Inside Hillary Clinton’s email, how swimmer Diana Nyad got a clearance to Cuba

Diana Nyad exalts in her accomplishment in 2013 after swimming from Cuba to Key West.
Diana Nyad exalts in her accomplishment in 2013 after swimming from Cuba to Key West. Associated Press

In 7,000 pages of Hillary Clinton emails released by the State Department, amid a trove of notes on Middle East policy and gefilte fish and the TV show Parks and Recreation, is an exchange involving South Florida and Cuba ties.

Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, attempting a 103-mile Cuba-to-Key West swim at age 60 in the summer of 2010, reached out to then-Secretary of State Clinton in a “desperate plea’’ to help her get her expedition cleared by the U.S. State Department so that she could begin the swim on Cuban soil.

On July 4, 2010, Clinton received an email on Nyad’s behalf from Hilary Rosen, a political pundit and public relations consultant. In the memo line: “A unique request for your help from Hilary Rosen.’’

The note went on to explain that Nyad needed help to get clearance for her swim. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think taking it to your level is the only way to get it done,’’ Rosen wrote. “Thanks so much in advance for looking into this. I know it is a busy month for you. You are just the best!!!’’

Rosen attached emails that Nyad had written to her and to South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz seeking help. They read: “It’s not that I’ve been flat turned down by the State Dept. But I have been told I won’t be approved this summer … warm water, my training, all of it…there’s no other time I can or will do it.

“…I have been told by lawyers within the Treasury that it will take either Hilary (sic) Clinton or Obama himself to clear my event. I know somebody has the power to green light in an hour’s time, if I can just get to the right person. … I just can’t let this dream slip away because I can’t get into Cuba with State Dept. approval.’’

Nyad explained the political hurdle in the email to Wasserman Schultz: “I was naïve to think the training would be the tough part. I am feeling strong and confident. But the government permissions for me to walk off the Cuban shore are keeping me from my Dream.

“I first went to the Cuban Interest Section and was told the Cubans would eagerly welcome my event. … But they said I would definitely need to first have approval from the State Department. I was told there that it is a sensitive time politically, that both Obama and Hilary (sic) Clinton are very much pro-embargo and it would take perhaps a year to procure State Department clearance.

“On advice from three lawyers from Sonnenschein in D.C., I was told that it would take a direct green light from Hilary (sic) herself to get this expedition cleared.’’

On July 6, 2010, at 12:53 p.m., Clinton forwarded the Nyad request to advisor Jacob Sullivan and wrote: “How can we get this done?’’

One minute later, Sullivan wrote back: “I will follow up on this today.’’

Within 24 hours, Nyad’s expedition had been cleared, and a license was on its way, Nyad said Tuesday by phone in Phoenix, where she was giving a speech.

“I remember that e-mail exchange well,’’ Nyad said. “You want to go to Cuba, especially with boats and vessels, you need an OFAC license (Office of Foreign Assets Control). You need the Treasury Department. You need the Department of Commerce.

“It was difficult to train for something, doing 14-, 16-, 18-hour swims, trying to raise money, got a team taking off their jobs and families with no pay, and you don’t really know if it’s ever going to happen. You file those darn OFAC licenses and have no one to call. It’s very governmental, shall we say, bureaucratic paperwork. I had no deep friends.

“Finally, I was getting desperate. I called Hilary Rosen, a political pundit who worked for CNN. I knew she knew Hillary Clinton. I told her, ‘I know there are more important things in the world than my swim, like foreign affairs, but what’s going on here?’ She said, ‘Let me call [Clinton].’ Twenty-four hours later, we were completely clear, got word that the license was on its way.’’

As it turned out, Nyad did not attempt the swim in summer 2010 because of bad weather. She aborted attempts in 2011 and 2012. Finally, on Sept. 2, 2013, at age 64, she fulfilled her dream and became the first person to complete the swim without the aid of a shark cage.

Clinton sent Nyad a hand-written note of congratulations after the swim. The last line: “Onward!”

Nyad’s memoir, Find a Way, is being released Oct. 20. She thanks Rosen and Clinton in the acknowledgments.

“Like the whole public, I’ve been following this issue with Hillary Clinton’s emails, but I never thought that my emails would come to anybody’s attention. Didn’t cross my mind.’’

Curtis Tate of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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