Carlos Lechuga was born in Cuba. He worked as a journalist. A supporter of Fidel Castro, he became Cuban Ambassador to the United Nations. He has carried out many diplomatic missions representing Cuba in numerous international forums and conferences, including the UN Committees on Human Rights, Disarmament and Racial Discrimination.
In May, 1963, Lisa Howard published an article in the journal, War and Peace Report, Howard wrote that in eight hours of private conversations with Fidel Castro he had shown a strong desire for negotiations with the United States: "In our conversations he made it quite clear that he was ready to discuss: the Soviet personnel and military hardware on Cuban soil; compensation for expropriated American lands and investments; the question of Cuba as a base for Communist subversion throughout the Hemisphere." Howard went on to urge the Kennedy administration to "send an American government official on a quiet mission to Havana to hear what Castro has to say." A country as powerful as the United States, she concluded, "has nothing to lose at a bargaining table with Fidel Castro."
William Attwood read Howard's article and on 12th September, 1963, he had a long conversation with her on the phone. This apparently set in motion a plan to initiate secret talks between the United States and Cuba. Six days later Attwood sent a memorandum to Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman and U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Attwood asked for permission to establish discreet, indirect contact with Fidel Castro.
On September 20, John F. Kennedy gave permission to authorize Attwood's direct contacts with Carlos Lechuga. According to Attwood: "I then told Miss Howard to set up the contact, that is to have a small reception at her house so that it could be done very casually, not as a formal approach by us." Howard met Lechuga at the UN on 23rd September 23. Howard invited Lechuga to come to a party at her Park Avenue apartment that night to meet Attwood.
The next day William Attwood met with Robert Kennedy in Washington and reported on the talks with Lechuga. According to Attwood the attorney general believed that a trip to Cuba would be "rather risky." It was "bound to leak and... might result in some kind of Congressional investigation." Nevertheless, he thought the matter was "worth pursuing."
On 5th November 5, McGeorge Bundy recorded that "the President was more in favor of pushing towards an opening toward Cuba than was the State Department, the idea being - well, getting them out of the Soviet fold and perhaps wiping out the Bay of Pigs and maybe getting back into normal." Bundy designated his assistant, Gordon Chase, to be Attwood's direct contact at the White House.
Attwood continued to use Lisa Howard as his contact with Fidel Castro. In October 1963, Castro told Howard that he was very keen to open negotiations with Kennedy. Castro even offered to send a plane to Mexico to pick up Kennedy's representative and fly him to a private airport near Veradero where Castro would talk to him alone.
John F. Kennedy now decided to send William Attwood to meet Castro. On 14th November, 1963, Lisa Howard conveyed this message to her Cuban contact. In an attempt to show his good will, Kennedy sent a coded message to Castro in a speech delivered on 19th November. The speech included the following passage: "Cuba had become a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics. This and this alone divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible."
Kennedy also sent a message to Fidel Castro via the French journalist Jean Daniel. According to Daniel: "Kennedy expressed some empathy for Castro's anti-Americanism, acknowledging that the United States had committed a number of sins in pre-revolutionary Cuba." Kennedy told Daniel that the trade embargo against Cuba could be lifted if Castro ended his support for left-wing movements in the Americas.
At the time of Kennedy's death, Lechuga had just received diplomatic instructions from Castro on the agenda of a potential highlevel meeting between Cuban and U.S. officials to discuss negotiations on improved relations.
In 1995 Wayne Smith, chief of the Centre for International Policy in Washington, arranged a meeting on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in Nassau, Bahamas. Others in attendance were: Gaeton Fonzi, Dick Russell, Noel Twyman, Anthony Summers, Peter Dale Scott, Jeremy Gunn, John Judge, Andy Kolis, Peter Kornbluh, Mary and Ray LaFontaine, Jim Lesar, John Newman, Alan Rogers, Russ Swickard, Ed Sherry, and Gordon Winslow.
Some high-level Cuban officials attended the conference. This included Carlos Lechuga and Fabian Escalante, a senior official in the Interior Ministry and Arturo Rodriguez, a State Security official.
Carlos Lechuga is also the author of In the Eye of the Storm: Castro, Khrushchev, Kennedy and the Missile Crisis (1995) and Cuba and the Missile Crisis: Cuba's UN Envoy Tells the Inside Story (2002).
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.
In February 1996, Robert Kennedy Jr. and his brother, Michael, traveled to Havana to meet with Fidel Castro. As a gesture of goodwill, they brought a file of formerly top secret US documents on the Kennedy administration's covert exploration of an accommodation with Cuba - a record of what might have been had not Lee Harvey Oswald, seemingly believing the president to be an implacable foe of Castro's Cuba, fired his fateful shots in Dallas. Castro thanked them for the file and shared his "impression that it was (President Kennedy's) intention after the missile crisis to change the framework" of relations between the United States and Cuba. "It's unfortunate," said Castro, that "things happened as they did, and he could not do what he wanted to do."
