15. Briefing Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Todman) to Secretary of State Vance1

The Havana Negotiations


The second round of talks with the Cubans broke the ice. The Cubans privately but officially acknowledged that the US made significant gestures to improve relations.2 They agreed that reciprocity is important. They said they would consider making some gestures themselves: release of American prisoners, more liberal exit permits for American citizens, and more visits by divided Cuban families. Both sides recognized the symbolism of the occasion—the first presence of American officials in Havana and the first agreements concluded directly between the two governments since 1961. Going to Havana was worthwhile because it demonstrated we were accepting equality and reciprocity in the negotiating process. It also made it possible for Cuba to extend the scope of discussions beyond restricted subjects we initially agreed to discuss.

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Atmosphere and Arrangements

The Cubans went to great lengths to demonstrate equality and reciprocity in the arrangements, with traces of one-upmanship here and there:

—In New York we provided Dr. Torras heavy security coverage out of real concern over terrorist attempts; in Havana a body guard was at my side constantly except in our hotel accommodations, in the conference room, and at the Swiss Embassy. The entire hotel floor where our delegation stayed was sealed off and an elevator reserved for our exclusive use. For whatever it is worth, Garcia3 told us that these measures were necessary because some elements in Cuba are opposed to normalization of relations with us and might try to stage a nasty incident.

—In New York we met secretly in hotel rooms; in Havana we met in the Sierra Maestra Hotel, which was not given out to the press.

—In New York we were caught out by the press after the second day of talks at the Roosevelt Hotel; the Cubans warned us this might happen in Havana too, but it didn’t.

—In New York we served coffee, tea, milk, and soft drinks during the conference breaks; in Havana the same refreshments were provided but with coffee for the American taste as well as for the Cuban and an open box of Havana cigars and supply of cigarettes which were frequently replenished.

—In New York we did not entertain the Cubans socially; in Havana the Cubans declined a proposal of the Swiss Ambassador to hold a reception for the two delegations.

The delegation was informed its members could go anywhere, see anything within the greater Havana area, and could use cars provided by the Foreign Ministry, or use public transportation. They requested that I, however, only use the official limousine provided.

There was in fact hardly any time to sight-see. It was obvious already in New York what kind of a GIFA could be signed. There was ambiguity in the Cuban position on a maritime boundary because the Cubans were behind schedule in providing us with charts of the Cuban coast they had promised. As the Havana talks closed, the charts were still not available and the best the Cubans could do was to set themselves a deadline of providing them “as soon as possible after 15 days.” Thus after the second day of negotiations in Havana, the Cubans began to spin-out the discussions with lengthy discussions of trivia on how the [Page 36] GIFA would be implemented. They suggested we put off our departure until April 28, without giving any particular reason.

Ambassador Serra thought the reason for this spin-out was to keep us in Havana for a possible last minute meeting with Carlos Rafael Rodriguez.4 Serra’s suspicions on this score were heightened when the Cubans asked him not to have any other foreign diplomats present at a buffet supper he arranged for us on April 26. As appeared on the final day, the real reason for a suggested delay in departure was probably because the Cubans were behind in their paper work.

Secretiveness was heightened by a Cuban request put to us after our arrival that we not contact members of other embassies. There was no press coverage in Havana beyond a terse announcement the day after our arrival specifying that the talks were on fisheries and a maritime boundary. The day after our departure there was another announcement only saying that a GIFA and temporary maritime boundary agreement had been signed and naming the heads of delegations. This low profile may have been dictated by Cuban concern that the Cuban populace would attach too much significance to our visit, that resumption of relations is near, and that hard times will soon be over.

Visit to US Properties, Interviews with American Citizens and Prisoners

The Cubans reluctantly permitted us to visit the American Embassy residence and chancery. They asked us not to go during working hours when Cubans were present. For years both buildings have needed new roofs. The damage to the chancery building is particularly bad and growing because it is no longer weather tight. When I pointed this out to Dr. Torras, he said he would see what could be done to give priority to providing new roofs for both buildings. Ambassador Serra said that the Cubans had not permitted work on the US buildings in the past because they were afraid it would be misinterpreted by the population. The Cubans, like people in any totalitarian country, are excessively prone to read between the lines.

The Cubans also were leary about allowing our delegation to interview American citizens in the Swiss Embassy. A green light for this came only on the evening of April 26. As many Americans as could be rounded up were interviewed on April 27. The Americans were tearful and all wanted to leave but only if they could bring close Cuban family members with them.

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Permitting us to interview American prisoners was even more difficult for the Cubans. They allowed two delegation officers to remain several more days in Havana to accomplish this. Our officers have only been able to see four prisoners—a representative cross-section: one political, 2 drug smugglers, and 1 hijacker. All appeared to be in good health and to be receiving good treatment.

Substantive Discussions

Foreign Minister Malmierca’s receiving me was a gesture in itself (Memcon at Tab 1).5 It engaged the Cuban Government officially in discussing the issues I had raised in New York on further steps to improve relations. Malmierca agreed that Cuba might take some reciprocal steps but did not indicate the timing or extent of these. After the conversation Dr. Torras told me and Garcia told Gleysteen that it would be particularly difficult for Cuba to release some of the political prisoners. Malmierca, however, said that Cuba would consider: releasing American prisoners, be more flexible in permitting American citizens to leave with family members who are Cuban citizens or dual nationals, and to increase visits both ways by members of divided Cuban families. Permitting increased Cuban emigration would be more difficult, but Cuba did not wish this to be an obstacle to improving relations.

