Commentary Magazine


The Closest of Enemies, by Wayne S. Smith

Washington vs. Havana

The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic History of the Castro Years.
by Wayne S. Smith.
Norton. 308 pp. $19.95.

Over the past three or four years Wayne Smith has become one of the most visible and active critics of the Reagan administration’s policy in Latin America. His notoriety began in 1982, when, having recently retired from the diplomatic service, he wrote an article accusing the U.S. government of willfully turning aside repeated Cuban overtures to negotiate our differences; this was an allegation which, in the overheated environment surrounding the conflict in El Salvador, was bound to be front-page news. Since then Smith has made frequent appearances on television, in the op-ed sections of the prestige press, and from the forum he now enjoys as head of the Cuban studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. The ongoing debate over Nicaragua has given continuing relevance to his views.

In many ways Smith is uniquely equipped to discuss these matters. He holds a Ph.D. from Columbia; he has written extensively on Argentina, where he served as political counselor of the U.S. embassy during the early 1970′s; and he has served in the Soviet Union as well as in Cuba. His first post in the diplomatic service was, in fact, Havana, as third secretary of the U.S. embassy in the last days of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and up to the break in relations with Castro in 1961; in the mid-1970′s he was director of Cuban affairs in the State Department; his final assignment before retirement was in situ as chief of the U.S. “interests section” in the Cuban capital, housed in a large building which was formerly our embassy there.

The Closest of Enemies purports to be a history of those years—from the particular vantage point of a privileged witness and participant but also from that of an interested academic reviewing the record. Actually, it is a more deeply personal book than this would suggest—something of a spiritual autobiography, revealing its author from a number of different angles as a man of wit, charm, and considerable intellectual force, but also as peevish, vain, embittered, and strangely alienated from his own country, its interests, and its deepest values.

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It is difficult to summarize the argument of The Closest of Enemies without seeming to indulge in grotesque caricature. But it is no exaggeration to epitomize Smith’s views thus: everything that has happened in U.S.-Cuban relations since at least 1957—and I do mean everything—is the fault of successive American administrations, including very specifically the Carter administration. The few things that the Cubans have done wrong, or might seem to have done wrong, are our fault, too. Smith attributes to the United States not merely the tragic course of Cuban-American relations, but the turn of events within Cuba itself, including the human-rights situation there. By clever innuendo he strongly insinuates that Washington was responsible for Cuban intervention in Ethiopia and Angola, and even for Cuba’s UN vote in favor of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan!

There are two ways to deal with a book of this sort, and I shall try, briefly, to do both. The first is to focus on the author’s general approach to his subject; the second is to focus on the factual treatment of specific issues. With regard to the general approach, the reader immediately notes a curious asymmetry in Smith’s treatment of the U.S. and Cuban governments. As an insider in various administrations, Smith was privy to all of the confusion, bureaucratic infighting, and indecision which are characteristic of the foreign policies of democratic countries. Smith bores in mercilessly on any ambiguities in U.S. policy, for these presumably justify Cuban reticence, suspicion, or hostility. By contrast, Cuba itself, a totalitarian dictatorship viewed from the outside, always seems to reflect a more coherent view.

Another, more serious asymmetry lies in Smith’s comparison of U.S. actions with Cuban expressed intentions-. Thus, when the U.S. does something of which Smith disapproves, this justifies in his eyes the most luxuriant Cuban suspicions of us, and it is time for a vigorous round of self-flagellation. When, however, Cuban actions cast an unfavorable light on Castro’s good faith, that also is the fault of the United States, which in some way has driven him to do what he did; and therefore it is time, once again, for more self-flagellation. After a while, any but the most determinedly masochistic reader must begin to rebel.

The real problem, however, has to do with Smith’s notion of the acceptable threshold for U.S. Cuban policy. His view, stated simply, is that Cuba is bound to do all of the things it does at home and abroad, in conjunction with or apart from the Soviet Union, and that the U.S. has no legitimate right to regard these as an obstacle to normalization of relations. If we do, we are the ones to blame for the estrangement. Moreover, relations are a positive good in and of themselves, since they are “likely to accomplish relatively more . . . than pushing . . . to confrontation, and more by reducing tension than increasing it.”

This is surely the view of the Cuban government itself—and why not? The normalization of relations would satisfy Castro’s ambitions to play a great-power role, it would result in a lifting of the trade embargo and other inconveniences, and it would help reduce the United States to a post-imperial power. But one ends the book still wondering why this should be the view of serious people in the United States or of any of our Foreign Service officers, active or retired—unless, of course, the sole and unique purpose of foreign policy is to maintain good relations with all governments no matter what they do, or with whom.

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But the problem with this book is not merely philosophical but factual. For one thing, it is full of what Argentines like to call “interesting omissions.” For example, there is nothing here at all about Castro’s role in the unification of guerrilla forces in El Salvador, or armed assistance to the Sandinistas in the final days of the civil war in Nicaragua. The discussion of Maurice Bishop’s Grenada is written as if the thousands of devastatingly revealing documents uncovered by the invasion force had never been published. There is a mean-spirited reference to the bruising Senate debate over aid to the new Nicaraguan government in 1980, but no information whatsoever concerning the amount of the aid (over $100 million), much less concerning the way the Sandinistas proved oblivious to such blandishments. There is no mention of the visit of Assistant Secretary Thomas Enders to Managua in 1982 and of the refusal of the Sandinistas to discuss seriously his proposals for coexistence.

For another thing, much of what Smith claims to know of the inner history of U.S.-Cuban relations is only superficially authoritative. He was not present—though, arguably, he should have been—at the meeting between Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez and Secretary of State Alexander Haig in Mexico City in 1981, or at a subsequent meeting between Ambassador Vernon Walters and Castro, and he seems to know of those events only what his Cuban colleagues have told him.

