate-opposition divide in the exile community.
Carter immediately began moving towards improved relations with Cuba. On 24 March 1977, his administration began its first series of secret talks with the Cuban government.21 That same month, Carter lifted the 16-year ban on travel to Cuba.22 From April 25-27, the U. S. and Cuban governments engaged in the second round of secret talks, negotiating the fishing and maritime boundaries agreements (signed 27 April 1977) and discussing the possibility of opening interest sections in Washington and Havana (which would occur 1 September 1977).23 In his first nine months in office, Jimmy Carter made more significant steps toward normalization with Cuba than any president since the breaking of diplomatic relations in 1961.
The Cuban exiles that left the island as a direct result of the Cuban revolution expressed strong opinions about President Carter’s efforts to normalize relations with the government of Cuba. Referring to the exiles, Florida Congressman Lou Frey wrote Carter in July 1977 saying, “They feel they are the best testament of what Castro has done to their country and can best comment on the situation there.”24 And comment they did.
By the late 1970’s, several divisions existed among the approximately 750,00025 Cubans living in the United States, based in part on their different socioeconomic backgrounds. Upper-class Cubans who had supported Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba for fear of their own safety in the 18 months following Fidel Castro’s march into Havana. These Cubans were anti-Castro from the outset of the revolution and fled to the U. S. to wait until such a time that either fellow Cubans or the United States government removed Castro from power. Many middle-class Cubans, on the other hand, originally supported Castro’s revolution and only later became disenchanted with it; they fled the island in the years after Castro’s declaration of the socialist nature of the revolution following the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion through the Final Revolutionary Offensive of 1968 when Castro terminated all remaining forms of private enterprise in Cuba.26 A significant lower-class exodus did not occur until the Mariel Boatlift from April to September 1980.
The political opposition to the Castro government consisted mainly of those exiles that felt “betrayed” by the course of the Cuban Revolution, harboring resentment for the Cuban leader.27 During a May 1977 human rights demonstration, Dr Fernando Faraldo, Cuban exile and former Castro supporter, lamented, “We were trying to correct injustices in Cuban society and we opened our arms to Fidel and he betrayed us, our revolution, our culture, and everything we stand for.”28 The moderates came from a variety of backgrounds, and no longer held on to 1960’s resentments. These exiles desired the release of political prisoners in Cuba and the reunification of Cuban families. In April 1977 after the lifting of the travel ban, 42-year-old exile Roger Redondo told a New York Times reporter, “I fought beside Castro against Batista and then against Castro when he turned Communist. But I have stopped fighting and would like to get permission to go back to visit my family…As long as Castro is in control, I do not want to move back permanently but I would like to visit.”29
For the radical opposition, however, the willingness of the moderates to negotiate with Castro to accomplish their goals was unacceptable. Indeed, the greatest obstacle to exiles in promoting their viewpoint concerning normalization often came from within their own community.30
As normalization efforts unfolded between Washington and Havana, exiles who opposed recognizing Fidel Castro’s government expressed their disapproval. In many cases, the goal of this exile group reflected that of Carter’s own administration, especially Brzezinski. They condemned violations of human rights in Cuba and continually stressed their view of Castro as a Soviet agent. In May 1977, thirty members of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association picketed an Orlando hotel where sixteen Cuban delegates stayed during an International Citrus Symposium. The group was protesting human rights violations of the Cuban government.31 Two weeks later, another group of exiles-led this time by Juanita Castro- gathered in New Orleans to protest the voyage of the Daphne, a cruise liner filled with American citizens heading to Havana. The voyage of the Daphne, whose passenger list included Jazz musician Dizzie Gillespie (due to give a concert that week in Havana’s National Theater), marked the end of a 16-year Cuban travel ban. The protestors’ message: “The United States should not embark on a new era of trade and tourism with Cuba until all questions of human rights under Fidel Castro have been thoroughly examined.”32
Many Cuban-Americans voiced their opposition to normalization by writing to politicians or local newspapers. For instance, Clara and Humberto Rodriguez of Dallas wrote their Senator in June 1977 opposing Senator McGovern’s bill to partially lift the embargo. They wrote, “Senator McGovern’s bill benefits ONLY the Cuban government. It does not benefit the American government, the American people or the Cuban people.”33 A more strongly worded letter to the editor of the New York Times from exile Adela Lopez Ona refers to rapprochement as a “dismal goal” and finds the idea of normalizing relations with Castro “incomprehensible.” Lopez includes a critique of Carter’s policy in her letter, stating:
Lopez argues that, by negotiating with Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter would violate his human rights policy. Yet the administration insisted that human rights concerns would dominate the agenda of early talks with the Cubans.35
Carter recognized the importance of at least appearing to consider the opinions of the exiles. However, one may speculate as to the extent to which Carter genuinely considered such exile opinions. Miami’s Mayor Maurice Ferré wrote Carter on 14 February 1977 to express his disapproval of recognizing Castro’s government. The letter alludes to possible international implications if the United States were to recognize a communist government. A generic response returned to the Mayor merely states, “advancing US national interests will be the guideline for any negotiations with Cuba,” insisting Carter would consider Cuban-American opinion in making decisions regarding Cuba.36 The opinion of this exile group was clear. On 25 February 1977, Cyrus Vance had met with seven prominent members of Miami’s exile community, including three Bay of Pigs veterans and a former President of Cuba, “to discuss the Carter Administration’s policy toward the government of President Fidel Castro.”37 (This meeting was significant as it marked the first time since the mid-1960s that Cabinet-level American officials had met with members of the exile community.38) Following the meeting, Manolo Reboso revealed to a New York Times reporter, “not to recognize Castro, that was our consensus.”39 And yet, Carter began the first round of secret talks with the Cuban government and lifted the travel ban the very next month.
