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Two months after the Kennedy administration barred Americans from any transactions with Cuba, Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev hosted Fidel Castro — who died Friday at the age of 90 — on April 27, 1963, in Castro’s first visit to the USSR.
This photo from Castro’s 40-day visit to the USSR features Khrushchev and a bunch of Soviets smiling while Castro, wearing two Rolex watches, lights up a Cuban cigar in front of a Karl Marx portrait in the Kremlin.
WASHINGTON/MIAMI — The December breakthrough that upended a half-century of U.S.-Cuba enmity has been portrayed as the fruit of 18 months of secret diplomacy.
But Reuters interviews with more than a dozen people with direct knowledge of the process reveal a longer, painstakingly cautious quest by U.S. President Barack Obama and veteran Cuba specialists to forge the historic rapprochement.
As now-overt U.S.-Cuban negotiations continue this month, Reuters also has uncovered new details of how talks began and how they stalled in late 2013 during secret sessions in Canada. Senior administration officials and others also revealed how both countries sidelined their foreign policy bureaucracies and how Obama sought the Vatican’s blessing to pacify opponents.
Obama’s opening to Havana could help restore Washington’s influence in Latin America and give him a much-needed foreign policy success.
But the stop-and-start way the outreach unfolded, with deep mistrust on both sides, illustrates the obstacles Washington and Havana face to achieving a lasting detente.
Obama was not the first Democratic president to reach out to Cuba, but his attempt took advantage of – and carefully judged – a generational shift among Cuban-Americans that greatly reduced the political risks.
In a May 2008 speech to the conservative Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami, Obama set out a new policy allowing greater travel and remittances to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, though he added he would keep the embargo in place as leverage.
“Obama understood that the policy changes he was proposing in 2008 were popular in the Cuban-American community so he was not taking a real electoral risk,” said Dan Restrepo, then Obama’s top Latin America adviser.
Six months later, Obama was validated by an unexpectedly high 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote, and in 2012 he won 48 percent – a record for a Democrat.
With his final election over, Obama instructed aides in December 2012 to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope,” recalled Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor who has played a central role in shaping Cuba policy.
Helping pave the way was an early 2013 visit to Miami by Obama’s top Latin American adviser Ricardo Zuniga. As a young specialist at the State Department he had contributed to a 2001 National Intelligence Estimate that, according to another former senior official who worked on it, marked the first such internal assessment that the economic embargo of Cuba had failed.
He met a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, and young Cuban-Americans who, according to one person present, helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo.
But the White House wasn’t certain. “I don’t think we ever reached a point where we thought we wouldn’t have to worry about the reaction in Miami,” a senior U.S. official said.
The White House quietly proposed back-channel talks to the Cubans in April 2013, after getting notice that Havana would be receptive, senior U.S. officials said.
Obama at first froze out the State Department in part due to concern that “vested interests” there were bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach, said a former senior U.S. official. Secretary of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared they might be fruitful, officials said.
Cuban President Raul Castro operated secretly too. Josefina Vidal, head of U.S. affairs at Cuba’s foreign ministry, was cut out, two Americans close to the process said. Vidal could not be reached for comment.
The meetings began in June 2013 with familiar Cuban harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes used his relative youth to volley back.
“Part of the point was ‘Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place … We want to hear and talk about the future’,” said Rhodes, 37.
“THE CUBANS WERE DUG IN”
Obama’s people-to-people Cuba strategy was complicated by one person in particular: Alan Phillip Gross.
The U.S. government had sent Gross, a USAID contractor, on risky missions to deliver communications equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community. His December 2009 arrest put Obama’s planned “new beginning” with Cuba on hold.
The secret talks were almost derailed by Havana’s steadfast demand that Obama swap the “Cuban Three,” a cell of Cuban spies convicted in Miami but considered heroes in Havana, for Gross.
Obama refused a straight trade because Washington denied Gross was a spy and the covert diplomacy stalled as 2013 ended.
Even as Obama and Castro shook hands at the Johannesburg memorial service for South African leader Nelson Mandela, the situation behind the scenes did not look very hopeful.
“The Cubans were dug in … And we did kind of get stuck on this,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes and Zuniga spent more than 70 hours negotiating with the Cubans, mostly at Canadian government facilities in Ottawa.
By late spring 2014, Gross’ friends and family grew alarmed over his physical and psychological state. The White House and the Cubans knew that if he died in prison, repairing relations would be left to another generation.
With Gross’ mother, Evelyn, dying of lung cancer, the U.S. government and his legal team launched an effort to convince the Cubans to grant him a furlough to see her.
That bid failed, despite an offer by Gross’s lawyer Scott Gilbert to sit in his jail cell as collateral.
But a turning point had occurred at a January 2014 meeting in Toronto. The Americans proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – throwing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for Washington imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, into the deal, U.S. participants said.
The White House could claim it was a true “spy swap,” giving it political cover. But it took 11 more months to seal the deal.
Castro did not immediately agree to give up Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the United States.
