At the end of March, when I had confirmed to Princeton University my literary workshop for April 25, I contacted Bill Richardson on the phone to ask him to arrange a private visit with President Clinton to discuss the Colombia situation. Richardson asked me to call him a week before my trip for the answer. A few days later I went to Havana, to get some data for a press report I’d write on the Pope’s visit, when talking with Fidel I mentioned the possibility of a meeting with President Clinton.
It was there that Fidel came up with the idea of sending a confidential message on a sinister terrorist plan, which Cuba had just discovered, that could affect not only both countries but many others as well. He decided himself that it should not be a personal letter to avoid putting Clinton in the predicament of giving an answer; he preferred a written summary of our conversation on the plot and on other subjects of mutual interest. In addition to the text, he suggested two unwritten questions that I could raise with Clinton if the circumstances were propitious.
That night I became aware that my trip to Washington had taken an unforeseen and significant turn, and that I could no longer see it as a simple personal visit. Thus, I not only confirmed to Richardson the date of my arrival but I also announced him, on the phone, that I was carrying an urgent message for President Clinton.
Out of respect for the agreed secrecy I didn’t mention on the phone who was sending it -although he must have guessed it– nor did I let it transpire that a delayed delivery could be the cause of major catastrophes and the death of innocent people. His answer did not reach me during my week in Princeton, and that made me think that the White House was also considering the fact that the motive for my first request had changed. I even thought that the interview would not be granted.
As soon as I arrived in Washington on Friday May 1, a Richardson staff told me on the phone that the President could not receive me because he would be in California until Wednesday 6, and I had plans to travel to Mexico one day before that date, but they were suggesting that I meet with the President’s director of the National Security Council, Sam Berger, who could receive my message on behalf of the President.
My malignant suspicion was that they were interposing conditions so that the message would get to the special services and not to the President himself. Berger had been present during my meeting with Clinton in the White House Oval Office, on September 1997, and his few words on the Cuba situation did not run contrary to those of the President, although I can’t say he shared all his views without reservations. Therefore, I did not feel I was authorized to accept of my own volition the alternative of being received by Berger and not by the President, most of all because it was a very sensitive message, and it was not mine. My personal opinion was that it could only be delivered to Clinton personally.
The only thing I thought of at the moment was to inform Richardson’s office that if the change of interlocutor was only due to the President’s absence, I could stay longer in Washington and wait for his return. The reply was that they would let him know. Some time later I found in the hotel a telephone note from ambassador James Dobbins, director of Interamerican affairs at the NSC, but I chose not to acknowledge receipt while my proposal to wait for the president’s return was being processed.
I was not in a hurry. I had written more than 20 useful pages of my memoirs in the idyllic Princeton premises, and the pace had not diminished in my impersonal room at the Washington hotel where I spent up to 10 hours a day writing. However, even if I refused to admit it, the true reason for my confinement was the custody of the message lying in the safety box.
At the Mexican airport I had lost a coat as I watched for my personal computer, the suitcase where I carried my drafts and diskettes of the book I was working on and the message’s original without copies. Just the idea that I could loose it sent shivers down my spine, not so much for the loss itself as for the fact that it would have been easy to identify its source and destination.
Thus, I devoted myself to its custody while I continued to write, to eat my meals and to receive my visits in the hotel room whose safety box I was far from trusting, as it had no combination lock but a key that seemed to have been bought at a convenient store around the corner. I always carried it in my pocket, and after every inevitable occasion in which I left my room, I checked that the paper was still in its place and in the sealed envelope. I had read it so many times that I had practically learned it by heart, just to feel reassured in case I had to explain any of the issues at delivery time.
I always took it for granted that my telephone conversations in those days –as well as those of my interlocutors– were tapped. However, I relaxed, as I was conscious of being a part of an irreproachable mission, one that was good for both Cuba and the United States. My other serious problem was that I could not discuss my doubts with anyone without violating secrecy.
