For Havana and Washington, rapprochement was a case of the right people being in place at the right time.

If both parties reconstruct their part of the bridge, we can shake hands without winners and losers.
– Raúl Castro, 8 April 1977, quoted in Back Channel to Cuba, p. 1.

‘We need to talk about Cuba.’ The date was 15 August 1974 – six days after Richard Nixon resigned as president of the United States. Testing out the waters with the new president Gerald Ford, secretary of state Henry Kissinger floated the idea of talks with Cuba, implying that Fidel Castro had reached out to the Americans.

The truth was that Kissinger had already been running secret communications with Castro (at that time Cuba’s prime minister) – without Nixon’s knowledge, nor that of the State Department or the National Security Council. He sent a letter to Castro through a single intermediary on 18 July 1974, laying the groundwork for secret talks in 1975 and 1976, the first direct dialogue between the two nations since January 1961 (p. 130).

Officially severed by John F. Kennedy in 1961, US–Cuban relations plumbed even lower depths in the 1970s under Nixon, who was staunchly opposed to any normalisation despite a growing sense in the US that it was time to resolve matters. Public support for the sanctions was waning – a Harris poll in spring 1973 showed that 51% of Americans favoured normalisation, with 33% opposed – and Congress was threatening to pass legislation to lift the embargo (p. 126). Kissinger began to deviate from Nixon’s hard line partly because of the diplomatic capital Washington’s Cuba policy was costing in Latin America; and after Nixon resumed relations with communist China, the American public began to feel that continuing to freeze out Cuba made no sense.

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Alexa van Sickle is a former assistant editor of Survival. She is a journalist covering international affairs and a producer for the foreign-correspondence magazine Roads & Kingdoms.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October-November 2015

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