And Obama, stung by the outcry over his May 2014 exchange of five Taliban detainees for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, was wary of another trade perceived as lopsided, according to people close to the situation.
He weighed other options, including having the Cubans plead guilty to the charges against them and be sentenced to time served, according to the people.
Gilbert worked with the Obama administration, but urged it to move faster. From his vantage point, the turning point came in April 2014, when it became clear key Obama officials would support a full commutation of the Cuban prisoners’ sentences.
“TEARS IN OUR EYES”
The last puzzle piece slid into place at a Feb. 2014 White House meeting with lawmakers including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Sen. Dick Durbin.
Obama hammered home his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade, two people present said. Durbin, in an interview, said he “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.”
Pope Francis would bring the Catholic Church’s moral influence and his status as the first pontiff from Latin America. It was also protection against harsh critics such as Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez.
Leahy persuaded two Catholic cardinals to ask Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when he met Obama in March. The Pope did so, then wrote personal letters to Obama and Castro.
“What could be better than the president being be able to tell Menendez or anybody else, ‘Hey, The Pope asked me?’” a congressional aide said.
The deal was finalized in late October in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together.
Rhodes and Zuniga met the Cubans again in December to nail down logistics for the Dec. 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing of 53 political prisoners.
Gilbert was aboard the plane to Cuba that would bring Gross home. Landing at a military airfield, Gilbert met Cuban officials who had been in charge of Gross for five years. “Many of us from both countries had tears in our eyes,” Gilbert said.
Castro and Obama, whose Cuba policy still faces vocal opposition from anti-Castro lawmakers, will come face to face at next month’s Western Hemisphere summit in Panama. Aides have dared to imagine that Obama could be the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
“We’re in new territory here,” Rhodes said.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Anna Yukhananov, Lesley Wroughton and Mark Hosenball in Washington, and Dan Trotta in Havana. Editing by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings)
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong has affirmed the DPRK’s relations with Cuba, saying the two countries shared “excellent” bilateral ties, according to La Prensa Latina on March 17.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) wrote that Ri and an official delegation had arrived in Havana on March 15, but gave no further details as to the purpose of their visit, which coincides with negotiations between Havana and Washington on restoring diplomatic relations.
During a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cuban FM Bruno Rodriguez said he wished to further improve ties between the two countries.
“Cuba will remain invariably defending just causes and the truth and oppose any political interference and attempted manipulation internal affairs…So I reiterate the solidarity of our Communist Party, government and people,” Rodriguez told the North Korean foreign minister in comments carried by La Prensa Latina.
“Your visit will deepen our ties in the year of the 55th anniversary of our diplomatic relations,” Rodriguez added.
The North Korean FM echoed the statements, saying the two countries have were in the same trench fighting continuing U.S. imperialism.
Cuba’s remarks may appear poorly timed, given the ongoing negotiations with the U.S. over normalization, but experts are sceptical that the relationship between Cuba and North Korea will affect the talks.
“Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba do not mean that Cuba is going to become a U.S. ally. After all, the U.S. has diplomatic relations with China, Russia and many other countries which are not friendly towards the U.S.,” Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University told NK News.
“I seriously doubt (this will affect negotiations), Washington knows where Cuba stands and from the beginning, Raul (Castro) said that none of this would change Cuba’s international relations and alliances…It’s business as usual,” Jorge B. de Cárdenas, an independent Cuba analyst said.
Instead the statements from Cuba’s FM could be a method of keeping up appearances on the international stage.
“It is important for Cuba to remain defiant in the public eye, this must be seen not as an admission of the failure of Cuba’s economy but as a defeat against imperialism,” Cárdenas continued.
Despite the warm relations, North Korean media makes only sporadic mention of Cuba. Data from the NK News KCNA Watch tool shows no clear pattern in Korean media’s output on the Caribbean island country.
North Korea’s recent history with Cuba has attracted attention for many of the wrong reasons. In 2013, the DPRK vessel the Chong Chon Gang was caught smuggling a shipment of Cuban weaponry through the Panama Canal.
Speaking to NK News last year, former head of the UN Panel of Experts Martin Uden called the shipment an “in flagrante delicto violation of UN sanctions.”
More recently, another ship owned by the same management company as the Chong Chon Gang called in at Cuba on its way to Mexico. The ship was later impounded by Mexican authorities and, according to the NK News ship tracker, has yet to be released.
It was on February 7 1962 that John F Kennedy signed the US policy now known as the Cuban embargo into law. The day before, the US president had ordered an aide to buy him 1,000 Petit Upmanns cigars. It was only after Kennedy got word that his request had been carried out that he authorised the new regulations that banned Cuban imports and would have made the purchase illegal.
Today, 52 years later, Barack Obama has partially reversed that law. The changes he has made do not amount to a full repeal of the embargo – that requires an act of Congress. Nonetheless, the changes are profound. They recognise that US policy towards the island has failed to achieve its objective of change – Mr Obama is, after all, the 11th US president to face a socialist Cuba.