The Cuban diplomatic representative in Washington, Fernando Remirez, offered to be fully at my service to keep the channel with Havana opened, but confidential communications are so slow and hazardous from Washington –especially in such a sensitive case– that ours could only be solved with a special envoy. The response was a gentle request to wait in Washington for as long as necessary to fulfill my mission, just as I had resolved; at the same time I was humbly asked to be most careful to avoid offending Sam Berger for not accepting him as an interlocutor. The funny end of the message left no doubt about the author, even without a signature: “We wish you can write a lot”.
As chance would have it, former president Cesar Gaviria had fortunately arranged a private dinner for Monday night with Thomas ‘Mack’ McLarty who had just resigned from his position as President Clinton’s advisor for Latin America, although he still was his oldest and closest friend. We had met the previous year, and Gaviria’s family had since then planned the dinner with a double purpose: to discuss with McLarty the cryptic Colombian situation and to please his wife’s wishes to clarify with me some points about my books.
The occasion seemed providential. Gaviria is a great friend and a smart councilor, a resourceful person as well informed on the situation of Latin America as anyone can be, and an alert and understanding observer of the Cuban reality. I arrived at his place an hour before the agreed time, and having no time for consultations I took the liberty of disclosing to him the essence of my mission so that he could give me some ideas.
Gaviria gave me the right dimension of the problem and brought some order into the puzzle. He showed me that the precautions taken by Clinton’s advisors were only normal, given the political and security risks involved for a US President in personally receiving such sensitive information through an irregular channel. He didn’t have to explain it for I immediately remembered a case in point: in our dinner at Martha’s Vineyard, during the massive exodus of 1994, President Clinton authorized me to raise this and other hot Cuba issues, but he first warned me that he could not say a word. I will never forget how intensely he listened to me, and the great efforts he had to make not to reply to some highly charged subjects.
Gaviria also alerted me to the fact that Berger is a proficient and serious official one should be very mindful of when relating to the president. He also showed me that the mere fact of assigning him to meet with me was a very special high-level deference, since private requests like mine would usually go for years to peripheral offices of the White House, or be transferred to junior officers in the CIA or the State Department.
Anyway, Gaviria seemed pretty sure that the text handed to Berger would make it to the President’s hands, and that was essential. Finally, just as I had dreamed, he announced me that at the end of the dinner he would leave me alone with McLarty so that he would open a direct line for me to the President.
The evening was pleasurable and fruitful; it was just the Gaviria family and us. McLarty, like Clinton, is a man from the South and both are friendly and easygoing like the Caribbean people. At dinner ice was broken early, foremost about the United States policy towards Latin America, particularly concerning narcotics trafficking and the peace processes. Mark was so well informed that he knew even the smallest details of my interview with President Clinton last September, when we discussed in depth the shooting down of the planes in Cuba and where the idea was raised that the Pope could act as a United States mediator during his trip to Cuba.
McLarty’s general position on relations with Colombia -for which he seems willing to work– is that US policies are in need of radical changes. He said that the government was willing to make contact with any president elected in order to really work toward peace. But neither him nor the other officials I spoke with later have any clear thought about what those changes might be. The dialogue was so candid and fluent that when Gaviria and his family left us alone in the dinning room, McLarty and I were like two old friends.
Unhesitatingly, I disclosed the content of the message for his President and he did not conceal his apprehension over the terrorist plan, even if unaware of the atrocious details. He had not been informed of my request to see the President but he promised to speak to him as soon as he came back from California. Encouraged by the easiness of the dialogue I dared to suggest that he accompanied me to the interview with the President, and I wished there would be no other officials, so that we could talk without reservations. The only question he asked me about that –and I never knew why– was if Richardson was aware of the content of the message, and I said no. Then he ended the conversation with the promise that he would speak to the president.
Early on Tuesday morning I reported to Havana through the usual channel about the main topics discussed over dinner, and I took the liberty of asking a timely question: if at the end the President decided not to receive me, and if he gave the task to either McLarty or to Berger, which of the two shall I deliver the message to? The response seemed to be in favor of McLarty, but always careful not to offend Berger.
