Although President Obama is taking the credit for Wednesday’s historic deal to reverse decades of U.S. policy toward Cuba, when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she was the main architect of the new policy and pushed far harder for a deal than the Obama White House.
From 2009 until her departure in early 2013, Clinton and her top aides took the lead on the sometimes public, often private interactions with the Cuban government. According to current and former White House and State Department officials and several Cuba policy experts who were involved in the discussions, Clinton was also the top advocate inside the government for ending travel and trade restrictions on Cuba and reversing 50 years of U.S. policy to isolate the Communist island nation. Repeatedly, she pressed the White House to move faster and faced opposition from cautious high-ranking White House officials.
After Obama announced the deal Wednesday, which included the release of aid contractor Alan Gross, Clinton issued a supportive statement distributed by the National Security Council press team. “As Secretary of State, I pushed for his release, stayed in touch with Alan’s wife, Judy, and their daughters and called for a new direction in Cuba,” she said. “Despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime’s grip on power.”
Yet Clinton played down her own role in the issue, which will surely become important if she decides to run for president. Top prospective Republican candidates, including Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have all come out against the president’s policy shift.
Clinton’s advocacy on behalf of opening a new relationship with Cuba began almost as soon as she came into office. Obama had campaigned on a promise to engage enemies, but the White House initially was slow to make good on that pledge, and on the Cuba front enacted only a modest relaxation of travel rules. From the start, Clinton pushed to hold Obama to his promise with regard to Cuba.
“Hillary Clinton played a very large role,” said Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who advocated for changes to U.S.-Cuba policy. “The president, when he ran for office and when he came in, thought that doing something on Cuba front would be smart. But as soon as he got into office, though, every other priority hit him.”
Obama first met Cuban President Raúl Castro in April 2009 at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago and announced he wanted to discuss changes in U.S. policy toward the Havana government. But the president faced criticism when he got back to Washington, also because he had shaken hands with then-Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
“After that experience at the Summit of the Americas, the White House feet had been burned, they basically didn’t do much. The National Security Council didn’t do anything, but the State Department continued to try hard,” Clemons said.
After the initial easing of the travel ban, the administration had prepared a second batch of measures to expand travel and trade licenses. But shortly before an expected announcement, the White House got cold feet and shelved the initiative, according to people briefed by the White House. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee had persuaded White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to intervene at the last moment. Clinton was displeased but undeterred.
“Cuba was on her mind. I know that she raised it a number of times. The White House wasn’t ready to move but she kept that in play,” said Clemons.
Arturo Valenzuela was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and Clinton’s point man on Cuba at the time. He worked with Ricardo Zuniga, who was the head of the department’s Office of Cuba Affairs, behind the scenes to meet with Cuban officials in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to explore ways to move forward.
“There was no question that there was strong support in the State Department for liberalizing some of the restrictions and Secretary Clinton was quite clear about that,” Valenzuela told me. “I asked Zuniga, with the secretary of state’s blessing, to draft some further liberalizations of the travel ban, and that led to a significant shift of the opening up of general licenses.”
Clinton also directed Valenzuela to talk personally with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in New York in October 2010, the highest-level diplomatic meeting of U.S. and Cuban officials ever. But one serious impediment to a grand bargain with the Cuban government remained: the Cubans refused to consider releasing Gross, whom they accused of spying.
Nevertheless, throughout 2011, Clinton and her team continued to press the White House to take further steps on Cuba. In early 2011, frustrated by what she saw as resistance from the Obama political advisers as well as the NSC staff, Clinton met personally with the president and nudged him to keep going.
“The pushback was coming from the White House staff. The issue was for Hillary to say to Obama, ‘Hey listen, your folks are going too slow on this and we need to move forward on this,' “ said a former administration official who was involved in those discussions. “There was a lot of reluctance in the White House to do that at the time because of various kinds of domestic problems. If it hadn’t been for the State Department and her leadership, then these reforms might not have happened.”
Finally, in 2012, Clinton made one more big push for faster movement to overhaul the relationship. At the Summit of the Americas that April in Cartagena, Colombia, Clinton was repeatedly harangued by Latin Americans leaders about Washington’s insistence that Cuba not be allowed to participate. Clinton was blindsided by the unanimity of this criticism, including such staunch U.S. allies a Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who had personally pressed Obama on the issue.
“It’s evident to me that Cartagena was a wake-up call for then-Secretary Clinton,” said Julia Sweig, a Cuba scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. “She had a head-snapping experience there and came to see the unanimity of the Latin American view such that recovery of American standing in the region really ran through Havana.”
After returning to Washington, Clinton directed her head of policy planning, Jake Sullivan, to work up several options to lay out a policy approach and present it to the president. The result was, in essence, what Obama announced Wednesday, a source close to the process said.
In June, 2013, after his re-election, Obama made the personal decision to pursue a grand bargain with the Cubans. Talks moved to Canada and were placed in the hands of White House staffers, including Zuniga, who had moved over to the NSC from the State Department. Clinton was gone, but Obama picked up her ball and ran with it.
In her book “Hard Choices,” Clinton wrote that she asked Obama to “take another look” at the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which she described as ineffective and harmful to America’s standing across the region. In that sense, she owned up to the position she held while she was in office, even if she didn’t reveal the extent of her involvement.
Nobody knows if Cuba will follow the path of countries like Vietnam, where economic engagement has been followed by a degree of political opening, or China, which reaps the benefits of capitalism while maintaining strict domestic repression. Clinton is betting on the former.
Either way, if she does run for president in 2016, Republicans can cast the new policy as her policy, not Obama’s. She was a major author of the effort and will rightly be the recipient of the credit, or the blame, depending on what happens in Cuba between now and then.
Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about national security and foreign affairs.
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