Obama-Castro Handshake Offered Little Hint of Secret Cuba Talks

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U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium December 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium December 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There was no hint in December 2013, when President Barack Obama shook hands with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, that something bigger was afoot between the U.S. and its Cold War nemesis.

Their encounter at a memorial service in Johannesburg for South African leader Nelson Mandela happened as Obama strode through the dignitaries’ area. While the event created media buzz, it was dismissed at the time by Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, as nothing more than a handshake.

What the world didn’t know was that secret negotiations had already been under way for months, with Obama pursuing a deal to change the most fraught diplomatic relationship in the Western Hemisphere. And the man leading the talks? Rhodes, who’s one of Obama’s most trusted aides.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said in Washington on Wednesday as he announced the rapprochement. “It’s time for a new approach.”

The move toward normalizing relations means not simply the opening of an American embassy in Havana but the easing of restrictions on limited travel and commerce that have blocked U.S. investment in the island nation and kept aficionados from legally bringing Cuban cigars to U.S. soil. The thaw was wrapped into the release of American aid worker Alan Gross and the exchange of a U.S. spy for three Cuban intelligence agents.

Secret Meetings

Obama in early 2013 authorized the senior-level talks toward restoring diplomatic relations that were severed 53 years ago, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters. He designated two White House aides -- Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, the senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council staff -- to try to work out a deal.

Initial contacts were conducted through diplomatic interest sections, maintained under Swiss auspices, and through U.S. and Cuban missions to the United Nations in New York. The effort was backed up with help from Canada and the Vatican, Obama administration officials told reporters on Wednesday.

There were about seven secret meetings between U.S. and Cuban officials starting in June 2013 in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, according to an official familiar with the talks, who asked not to be named or identified by country. While Canadian officials didn’t participate in the negotiations, Ottawa was a diplomatically attractive meeting place.

Pope Francis

“We have unbroken diplomatic relations with Cuba, friendly relations with Cuba, and very intimate and close relations with the United States,” Brian Mulroney, who was prime minister of Canada from 1984 to 1993, said in a telephone interview.

In recent months, Pope Francis appealed directly to Castro to release Gross and to Obama to free the imprisoned Cubans as a way to spur broader rapprochement. The first Latin American pontiff wrote the leaders urging them to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations,” according to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

The accord began to take final shape at an encounter between U.S. and Cuban envoys hosted by the Vatican where issues including the prisoner transfers were resolved, according to an Obama administration official.

Cuba came up in the first meeting that then-U.S. Senator John Kerry and Obama had in early 2013 to discuss the prospect of Kerry replacing Hillary Clinton as secretary of State, a State Department official said. The two men agreed that existing policy was hurting U.S. interests, the official said.

Kerry Role

Four times this summer, Kerry had unannounced phone calls with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez that focused solely on Gross’s release, according to a State Department official. In at least one, Kerry told his Cuban counterpart that if anything happened to the ailing Gross, who was detained in 2009, the island nation’s relationship with the U.S. would never improve.

The five-year standoff over Gross is just one part of long-complicated relationship with Cuba, established decades before Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

The U.S. controlled Cuba for four years following the Spanish-American War until its independence in 1902. Successive governments ruled the island until military leader and former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista seized power in 1952. His authoritarian regime fueled a rebellion led by Fidel Castro.

Expectations for democratic change after Batista fled in 1959 were dashed as Castro executed or imprisoned thousands of opponents and seized land and sugar mills owned by Cubans and Americans. His embrace of the Soviet Union established Cuba as a U.S. adversary in the escalating Cold War.

Cold War

That led President Dwight Eisenhower to impose a partial embargo on exports and sever diplomatic ties, followed by bans on travel and commercial transactions set by his successor, President John F. Kennedy. The U.S. also waged covert attempts to destabilize the government -- including at least eight assassination plots against Castro.

The agreement with Cuba toward normalizing relations is the latest twist in a pattern of shifts in U.S. embargo and travel policies, which have loosened and tightened over the decades. Even as he announced the change, Obama said Cuba still needs to make progress on human rights and economic reform.

“Today Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago,” he said. “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

‘Worst Negotiator’

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida denounced the change, calling Obama “the worst negotiator” since President Jimmy Carter, who dropped the travel ban and let Cuban-Americans travel to the island. The ban was later revived under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, while U.S. sanctions were tightened again in 1996 after two planes operated by a Cuban exile group were shot down, killing four people.

Cuba’s current desire for rapprochement with the U.S. is rooted in economic reality. Its longtime patrons, Russia and Venezuela, are being squeezed by plummeting oil prices.

Raul Castro, speaking to his nation on Wednesday at the same time Obama addressed the American public, said “the progress achieved in the exchanges we’ve had shows that it’s possible to find solutions to many problems.”

“We have to learn the art of living together with our differences in a civilized way,” Castro said in Havana.

Intelligence Agent

Obama said that Cuba was on the agenda when he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in March. The pope “played a very important role,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News, calling the pontiff “the real deal, a remarkable man.”

The Vatican, in a statement, said, “The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision” to normalize relations, “with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

Besides Gross, the accord also freed an unnamed U.S. agent who had been imprisoned in Cuba for almost 20 years. Without divulging details, Obama said the man had furnished vital information used to break up Cuban spying operations in the U.S.

He is “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba,” the president said.

Gross, a 65-year-old Maryland resident, was arrested in 2009 while working to expand Internet access for Havana’s Jewish community. Accused of undermining the Cuban state, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Corned Beef

The death in June of his mother, Evelyn, was a difficult blow, according to Gross’s wife, Judith. He had appealed to Cuban authorities for a furlough on humanitarian grounds to grant his mother’s request to see him before she died of lung cancer. He went on a hunger strike in April to protest the Cuban and U.S. governments’ failure to resolve his situation.

Cuban officials refused his request, leaving Judith Gross “extremely worried” about her husband’s psychological health.

On Wednesday morning, with the deal completed, he left Cuba aboard a U.S. government plane, and Obama called him in mid-flight to congratulate him on his freedom. Gross was joined by his lawyer, Scott Gilbert; his wife; Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, both Democrats.

On board, they’d brought along treats the aid worker hadn’t enjoyed for five years: his favorite sandwich -- corned beef on rye with mustard -- plus potato latkes and applesauce to celebrate Hanukkah, and a bowl of popcorn. As soon as they got out of Cuban airspace, he called his two daughters.

‘Best Hanukkah’

Upon arriving at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, Gross was greeted by Kerry, who happened to have returned from a trip to Europe to the base minutes after Gross’s plane landed. After welcoming Gross home, Kerry sat with the former prisoner, his friends and family in a hangar at the air base where they watched Obama’s speech on Cuba together.

In brief remarks to reporters in Washington Wednesday afternoon, Gross thanked Obama, U.S. lawmakers and Jewish organizations for pressing for his release.

“It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten,” he said. “It’s the best Hanukkah I’ll be celebrating in a long time.”

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