Behind the scenes of U.S.-Cuba turnaround

By Nora Gámez Torres

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega
Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega AFP/Getty Images

Three months before the historic announcement in December that the U.S. would reestablish full diplomatic relations with Cuba, Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega made a trip to the White House and hand delivered a letter from Pope Francis to President Barack Obama.

The meeting was sensitive enough to be kept under the radar — the Cuban cardinal’s name did not appear in the White House visitors’ log. The pope’s letter, addressed to Obama, offered to “help in any way possible” in negotiations with Cuba.

The details of the meeting were disclosed in a story in Mother Jones magazine this week by Peter Kornbluh, head of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and William LeoGrande, professor of political science at American University.

The story summarizes a new chapter in an updated edition of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, a book by the two writers that will go on sale in October.

Other highlights from the story:

• The idea of involving Pope Francis in the negotiations did not come from the Vatican. It came from the White House, members of Congress and lobbyists pursuing better relations with the island, and who sought the help of high-ranking church officials, including Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in Washington and Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Boston.

• As far back as 2010, with both Cuba and the U.S. helping Haiti recover from the earthquake, officials with the U.S. State Department met with their Cuban counterparts to negotiate the release of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who was being held in a Cuban prison. Cuba first proposed exchanging Gross for five Cuban spies serving time in U.S. federal prisons in September 2011.

“Over the next two years, two top State Department officials — Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julissa Reynoso — secretly negotiated with Cuban officials in Creole restaurants in Port-au-Prince, subterranean bars on Manhattan's East Side, and a hotel lounge in Santo Domingo,” the authors wrote.

“As a show of good faith, [the U.S.] arranged for the wives of [spies] Hernández and González to secretly visit them,” Kornbluh and LeoGrande wrote. “In exchange, the Cubans permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband, held in a military hospital in Havana.”

• The White House would not exchange Gross for the spies, because it maintained that the USAID worker was not a spy, and the negotiations appeared to be at a “dead end.” Two National Security Council aides Obama named as negotiators in April 2013, Ben Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga, came up with the solution that finally worked: Cuba would free a CIA mole jailed in Cuba, Rolando Sarraff, in exchange for the so-called Cuban spies — and throw in Gross as a humanitarian gesture.

• The White House kept the Pentagon in the dark about the Cuba negotiations. Among the few in the loop: Vice President Joe Biden, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

A White House official confirmed to El Nuevo Herald some of the key points of the Mother Jones story: the White House meeting between Obama and Ortega, the breakthrough U.S. proposal to add Sarraff to the spy swap, and the disclosure to Cubans in October 2014 of Obama’s intent to lift travel, trade and telecommunication restrictions.

The Mother Jones story also fills many gaps on the backstory of how Obama, with the help of sympathetic members of Congress and lobbyists, was able to change a five-decade-old policy.

A key player, according to the authors: The Trimpa Group, a lobbying firm with offices in Denver and Washington, D.C.

Among other things, the Trimpa Group paid for polls, performed by Obama’s pollster, John Anzalone, the Atlantic Council and FIU on the issue of Cuba relations.

James Williams, current director of the lobbying group Engage Cuba and then director of public policy with Trimpa Group, told Kornbluh and LeoGrande that the polls would show the “ample support for change” and “give a voice to the silent majority.” The authors describe the polls as an attempt of the Trimpa Group to “bolster” the argument that there would not be a setback for Florida Democrats if Obama changed his policy toward Cuba.

Trimpa Group also hired Luis Miranda, former White House director of communications for Hispanic media, and created the organization #CubaNow, which pushed for the policy change and the lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

“#CubaNow was the brainchild of the Trimpa Group,” the authors say, a reference that its executive director, Ric Herrero, considers “not that accurate.” Herrero highlighted the Cuban-American connection, which was absent in the story.

“#CubaNow exists thanks to Cuban-American donors and advocates who were tired of our failed embargo policy,” Herrero told El Nuevo Herald. “They wanted to see our government embrace a new approach toward Cuba, laser-focused on empowering the Cuban people and advancing U.S. interests.”

Miami Herald staff writer Glenn Garvin contributed to this report.