That day I had lunch at the Provence restaurant with Mrs McLarty, since our conversation on literature had not been possible during dinner at Gaviria’s. However, the questions she had noted were soon responded and all that was left was her curiosity about Cuba. I clarified all I could and I think she felt more relaxed. When the time came for dessert, she phoned her husband from the table and he told me that he had not seen the President yet but he was hopeful of giving me some news during the day.
In fact, hardly two hours had passed when one of his assistants informed me through Cesar Gaviria’s office that the meeting would be held the following day, at the White House, with McLarty and three senior officials from the National Security Council. I thought that if Sam Berger had been one of them they would have mentioned his name, and now I had the opposite concern, that is, I was alarmed that he would not be present. To what extent could this be due to my carelessness in a tapped phone call? But now that didn’t matter much since McLarty had made the arrangement with the president who should be already aware of the message. Thus, I made the immediate and not consulted decision of not waiting any longer: I would go to the meeting to deliver my message to Mack McLarty. I felt so reassured that I reserved a seat for a direct flight to Mexico at five thirty the following afternoon. I was working on that when I received from Havana the answer to my latest consultation with the most engaging consent that I have ever been given in my life: “We trust your talents”.
The rendezvous was for Wednesday May 6, at 11:15, in the McLarty offices at the White House. I was received by the three announced officials of the National Security Council: Richard Clarke, leading director of multilateral affairs and presidential advisor on all subjects of international policy, especially for the fight on terrorism and narcotics; James Dobbins, senior director at the NSC for Interamerican affairs with the position of ambassador and presidential advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean; and, Jeff Delaurentis, director of Interamerican affairs at the NSC and special advisor on Cuba. There was no chance, at any time, to ask why Berger was not there. The three officials were gentle and highly professional.
I was not carrying personal notes but I knew the message in every detail, and in my organizer I had taken note of the only thing I was afraid to forget: the two off- text questions. Mack was about to finish a meeting in another room. While we waited, Dobbins gave me a rather pessimistic overview of the Colombia situation. His information was the same as McLarty’s on Monday’s dinner but he sounded more familiar with it. I had told Clinton the previous year that the US anti-drug policy worked as a nefarious magnifier of Colombia’s historical violence. That’s why it caught my attention that this NSC group –without referring to my specific phrase- apparently agreed about changes. They were very careful not to give their views on the government or the current candidates, but they left no doubt that they found the situation catastrophic and the future uncertain. I was not happy about the purpose to amend the situation since various Washington observers of our politics had distressingly commented: “They are more dangerous now that they really want to help -one of them said to me– because they want to stick their nose in everything”.
McLarty entered, dressed in a neat suit and with his good manners, but with the haste of someone who has interrupted something of capital importance to take care of us. Nevertheless, he brought to the meeting a useful measured disposition and a dose of good humor. From the night of the dinner I had liked that he always talked looking straight in the eyes. It was the same during this meeting. After a warm embrace he sat in front of me with his hands on his knees and started speaking with a common phrase so properly said that it rang of truth: “We are at your disposal”.
I wanted to clearly establish from the beginning that I would be speaking in my own capacity as a writer, without any other merit or mandate, on such an abrasive and engaging case as Cuba’s. So, I started by making a precision that did not seem superfluous to me for the hidden recorders: “This is not an official visit”.
They all nodded in agreement and their unexpected solemnity I found amazing. Then, in a simple way and a rather colloquial narrative, I related to them when, how and why I had had the conversation with Fidel that gave rise to the informal notes that I should deliver to president Clinton. I handed them to Mack McLarty in the closed envelope and I asked him to please read them so that I could comment on them. It was the English translation of seven topics written in six pages, double spacing: a terrorist plot; relative complacency over the measures announced on March 20 to resume flights from the United States to Cuba; Richardson’s trip to Havana on January 1998; Cuba’s arguments on refusing humanitarian aid; recognition for the Pentagon’s favorable report on Cuba’s military situation;–it was a report that said that Cuba posed no danger to the security of the United States– approval of the solution of the Iraqi crisis; and appreciation over the comments made by Clinton in the presence of Mandela and Koffi Anan with regards to Cuba.