Perhaps the most problematic elements of the Cuban-American community throughout the normalization process were exile terrorists. In a memo to Carter following his meeting with the Cuban exile leaders, Vance revealed a possible “red flag” issue as revealed to him by Alfredo Durán:
These militant exiles, including groups like the Pedro Luís Boitel Commando, Omega 7, and El Condor, engaged in terrorist activities throughout the Carter years. The terrorists explained these acts as expressions of anti-communism, opposition to human rights abuses of the Castro government, and rejection of the processes of normalization. In an interview with Barbara Walters in May 1977, Fidel Castro insisted the embargo was partially to blame for these terrorist acts, calling it “a serious act of hostility against our country that encourages terrorism.”41 The actions of the Cuban exile terrorists may also be linked to the legacy of CIA operations in Cuba. Indeed, since the Eisenhower administration, the CIA used trained Cuban exile operatives in plots to overthrow the Castro government. While the CIA no longer sponsored such activities during Carter’s presidency, the desire to overthrow Castro remained among many of the exiles.42
Terrorist bombings continued into the Carter years in objection to policies of both Fidel Castro and Carter himself. On 25 May 1977, the Pedro Luís Boitel Commando bombed the Fort Lauderdale offices of Mackey International Airline in response to the airline’s scheduled flights to Cuba following the lifting of the travel ban.43 Another series of bombings occurred September 8 near the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C. The Pedro Luís Boitel Commando and El Condor took credit for these attacks. The Boitel Commando said they acted, “to protest Soviet support of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Cuban human rights violations and Cuban troop activities in Africa.”44
Responding to exile terrorist bombings, a New York Times article called on the United States government to take action: “The Carter administration had better accept that challenge right now and turn the full force of the government against these Cubans.”45 Carter would be forced to take a tough stance versus these terrorist activities on U.S. soil. In an August 1977 meeting with Fidel Castro, Senator Frank Church (D-ID) highlighted the differences between Carter and previous administrations, referring to President Carter as, “a religious man, a moral man, a man who will not condone terrorism.”46 Castro accepted Carter’s willingness to combat exile terrorism; that same month the State Department released a statement revealing Carter’s intention to share intelligence regarding exile terrorists with the Cuban government. A letter from Miami’s Mayor Ferré to Carter revealed “great consternation in the Miami community” concerning this decision.47
The moderate faction of the Cuban exile community focused on humanitarian concerns. Among the moderates were a number of groups dedicated to the reunification of Cuban families, as well as prominent Cuban-American Bernardo Benes (who had been active in Carter’s 1976 Presidential campaign).48 These exiles were less concerned with the political aspects of the normalization process, such as the presence of Cuban troops in Africa. They supported normalization talks as a means to achieve their primary goals of prisoner release and family reunification. For the moderates, the lifting of the travel ban was a great victory. (Yet Castro did not allow Cuban-Americans born in Cuba to travel to the island until the voyage of the Antonio Maceo Brigade49 a group of 55 exiles from 22 December 1977 to 14 January 1978.50) Removal of travel restrictions alone would not bring about a desired solution for these Cubans. Many exiles with loved ones in Cuban jails hoped the Carter administration would fight for their release. Indeed, the Cuban government did agree to release several thousand political prisoners and ex-political prisoners to the United States. However, this was primarily a result of the work of exiles like Benes, not of the Carter administration.
