- Secret Missions to Cuba: Fidel Castro, Benardo Benes, and Cuban Miami
In mid-1978 National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski sent his principal deputy, David Aaron, to meet in New York with one of Castro's closest aides, José Luis Padrón, who wanted to know if the United States would be willing to admit several thousand political prisoners should the Cuban government decide to release them. At the time of his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had suggested that a prisoner release would be "one indication that Cuba is seriously interested in starting a dialogue," but until now Fidel Castro had simply toyed with a response: "They like to tell us that we must release Cuban counterrevolutionary prisoners," he told a Havana audience in late 1977 ; fine, but first, he continued, Washington had to free "an equal number of U.S. blacks who had to go to jail because of the regime of exploitation, the hunger, the poverty, the discrimination and the unemployment that the United States reserves for a large part of the black population." After that, "we'll release all the counterrevolutionary prisoners who are left in Cuba."
Now Castro had apparently changed his mind. Unprepared to answer Padrón's question, Aaron returned to Washington and handed the matter over to Undersecretary of State David Newsom, the department's highest-ranking career official, who flew to New York in mid-June for an initial meeting with Padrón; then the two men met in Newsom's suburban Washington home and a third time in Atlanta. The discussions were civil and professional, the concessions were mutual, and in August 1978 the two sides reached a preliminary agreement. All of the meetings were secret.
Exactly a year earlier the Castro government had initiated talks with the Cuban exile community through Bernardo Benes, a successful Miami banker and a political moderate with ties to the Democratic Party. Aware that Benes and his business partner Carlos Dascal had been conducting their own negotiations on both the prisoners and family visits, Newsom began the first meeting with Padrón by asking that the talks be kept confidential and, "therefore, if you agree, we could communicate through Benes who is known to us and thus avoid any questions which would be raised by a direct call from you to the Department of State." Benes became the conduit between Padrón and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's principal aide, Peter Tarnoff, aka "Pedrito."
Secret Missions to Cuba is Robert Levine's fascinating report about the Benes side of these negotiations and about the parallel negotiations that focused on family visits. The report begins in mid-1977 , just months after Jimmy Carter's inauguration, when Benes was approached by the Cubans during a family vacation in Panama. It then traces the 75 trips Benes made to Cuba between 1977 and 1986 , including his 150 hours of conversations with Fidel Castro. Then, after agreement [End Page 570] had been reached on the prisoners and on family visits, Levine turns to examine the sad fate awaiting Benes and other Cuban American moderates as U.S.-Cuban relations deteriorated after mid-1978 over Cuba's role in Africa, a deterioration that accelerated dramatically during the Reagan administration, which accused the Cuban government of supporting anti-U.S. political movements in Central America. By 1986 Benes and Castro had nothing more to say to one another. At the same time, Benes came under virulent attack from hardline exiles in Miami, with protesters marching in front of his bank with signs accusing him of treason—"Benes, Agente de Fidel," read the pickets.
The interesting intellectual question is how much Benes' private negotiations contributed to the prisoner release and the family visits. Here Professor Levine did not have access to several recently declassified Carter administration documents, and were he writing today he would unquestionably give Benes a bit less of the credit. By mid-1978 President Carter had become deeply irritated by Cuba's behavior...