Would John F. Kennedy, had he lived, have been able to establish a modus vivendi with Fidel Castro? The question haunts almost 40 years of acrimonious U.S.-Cuba relations. In a Top Secret - Eyes Only memorandum written three days after the president's death, one of his White House aides, Gordon Chase, noted that "President Kennedy could have accommodated with Castro and gotten away with it with a minimum of domestic heat"--because of his track record "of being successfully nasty to Castro and the Communists" during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Castro and his advisers believed the same. A CIA intelligence report, based on a high-level Cuban source and written for National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy in 1964, noted that "Fidel Castro felt that it was possible that President Kennedy would have gone on ultimately to negotiate with Cuba... (as an) acceptance of a fait accompli for practical reasons."
The file on the Kennedy administration's "Cuban contacts" that Robert Jr. and Michael took to Cuba (declassified at the request of the author) sheds significant light on a story that has never been fully told - John Kennedy's secret pursuit of a rapprochement with Fidel Castro. Along with papers recently released pursuant to the Kennedy Assassination Records Act of 1992, the documents reveal the escalating efforts toward negotiations in 1963 that, if successful, might have changed the ensuing decades of perpetual hostility between Washington and Havana. Given the continuing state of tension with Castro's regime, this history carries an immediate relevance for present policy makers. Indeed, with the Clinton administration buffeted between increasingly vocal critics of US policy toward Cuba and powerful proponents of the status quo, reconstructing the hitherto secret record of Kennedy's efforts in the fall of 1963 to advance "the rapprochement track" with Castro is more relevant than ever.
John F. Kennedy would seem the most unlikely of presidents to seek an accommodation with Fidel Castro. His tragically abbreviated administration bore responsibility for some of the most infamous US efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution: the Bay of Pigs invasion, the trade embargo, Operation Mongoose (a US plan to destabilize the Castro government) and a series of CIA-Mafia assassination attempts against the Cuban leader. Castro's demise, Seymour M. Hersh argues in his book, The Dark Side of Camelot, "became a presidential obsession" until the end. "The top priority in the United States government - all else is secondary - no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared" is to find a "solution" to the Cuba problem, Attorney General Robert Kennedy told a high-level group of CIA and Pentagon officials in early 1962. The president's opinion, according to CIA minutes of the meeting, was that "the final chapter (on Cuba) has not been written."
Unbeknownst to all but his brother and a handful of advisers, however, in 1963 John Kennedy began pursuing an alternative script on Cuba: a secret dialogue toward an actual rapprochement with Castro. To a policy built upon "overt and covert nastiness," as Top Secret White House memoranda characterized US operations against Cuba, was added "the sweet approach," meaning the possibility of "quietly enticing Castro over to us." National Security Council officials referred to this multitrack policy as "simil-opting"--the use of disparate methods toward the goal of moving Cuba out of the Soviet orbit...
Which country initiated the secret dialogue in the fall of 1963 remains a subject of historical dispute. The feelers toward a rapprochement "originally came, one might say, from their side," testified William Attwood, the key US official involved in the subsequent talks, in a top secret deposition in 1975. In an interview, Cuba's former ambassador to the United Nations, Carlos Lechuga, insisted that "this was a Kennedy initiative, not Cuba's."
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.
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.
On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the eve of the broadcast of a new documentary film on Kennedy and Castro, the National Security Archive today posted an audio tape of the President and his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, discussing the possibility of a secret meeting in Havana with Castro. The tape, dated only seventeen days before Kennedy was shot in Dallas, records a briefing from Bundy on Castro's invitation to a US official at the United Nations, William Attwood, to come to Havana for secret talks on improving relations with Washington. The tape captures President Kennedy's approval if official US involvement could be plausibly denied.
The possibility of a meeting in Havana evolved from a shift in the President's thinking on the possibility of what declassified White House records called "an accommodation with Castro" in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Proposals from Bundy's office in the spring of 1963 called for pursuing "the sweet approach enticing Castro over to us," as a potentially more successful policy than CIA covert efforts to overthrow his regime. Top Secret White House memos record Kennedy's position that "we should start thinking along more flexible lines" and that "the president, himself, is very interested in (the prospect for negotiations)." Castro, too, appeared interested. In a May 1963 ABC News special on Cuba, Castro told correspondent Lisa Howard that he considered a rapprochement with Washington "possible if the United States government wishes it. In that case," he said, "we would be agreed to seek and find a basis" for improved relations.