In an effort to get Carter’s attention, the moderates highlighted the obvious human rights issue in Cuba. Dr. Juan M. Clark of Miami-Dade Community College wrote Brzezinski in November 1977, explaining, “many of these political prisoners [in Cuba] feel abandoned by the free world, which appears concerned now only with doing business with Castro rather than promoting and exercising pressure for basic human rights in that unfortunate island.”51 A New York group of relatives of Cuban political prisoners and ex-prisoners wrote Carter:
Moderates like Benes took a more active, if not overbearing, approach to arranging the release of political prisoners. Bernardo Benes remained in close contact with members of the Carter administration and Cuban government. Beginning in January 1978, he facilitated further normalization discussions and initiation of prisoner release programs.53 Following a meeting between Benes and his business partner Charles Dascal with Cuban representatives Jose Luís Padrón and Antonio de la Guardia March 20-22 in Mexico City, Dascal wrote Brzezinski. “Long-range goals can be achieved with a sincere policy being both honest and generous. The influence of Russia can be both neutralized and a change based upon a more responsible policy developed. There is nothing more binding as express (sic) by Fidel as mutual interest.”54 Benes’s efforts continued into 1979, as he and fellow exile Alfredo Durán worked with Peter Tarnoff to receive over 5,000 released Cuban prisoners into the United States.55 This partnership between the moderate Benes and anti-Castro Durán-both active in Democratic Party politics- is extremely significant, as it reveals the parallels between the objectives of the opposition and the moderates within the exile community.56
The Carter administration understood the importance of the human rights issue for the Cuban community in the United States. A January 1978 memo from the National Security Council’s Latin America Specialist Robert Pastor to Brzezinski indicates, “with the exception of Cuban exile terrorists, the large majority of Cuban-Americans are becoming increasingly eager to normalize relations if their human rights concerns can be addressed.”57 A letter from Pastor to the wife of a political prisoner in Cuba reveals, “President Carter is disturbed over continuing reports of political prisoners in Cuba and other violations of human rights.”58 Yet it appears that the significant improvements vis-à-vis the Cuban political prisoners were primarily secured by the efforts of exiles like Benes, Dascal and Durán.59
Policy Shift: 1977/1978
As Gaddis Smith explains, public opinion quickly shifted after Carter went to Washington. In November 1976, enchanted with promises of honesty and morality in government in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, the American public had voted for little-known Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. However, Americans quickly returned to the narrow Cold War focus of past decades:
Normalization with Cuba would be an early casualty of this “rapid mutation.”
Nowhere is the shift in Carter’s foreign policy between 1977 and 1978 more evident than in the case study of the Shaba crises in Zaire in March 1977 and May 1978. Piero Gleijeses, an authority on Cuban involvement in Africa, comments that with Shaba I and Shaba II, “the difference was not in the quality of the intelligence, but in the seriousness of the threat and in the international environment.” He affirms, “[t]he US attitude towards Cuba had hardened.”62 When the second invasion of Shaba by Katangan refugees occurred on 13 May 1978, Carter had no definitive intelligence indicating Cuban involvement. On May 17, Fidel Castro sought out Lyle Lane, head of the U. S. interest section in Havana to deliver the firm message that the invasion did not have the support of the Cuban or Angolan governments. Yet hours after receiving Castro’s message, State Department Spokesman Tom Reston made an announcement accusing Cubans and Soviets of involvement with the Shaba crisis.63 The United States and Cuban governments had reached an impasse on the road to normalization.
In a May 1978 meeting between Manolo Reboso and Robert Pastor, Reboso warned Pastor not to close the interest sections in Washington and Havana over Africa. He insisted that they were beneficial to the cause of human rights.64 However, as Gleijeses notes, the second Shaba crisis “showed the limits of the U. S. President, Jimmy Carter’s, human rights policy.”65 The ball was already in motion that would bring the end to productive negotiations with Castro. On 25 May 1978, President Carter made a statement to the American public: “There is no possibility that we would see any substantial, further improvement in our relationship with Cuba as long as [Castro is] committed to this military intrusion into the international affairs of the African people.”66 The following month, the US Senate voted to close the interest sections in Havana and Washington.67 Just as Brzezinski explained, “SALT lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden,”68 so too did normalization in Shaba province.
In the end, although Jimmy Carter entertained the opinions of many Cuban exiles concerning normalization with Cuba, shifting domestic demands and international policy determined the fate of US-Cuban normalizations. While the key demands of exiles opposed to normalization were met, it was not due to their efforts. On the other hand, exile efforts to improve the human rights situation in Cuba were largely successful. “[Bernardo] Benes was involved in arranging the release of 3,000 political prisoners in Cuba, and facilitated the visits of 80,000 Cuban-Americans to Cuba during [the Carter] Administration.”69 Jimmy Carter, however, gained little from his undertakings with Cuba during his first 18 months in office. His decision to abandon normalization in an effort to assert American strength was not enough to redeem him of his many “failures” in the eyes of the American voting public. Nor did he succeed in winning over the Cuban community. In 1980, Carter received only 40 percent of the vote in Dade County.70
1. Juanita Castro personal correspondence with Jimmy Carter dated 12 May 1977. White House Central Files, Subject File-Countries: Executive Country 38. Cuba: 6/1/77-6/30/77. Jimmy Carter Library, Atlanta, Ga. (Hereafter CL)
2. Published on 26 October 2009, Ms. Castro’s newest memoir reveals her participation with the CIA in counterrevolutionary activities in Cuba for three years before entering exile in Miami via Mexico in 1964. Juanita Castro, Fidel y Raul, mis hermanos: La historia secreta (Miami: Santillana, 2009).