Malmierca showed great interest in opening interest sections in Havana and Washington.6 He said if we provided more information on the size, level, and functions of such offices, they would decide on our proposal very fast. Before the meeting with Malmierca, Torras had asked me whether we had in mind something like our liaison mission in Peking!

Malmierca did not raise the subject of lifting the embargo. When I suggested a partial lifting, he said this would be a good move. But a full end to the embargo was necessary for negotiations to begin. He said concrete actions would be more important than a high-level statement on terrorism. Meanwhile, Cuba will firmly discourage hijacking.

The Cubans said they were agreeable to more coordination of cultural, sports, and scientific exchanges. For the time being, this could be done through their UN Mission and the Department.

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We were surprised that Malmierca did not take exception to the talking point I made on your behalf about our concern over Cuban political prisoners. Malmierca merely said that Cuba normally freed prisoners before the end of their terms if they were no longer a menace to society.

Likewise, Malmierca did not object to our expressed desire to discuss African issues. On the contrary he said such discussions might contribute toward improving US-Cuban bilateral relations. This was underlined by an earlier private representation to me by Dr. Torras that the Cuban Government was disturbed by President Carter’s April 22 press conference statement that the Cubans had trained the Shaba invaders.7

We agreed on a temporary, rather than a provisional maritime boundary. This protects our position. It gives us an agreed line up to which we enforce our jurisdiction and minimize the likelihood of incidents. After the Cubans provide us with up-to-date charts we have agreed to work out a provisional boundary on mutually acceptable principles.8

We agreed to terminate the 1958 Shrimp Convention in accordance with its terms. We did the same for the 1926 Convention on Smuggling of Intoxicating Liquors.

In closing remarks exchanged after the signature of documents (at Tab 2)9 Dr. Torras referred to the special significance of the agreements concerned and reiterated the points about equality and reciprocity.

Our delegation believes we made a good start on the long and delicate task of improving relations with Cuba.

Congressional Consultations

We briefed selected senators and members of Congress before going down to Havana. Almost all of them wished us Godspeed. The day of our return we filled them in on the results as fully as possible without revealing points sensitive for the Cubans. On the Senate side [Page 39] we consulted: Sparkman, Humphrey, Case, Javits, McGovern, Pell, Chiles, and Stone. On the House side: Zablocki, Yatron, Fascell, Ullman, Bingham, Gilman, Derwinski, and Pepper. Roz Ridgway has been in touch with Leggett, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Fisheries. I also informed Governor Askew and Mayor Ferre,10 who were anything but enthusiastic.

After our return, the Senators were uniformly gratified with the results. McGovern stressed his support for any move of the Administration to maintain momentum in the discussions. Stone was pleased that we are proceeding at a measured pace and that we had not failed to raise the issue of American citizen exit permits. Reactions on the House side were similar. Fascell does not believe there is any immediate need to normalize relations but will go along if we proceed cautiously. Pepper noted that he had been impressed by the President’s briefing of southern congressmen on April 26,11 including the subject of Cuba. He said he appreciated being kept informed, and that he would help to explain our moves to his Cuban constituents and point up the advantages to them.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 11, Cuba, 5/77. Confidential; Nodis. Drafted by Gleysteen on April 30.
  2. The talks in Havana opened on April 25 and concluded on April 27. Accounts of the first and second rounds of the negotiations with the Cubans are in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850016–1846 and P770079–1842. See also footnote 2, Document 9.
  3. Nestor Garcia was the First Secretary of the Cuban UN Mission.
  4. Carlos Rafael Rodriguez was Vice President of the Cuban Council of State and Council of Ministers.
  5. Not attached, but a copy is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 11, Cuba, 5/77.
  6. On May 30 in New York, the United States and Cuba exchanged notes agreeing to the simultaneous opening of Interests Sections. (Department of State Bulletin, July 4, 1977, p. 12) On September 1, the U.S. Interests Section, headed by Lyle F. Lane, opened in the Swiss Embassy in Havana, and the Cuban Interests Section, headed by Ramon Sanchez-Parodi, opened in the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington.
  7. At a news conference on April 22, President Carter was asked if Cubans were present in Zaire supporting Katangan separatists. Carter responded, “Our best information is that the Katangans have been trained within Angola by the Cubans. We have no direct evidence at all that there are Cubans within Zaire.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, p. 703)
  8. The provisional boundaries were announced on May 26. (Department of State Bulletin, June 27, 1977, pp. 686–687) A diplomatic note to the Cuban Foreign Ministry, September 2, informed the Cuban Government that the fisheries agreement had been approved by the Senate. (Telegram 210627 to Havana, September 2; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770319–0159) The agreement entered into force on September 26.
  9. Not attached, but a copy is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 11, Cuba, 5/77.
  10. Reubin Askew was the Governor of Florida. Maurice Ferre was the Mayor of Miami.
  11. No record of this briefing has been found.