Secret talks in Canada, Vatican City led to Cuba breakthrough
WASHINGTON - The historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations began in spring 2013, when President Barack Obama authorized secret talks with Cuba, the same tactic he used to open nuclear negotiations with Iran.
WASHINGTON – The historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations began in spring 2013, when President Barack Obama authorized secret talks with Cuba, the same tactic he used to open nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Months of talks in Canada and at the Vatican, involving one of Obama’s closest aides, culminated on Tuesday, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro spoke by phone for nearly an hour and gave final assent to steps that could end a half-century of enmity and reshape Western Hemisphere relations.
Obama believed that “if there is any U.S. foreign policy that has passed its expiration date, it is the U.S.-Cuba policy,” said a senior Obama administration official, briefing reporters.
The official said that Pope Francis played a key role in the rapprochement between Washington and the last bastion of communism in the Western world. In early summer 2014, the pontiff – who is from Argentina – sent separate personal letters to Obama and Castro, urging them to exchange captives and to improve relations.
When the pope received the U.S. president in Vatican City in late March, the secret Cuba talks were a central topic of discussion. Cuba “got as much attention as anything else,” the official said.
“The Vatican played a significant role,” Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told Reuters. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, also took part in the diplomacy, Durbin said.
The secret talks, U.S. officials said, were coordinated via diplomatic Interests Sections – short of full embassies – that the two sides maintain in each others’ capitals, as well as Cuba’s mission to the United Nations.
Secretary of State John Kerry also made four calls to Cuba’s foreign minister over the summer of 2014, calls that were focused exclusively on the fate of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba, a second senior U.S. official said.
The first face-to-face talks on a prisoner swap and re-establishing diplomatic ties took place in June 2013 in Canada, which has long maintained relations with Cuba.
Leading the U.S. delegation at the meetings in Canada and at Vatican City were Ben Rhodes, a close Obama aide who is a deputy national security adviser, and Ricardo Zuniga, the top Latin American specialist on the White House’s National Security Council.
The names of the Cuban participants in the talks could not immediately be learned.
The secret discussions directly addressed points of friction, the U.S. official said.
The Cubans made it clear they opposed U.S. pro-democracy programs in Cuba, which Havana has long viewed as a thinly disguised attempt to overthrow its socialist system. The Americans, however, said they would not end those programs.
The U.S. side, the senior official said, insisted that Cuba release an unidentified spy who had been working for Washington and had helped U.S. officials uncover and prosecute Cuban spies in the United States.
That individual, who U.S. officials declined to name, did “heroic work for the United States at great risk to himself ... and he’s been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years,” the senior official said. Reuters could not immediately identify that individual.
Washington also insisted that Gross’s release not be part of any spy swap, underscoring how the United States has rejected Havana’s allegations that Gross was an intelligence agent.
The United States released three Cuban intelligence agents who had served 16 years in U.S. jails as part of the bid to normalize relations, however.
The transfer of prisoners was finalized at a key meeting at the Vatican, the date of which is unclear, the first senior official said, clearing the way for the deal Obama and Castro signed off on Tuesday and announced on Wednesday.