3. When Carter entered office there were 9 American citizens in Cuban jails as well as thousands of Cuban political prisoners. Mayor Maurice A. Ferré to President Carter. 14 February 1977. WHCF, Subject Files, Countries, Executive Country 38. 1/20/77-3/31/77. CL.
4. “By the mid-1970’s, Bernardo Benes had emerged as perhaps the major Cuban exile figure in Miami charities, as a formidable political dabbler and as a founder of a Spanish-speaking bank.” Howell Raines, “Banker is Proud of Role in Freeing Cubans,” 27 December 1978, New York Times, p. A12.
8. Miami Timeline Search. Miami Digital Archive. (Coral Gables: University of Miami Libraries). http://scholar.library.miami.edu/miamidigital/searchevents.php?keywords Accessed 16 November 2009. and “American Scene: La Saguesera: Miami’s Little Havana,” 14 October 1974. Time Magazine. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,908846,00.html. Accessed 16 November 2009.
11. John T. Woollley & Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project [online]. Santa Barbara, Ca. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=7772. Accessed 1 November 2009.
12. Of the approximately 650,000 exiles who came to the United States through Miami’s “Freedom Tower” (think Ellis Island for the exiles) from 1961-1974, about 400,000 remained in Dade County. Dorothy Gaiter, “Exiles Abandon Drive to Purchase Tower,” 9 November 1976, Miami Herald, p. 2B.
25. Concerning the figure of 750,000 Cubans in the United States: This particular statistic comes from a letter to Carter from Miami Mayor Maurica A Ferré. Other estimates from the time suggest the number may have been 600,000. The consensus indicates that the number was above a half million and less than a million. The exiles developed communities throughout the United States, but primarily in Miami, Tampa, New York, New Jersey, New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia.
26. Many of these middle-class Cubans entered the United States between 1965 and 1973 through the “Freedom Flights” program organized by President Johnson and Castro during which approximately 300,000 Cubans were granted entry to the US. (Over twice the amount of Cubans that came during the Mariel Boatlift.)
27. Used by the US government as anti-Castro propaganda in the 1960’s, the “betrayal theory” played on the sentiment felt by many middle-class Cubans who originally supported Castro financially and politically, only to have him turn his back on them.
30. According to an April 1977 New York Times article, “Political violence has become as much a part of life in Miami’s Little Havana as fried bananas and black beans.” B. Drummond Ayres. “No. 1 Topic in Little Havana: Possibility of Visiting Cuba.” 8 April 1977. New York Times. p. 10.
32. Commenting on Gillespie, one protestor’s sign read, “Jazz is fine, What about Human Rights?”
37. Present at the meeting were Bay of Pigs Veterans Ernesto Oliva, Manolo Reboso and Alfredo Durán, along with Carlos Prio Socarrás (Cuban President, 1948-1952), Andres Rivero Aguero (Cuban president-elect, 1958), Miami lawyer Alberto Carlinas, and Manuel Arques, Chairman of the Cuban-Miami Chamber of Commerce. “Vance Plans to Receive Cuban exiles Tomorrow,” 24 February 1977, New York Times, p. 6.
53. The name of the Cuban-American discussed in the document is redacted. However, given the context of the memo there is no doubt that the individual in question was Bernardo Benes. Pastor to Brzezinski. 11 January 1978. WHCF, Subject Files, Countries, Executive Country 38. 1/20/77-1/20-81. CL.
57. In this heavily-redacted memo, Pastor bases his assessment on a recent conversation with a member of the Miami community-again, likely Benes. It is important again to emphasize that the “large majority” mentioned here likely does not include the political opposition like Juanita Castro. Pastor to Brzezinski. 11 January 1978. WHCF, Subject Files, Countries, Executive Country 38. 1/20/77-1/20-81. CL.
59. The primary obstacle to Benes’s prisoner release program was not the Carter administration, but Attorney General Griffin Bell and the INS who continually hindered the process with visa restrictions and red tape. Benes & Durán memo to Phil Wise. 21 September 1979. Document not yet filed. Available only as RAC file NLC 129-9-2-1-7. Declassified April 2008. CL.
70. “1980 Presidential General Election Data Graphs-Florida, by County.” http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/index.html. Accessed 1 November 2009.