For still another thing, this book is rather disingenuous in its treatment of chronology, particularly in the chapters dealing with Cuban policy in Africa. Though President Carter was seriously interested in normalizing relations with Cuba, early in his administration he made it clear in various statements, both public and private, that any expansion of Castro’s military activity overseas anywhere in the world would undermine the process. When the Cuban dictator decided that his priorities lay elsewhere, the détente came to an end. Smith acts as if the Carter people—or rather, Carter’s National Security Council—somehow broke faith with their Cuban counterparts, as if there were nothing strange at all in Castro’s shipping an army halfway around the world to fight under a Soviet general.

Let us see how Smith operates in the particular case of Angola. At the time of the Portuguese revolution of 1974 there were three factions fighting for independence in Angola: Holden Roberto’s FNLA, broadly speaking pro-Western; Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA, then funded by the People’s Republic of China; and the MPLA, supported by the Soviets. According to Smith, the so-called Alvor agreement, concluded among the three groups in Portugal in January 1975,

offered the best hope that Angola’s transition from colony to nation might be accomplished without a civil war and without major outside foreign intervention. . . . Incredibly, the Ford administration . . . did not even wait a decent interval to see if the agreement might work; only days after the Alvor agreement had been signed, the NSC’s 40 Committee (which oversees clandestine CIA operations), authorized some 1300,000 in covert aid to Holden Roberto. Nor had the U.S. encouraged Roberto to act because of some aggressive move by the MPLA. Quite the contrary . . . both the MPLA and the UNITA had given evidence of intending to honor the Alvor agreement.

Thus, Smith concludes, “The U.S., far from seeking peaceful solutions, had been instrumental in starting the final round of the fighting.”

What is missing here? The following facts: that the approval of $300,000 for the FNLA came on January 26, 1975. Its purpose was to make the FNLA competitive in the transitional government; that is, it was intended for political as opposed to military purposes. On February 14, scarcely two weeks later—and surely before the money from the U.S. could be disbursed, much less become evident on the ground—a military delegation from Cuba arrived from the Congo; on March 11-15, Soviet weapons were delivered to the MPLA, causing protests from the presidents of Nigeria, Tanzania, Egypt, and the Sudan, and during the rest of the month Cuban and Soviet military advisers arrived to assist their allies. On July 16, 1975—four months later—President Ford approved a $6 million fund for covert military action in Angola. A similar critique could be made of Smith’s discussion of Cuban and Soviet intervention in Ethiopia.

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The most outrageous part of the book, however, deals with refugee policy. “The Reagan administration,” Smith writes, “brought about the release of not a single political prisoner; it refused to divide united families by providing immigrant visas to the spouses and children of Cubans already legally resident in the U.S.; and worst of all, it turned its back on former political prisoners.”

Thus the President and his associates are seen not merely as intransigent ideologues but as hypocrites. Again, what is missing here? Smith does not explain that Castro does not like to release people to President Reagan, whom he has likened more than once to Adolf Hitler; he prefers to use intermediaries like Jacques Cousteau, President Mitterrand, or Senator Edward Kennedy (who, to their credit, have actively involved themselves in this issue). Thus it is not surprising that the prisoner issue has not been an area of stunning success in recent years.

Even so, however, it is flatly untrue that not a single political prisoner has been released through negotiations with the Reagan administration. Here is one anecdote out of many which will illustrate the context in which these things take place. In June 1984 Reverend Jesse Jackson was about to visit Cuba and Nicaragua, and one of his associates, Cleveland attorney Edward Coaxum, visited the Cuban Affairs Office of the State Department inquiring if there were humanitarian issues of interest to the U.S. which Jackson might raise with Castro. Grateful for the offer, the Department suggested that Reverend Jackson raise the issue of the plantados—the longest held (over twenty years) and most intransigent political prisoners—and, also, the question of taking back the undesirables who had flowed into the United States through the port of Mariel in 1980.

At first Castro released only 25 Americans he was holding—mainly persons accused of drug-running and other nonpolitical crimes. When the Department persisted in calling for the release of political prisoners, at the last minute Castro agreed to release 26 of them, provided that the U.S. agreed to take them the following day, and that they travel in a Cubana Airlines plane, which would land at Dulles Airport. Castro knew, of course, that this contravened just about every U.S. regulation on the books, and wagered that the Reagan administration would not rise to the bait. In fact, after a lengthy debate it agreed to all of Castro’s conditions.

Just as a matter of record, the United States urged Cuba to release all of its longer-term political prisoners at the time the Mariel agreements were signed on December 14, 1984. The United States agreed to put the plantados at the very top of the list of refugees to be processed as soon as Castro released them. In December 1986 the interests section in Havana interviewed 61 additional political prisoners, plus 20 in the so-called “Cousteau group” (long-term political prisoners released by Castro earlier in 1986). In January 1987 Castro permitted them to leave Cuba, two at a time; none of the others on the list of 61 has yet been permitted to depart. It is difficult to imagine why Wayne Smith—who of all people is in a position to know these things—acts as if they never took place.

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There is within American culture a deep need to believe that all international problems are the result of misunderstandings which can easily be cleared up once we change our point of view (“We are the most hated nation in the world, and justifiably so,” a woman from Indiana wrote Senator Richard Lugar during a recent hijacking by terrorists of a TWA airliner). Thus a book like The Closest of Enemies is bound to have a certain resonance. But since so many of Wayne Smith’s former colleagues are still on active service or recently retired, one would hope that his propositions will be subjected to more than normal critical scrutiny. In that way he might yet make, in spite of himself, a useful contribution to the Cuba debate.

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About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.




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