Jean Daniel Bensaid
On 24th October, 1963, Ben Bradlee of Newsweek arranged for Daniel to meet President John F. Kennedy. Bradlee knew that Daniel was just about to visit Cuba in order to interview Fidel Castro. In an article in the New Republic, Daniel claims that Kennedy asked him to pass on a message to Castro: "I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my countrys policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. I believe that the accumulation of these mistakes has jeopardized all of Latin America. The great aim of the Alliance for Progress is to reverse this unfortunate policy. This is one of the most, if not the most, important problems in America foreign policy. I can assure you that I have understood the Cubans. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries.
John F. Kennedy went onto to tell Daniel: "We cant let Communist subversion win in the other Latin American countries. Two dikes are needed to contain Soviet expansion: the blockade on the one hand, a tremendous effort toward progress on the other. This is the problem in a nutshell. Both battles are equally difficult... The continuation of the blockade depends on the continuation of subversive activities.
Daniel later wrote: "I did not really wish to suggest anything, since I had never been to Cuba and, on the other hand, I had heard from all sides tales of the privations the Cuban people were suffering owing to their isolated economic situation. But I could see plainly that John Kennedy had doubts, and was seeking a way out."
Daniel met Fidel Castro on 19th November, 1963. Daniel later described Castro as listening with "devouring and passionate interest". He made Daniel repeat three times Kennedy's indictment of Fulgencio Batista. Castro told Daniel that Kennedy could become "the greatest president of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas."
Daniel was with Castro when news arrived that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated Castro turned to Daniel and said:"This is an end to your mission of peace. Everything is changed." Later Castro commented: "Now they will have to find the assassin quickly, but very quickly, otherwise, you watch and see, I know them, they will try to put the blame on us for this thing."
Castro went on to discuss the use of assassination as a political weapon. In the late 1950s e had rejected the idea of assassinating Fulgencio Batista. "I have always been violently opposed to such methods. First of all from the viewpoint of political self-interest, because so far as Cuba is concerned, if Batista had been killed he would have been replaced by some military figure who would have tried to make the revolutionists pay for the martyrdom of the dictator. But I was also opposed to it on personal grounds; assassination is repellent to me."
In 1964 Daniel left L’ Express with several other journalists, including André Gorz, to establish Le Nouvel Observateur, a weekly news magazine. In 1982 he helped establish the Saint-Simon Foundation think-tank.
(1) Carlos Lechuga, Cuban Officials and JFK Historians Conference (7th December, 1995)
He (Daniel) spoke with Kennedy. He wanted to speak of Vietnam. Kennedy didn't want to talk about Vietnam. He wanted to talk about Cuba and nothing else. He (Daniel) went and spoke with Castro and asked him: "How do you feel about the Missile Crisis?" during this conversation is when they heard on the radio that Kennedy was assassinated. Fidel in talking at a 1992 conference, said that he had thought Daniel was serving as a messenger of Kennedy. And he thought that Kennedy was capable and willing of changing his policies. He was popular. He was in good position to make such a decision to change his policies.
Kennedy speaking through McGeorge Bundy said there should be an agenda for dialogue with Cuba. Of course I sent all the information of these conversations with Attwood to Havana. In Havana, the responses were delayed. According to Attwood's perception, the responses were very slow. He wanted to accelerate the process somewhat. Havana was moving too slowly. And at this moment, without his knowledge, Lisa Howard called Cuba and spoke with Commandante Vallejo, who was the assistant to Fidel Castro. In order to try and accelerate the process. She had known him in Cuba before. To try to take advantage of her friendship with him, in order to try to get a quicker response from the Cubans. In November, Vallejo was contacted Lechuga and told me they are working on the agenda. But the agenda never really arrived because they killed Kennedy. Attwood said that JFK said through somebody, maybe McGeorge Bundy, that Kennedy had left a note for himself on his desk that upon his return from Dallas to contact Attwood to find out how the Cuban initiative was going... They were discussing, considering the questions. Considering formulating agenda. Then they killed Kennedy.