They recognise that the embargo has often poisoned US diplomacy in the broader region. And the changes recognise that, for over half a century, the US embargo has been emblematic of Washington’s bully-boy approach to the socialist island, which has won Cuba international sympathy that the dictatorship of the Castro brothers would otherwise not have enjoyed.
The release on December 17 from a Cuban jail of US contractor Alan Gross is the proximate cause of the change in policy that will allow, among other measures, the use of US credit and debit cards on the island. In return, three Cuban spies held in the US will be returned to the island. But momentum has been building for several years.
On the US side, the coming-of-age of younger Cuban-American voters has transformed domestic political calculations, especially in Florida. In 2000, Cuban-American voters broke three-to-one for Republicans in the presidential election. But in 2012, exit polls showed Cuban-Americans splitting 50:50.
Indeed, Cuban Americans have been among the most enthusiastic champions of engagement. Although several highly-placed Cuban-American legislators remain strong opponents of rapprochement, over 300,000 of their peers travelled to Cuba last year. They also send as much as $3.5bn annually to their relatives. Cuba’s exiles remain part of the island’s solution not, as is so often thought, part of the problem.
The island has also changed. Fidel Castro has retired. His younger brother, Raúl, has taken his place. Although there has been no reform of the political system, there is foment. There is open criticism, an incipient dissident press, and even a supposed date – 2018 – when Raúl will step down.
There have also been some economic reforms under Raúl. Home and car sales are now legal; so too is owning cell phones. Thousands of small private businesses have emerged, as well as some larger groups, arranged as cooperatives. These reforms fall far short of the economic liberalisation that Cuba’s listing Soviet-style economy needs.
But they are more than cosmetic, they are also irreversible and the new US policy seeks to encourage them further. Because Cuba’s current benefactor, Venezuela, is caught in an downward economic spiral, which has only accelerated with the drop in oil prices, any measure that seeks to encourage greater reforms may well be pushing on an open door.
What of the changes in US policy themselves? In essence, they involve removing clunky US bureaucracy from US-Cuban relations, and replacing it with the free exercise of citizen contact. Travel will be expanded. Limits on financial transfers removed.
US companies will be able top sell certain goods freely – such as telecoms equipment. Formal diplomatic relations will be re-established – although expect tougher (and also more credible) criticism of Cuban human rights abuses alongside that.
The president has also ordered a six month review of Cuba’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism”. Even the State Department no longer attempts to justify this label, which devalues Washington’s word on international terrorism issues and triggers international financial sanctions against Cuba. Removal of this last measure may prove the most valuable of all to Havana.
There is more that remains to be done before fuller US relations are established, as they have been, say, towards Vietnam. But, in the meantime, Mr Obama has done as much as he can within his executive purview – including a new rule which allows US citizens to import up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars. Much like the new policy itself, this may not be enough to buy 1,000 petit upmanns. But it is still makes for a very good smoke.
A five-page unclassified internal FBI report obtained by the Washington Free Beaconsays the Cubans have devoted “a significant amount of resources to targeting and exploiting U.S. academia.”
According to the report, the Cubans “have perfected the work of placing agents, that includes aggressively targeting U.S. universities under the assumption that a percentage of students will eventually move on to positions within the U.S. government that can provide access to information of use to the [Cuban intelligence service].
” The FBI report concludes with a warning that “[a]cademia has been and remains a key target of foreign intelligence services.”
How might Cubans appeal to academics? The answer is fairly simple.
One method is to appeal to the leftist political ideology of the academic. For instance, the FBI says, “someone who is allied with communist or leftist ideology may assist the [Cuban intelligence service] because of his/her personal beliefs.”
Some may be offered lucrative business deals with the regime once the embargo is lifted. Still others might be the target of coercive tactics that can include sexual entrapment while others may be enticed with extravagant visits to the island.
The report also says Cuban operatives “will actively exploit visitors” to the nation. Intelligence officers will come into contact with academic travelers, the FBI explained.
Agents will go so far as to “stay in the same accommodations and participate in the activities arranged for the travelers,” the report adds.
In addition to obtaining classified information and government secrets, the FBI says Cuban officials want people who will portray the country in a positive light.
They are also looking for those who can “sway policymakers into particular courses of action” through disinformation or propaganda. Sometimes, the target may not even know they are working for the communist regime.
“Some of these individuals may not be told openly that they are working for the [Cuban Intelligence Service], even though it may not be too hard for them to figure out,” the report says. “The relationship may openly appear to be a benign, mutually beneficial friendship.”
According to Chris Simmons, a retired spycatcher for the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Cubans have long targeted academics. In one example, he told the Free Beacon,
Cubans assigned six intelligence officers to help Julia E. Sweig, a Latin affairs specialist with the CFR, write a book on the Cuban revolution in 2002.
“College campuses are seen as fertile grounds for the recruitment of the ‘next generation’ of spies,” he said. “Cuba heavily targets the schools that train the best candidates for U.S. government jobs, like Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, and George Washington University.”
A post at Weasel Zippers sarcastically notes: “This must be the easiest recruitment ever since leftist American academics are already ‘influence agents’ of communist ideas.”