(2) Kennedy and Castro, Discovery Times (November, 2003)
Jean Daniel went to Cuba to interview Castro and pass along Kennedy's message. On Nov. 22, the reporter and the Cuban leader met at Castro's beach house in Varadero.
Even for a leader who has been known to give daylong speeches, Castro was unusually loquacious. In the middle of lunch, however, Castro received a phone call that changed the course of U.S.-Cuban history.
"He has been seriously wounded," Castro told Daniel. The reporter didn't realize at first that Castro was talking about John F. Kennedy, who just had been shot fatally in Dallas by a sniper. After a silence, Castro spoke. "This is terrible," he said. "They are going to say we did it... "
(3) The Miami Herald (August, 1999)
It was March 1963, the height of the Cold War - a time of covert US government assassination plots against Fidel Castro, Kennedy administration-sponsored exile raids and sabotage missions directed at Cuba.
It was also a time when Castro - still smarting from Moscow's failure to consult him about the withdrawal of missiles from the island in 1962 - was sending feelers to Washington about Cuba's interest in rapprochement.
President John F. Kennedy responded by overruling the State Department's position that Cuba break its ties with Soviet bloc nations as a precondition for talks on normal relations, according to an account to be published this week in the October issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine.
"The President himself is very interested in this one,'' says a March 1963 top-secret White House memo. ``The President does not agree that we should make the breaking of Sino-Soviet ties a non-negotiable point. We don't want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines.''
The article, JFK and Castro: The Secret Quest for Accommodation, is based on recently declassified documents and written by Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institute. It traces the secret U.S.-Cuban contacts during the last months of the Kennedy administration and into the Johnson administration.
Although the general outlines of the contacts have been known, the account adds considerable detail, particularly the key role played by the late ABC correspondent Lisa Howard, who interviewed Castro in April 1963.
In addition to Howard, key players were McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' national security advisor, his assistant Gordon Chase and William Attwood, former Look magazine editor who at the time was an advisor to the US mission at the United Nations.
On the Cuban side, the principal players were Carlos Lechuga, Cuba's UN ambassador, and Rene Vallejo, Castro's personal physician.
Initial overtures from Castro to Washington in late 1962 had been made through New York lawyer James Donovan, who had been enlisted by the Kennedy administration to negotiate the release of Bay of Pigs prisoners.
Efforts at normalization languished, however, until the involvement of Howard and Attwood started to bear fruit in the latter part of 1963.
In September, Attwood was authorized to have direct contacts with Lechuga, which were arranged by Howard at a Sept. 23 reception in her New York apartment. Attwood was to subsequently confer with Vallejo by telephone from Howard's apartment or she would relay messages between the two.
At one point, Vallejo conveyed a message to Attwood through Howard that said, "Castro would like to talk to the US official anytime and appreciates the importance of discretion to all concerned. Castro would therefore be willing to send a plane to Mexico to pick up the official and fly him to a private airport near Varadero where Castro would talk to him alone. The plane would fly him back immediately.''
The invitation touched off a debate within the White House, with President Kennedy's position being that "it did not seem practicable'' to send an American official to Cuba "at this stage.''
Even so, the contacts continued to gain momentum until Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, when the "Attwood-Lechuga tie line'' was put on hold, with White House aides concerned that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald's reported pro-Castro sympathies would make an accommodation more difficult.
The back-channel contacts continued under President Lyndon Johnson through 1964, according to Kornbluh, but fizzled out in late 1964 as the fall presidential elections approached, despite ongoing efforts by Howard to keep them alive.
In December 1964, Howard made her final and unsuccessful effort by trying to arrange a meeting in New York between US officials and Ernesto "Che'' Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary.
(4) Julian Borger, The Guardian (26th November, 2003)
A few days before his assassination, President Kennedy was planning a meeting with Cuban officials to negotiate the normalisation of relations with Fidel Castro, according to a newly declassified tape and White House documents.
The rapprochement was cut off in Dallas 40 years ago this week by Lee Harvey Oswald, who appears to have believed he was assassinating the president in the interests of the Cuban revolution.
But the new evidence suggests that Castro saw Kennedy's killing as a setback. He tried to restart a dialogue with the next administration, but Lyndon Johnson was at first too concerned about appearing soft on communism and later too distracted by Vietnam to respond.
A later attempt to restore normal relations by President Carter was defeated by a rightwing backlash, and since then any move towards lifting the Cuban trade embargo has been opposed by Cuban exile groups, who wield disproportionate political power from Florida.
Peter Kornbluh, a researcher at Washington's National Security Archives who has reviewed the new evidence, said: "It shows that the whole history of US-Cuban relations might have been quite different if Kennedy had not been assassinated."
Castro and Kennedy's tentative flirtation came at a time of extraordinary acrimony in the wake of US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles and the missile crisis which led the world to the brink of nuclear war.
It began with a secret and highly unorthodox dialogue conducted through an intrepid journalist and former soap-opera actor and involved plans to fly a US diplomat from Mexico to Cuba for a clandestine face-to-face meeting with Castro alone in an aircraft hangar.
On a newly declassified Oval Office audiotape, recorded only 17 days before the assassination, Kennedy can be heard discussing the option with his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy.
The president agrees in principle to send an American diplomat, Bill Attwood, who had once interviewed Castro during a former career as a journalist, but he fretted that news of the secret mission would leak out. At one point Kennedy asks: "Can't we get Mr Attwood off the payroll?" If the diplomat was no longer on staff the whole trip would be deniable if it came to light.
Kennedy had been thinking about reopening relations with Havana since spring that year.
The key intermediary was Lisa Howard, an actor who had become a leading television journalist when she managed to land an interview with the Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev.
In April 1963, she scored another coup - an interview with Castro, and returned with a message for the Kennedy administration, that the Cuban leader was anxious to talk. The message launched a frantic period of diplomacy, recounted in a television documentary broadcast last night on the Discovery Times channel, entitled "A President, A Revolutionary, A Reporter".
The president was receptive. The CIA was pursuing various schemes aimed at assassinating or undermining Castro, but Kennedy's aides were increasingly convinced Havana could be weaned away from Moscow.
In one memorandum a senior White House aide, Gordon Chase, says: "We have not yet looked seriously at the other side of the coin - quietly enticing Castro over to us," instead of looking at ways to hurt him.
According to Mr Bundy, Kennedy "was more in favour of pushing towards an opening toward Cuba than was the state department, the idea being... getting them out of the Soviet fold and perhaps wiping out the Bay of Pigs and getting back to normal".
The administration gave a nod to Ms Howard, who set up a chance meeting between Mr Attwood and the Cuban ambassador to the UN, Carlos Lechuga, at a cocktail party in her Park Avenue apartment.
The apartment then became a communications centre between Mr Attwood and the Castro regime. Castro's aide, Dr Rene Vallejo, called at pre-arranged times to talk to Mr Attwood, and in the autumn of 1963 suggested that Mr Attwood fly to Mexico from where he would be picked up by a plane sent by Castro. The plane would take him to a private airport near Veradero, Cuba, where the Cuban leader would talk to him alone in a hangar. He would be flown back after the talks.
Kennedy and Bundy discuss the plan on the tape on November 5. The national security adviser does much of the talking but the president is clearly worried that the trip will be leaked. First he suggests taking Mr Attwood off the state department payroll, but later he decided even that was too risky. Instead, he suggested DR Vallejo fly to the UN for a confidential meeting to discuss the agenda of direct talks with Castro.
The plan, however, was sunk by the assassination. Ms Howard continued to bring messages back to Washington from Castro, in which the Cuban leader expresses his support for President Johnson's 1964 election and even offers to turn the other cheek if the new US leader wanted to indulge in some electoral Cuba-bashing. But the Johnson White House was far more cautious. The new president did not have the cold war credentials of having faced down the Soviet Union over the Cuban missile crisis. The moment had passed.
© John Simkin, March 2013