As you’ll see, he lists the other points.
McLarty did not read them aloud as I had expected and he would undoubtedly have done if he had known the context beforehand. He read it to himself, apparently with the fast reading method that president Kennedy had made fashionable, but his changing emotions showed on his face as light in the water. I had read it myself so many times that I could practically know which of his expressions corresponded to the different points in the document.
The first point, about the terrorist plot, made him grumble and he said: “It’s terrible”. Later he suppressed a mischievous smile and without interrupting his reading he said: “We have common enemies”. I think he said it referring to the fourth point, where a description is made of a group of senators plotting to boycott the passage of the Torres-Rangel’s and Dodd’s bills and appreciation is expressed about Clinton’s efforts to save them.
At the end of his reading, he handed the paper to Dobbins and he to Clarke who read it while Mack extolled Mortimer Zuckerman, editor and publisher of the US News & World Report magazine, who had traveled to Havana last February. He made the comment in relation to something he had just read on point six of the document, but he did not answer the implicit question on whether Zuckerman had informed Clinton of the two twelve-hour conversations he had had with Fidel Castro.
The point that took practically all of the useful time after the reading was that of the terrorist plan, which made an impression on everyone. I told them that I had to overcome my terror over a bomb explosion as I was flying to Mexico after having learned of it in Havana. I then felt that the time had come to pose my first personal question suggested by Fidel: Wouldn’t it be possible for the FBI to contact their Cuban counterpart for a joint struggle on terrorism? Before they could react I added a line of my own making: “I’m sure that you’d find a prompt and positive reaction on the part of the Cuban authorities”.
I was amazed at the quick and strong reaction of the four. Clarke, who seemed to be closer to the subject, said it was a very good idea but he warned me that the FBI did not take up any case that showed up in the papers while the investigation was underway. Would the Cubans be willing to keep the case secret? As I was anxious to place my second question I gave them the type of answer that could bring a respite under the circumstances: “There is nothing that the Cubans like better than keeping secrets”.
Lacking an adequate motive for my second question, I decided to put it as an assertion: cooperation in matters of security could open the way to a propitious climate leading to the resumption of Americans travels to Cuba. My shrewdness backfired, for Dobbins misunderstood me and said that that would be solved when the March 20 measures were implemented.
After the misunderstanding was clarified, I spoke of the pressure I feel from many Americans, from all walks of life, who come to me for help in making contacts for business or leisure in Cuba. In this context I mentioned Donald Newhouse, editor of various journals and chairman of the Associated Press, who treated me to a lavish dinner at his countryside mansion in New Jersey at the end of my literary workshop in Princeton University. His current dream is traveling to Cuba to discuss with Fidel personally the establishment of a permanent AP bureau in Havana, similar to CNN’s.
I can’t be sure but it seems to me that in the lively White House conversation it was clear that they did not have, or do not know, or didn’t want to reveal any immediate intention to resume Americans travels to Cuba. However, I should emphasize that at no time there was any mention of democratic reforms, free elections or human rights, nor any of the political clichés with which Americans pretend to condition any project of cooperation with Cuba. On the contrary, my clearest impression of this trip is the certainty that reconciliation is beginning to grow as something irreversible in the collective consciousness.
Clarke called us back to order when the conversation began to drift and indicated –perhaps as a message– that they would take immediate steps for a joint US-Cuba plan on terrorism. At the end of a long notation in his notepad, Dobbins concluded that they would communicate with their embassy in Cuba to implement the project. I made an ironic comment on the rank he was giving the Interests Section in Havana to which Dobbins responded in good humor: “What we have there is not an embassy but it is much bigger than an embassy”. They all laughed with mischievous complicity. No other points were discussed, as it did not seem appropriate, but I assumed they would analyze them later among themselves.
The whole meeting, including Mack’s delay, lasted fifty minutes. Mack concluded it with a ritual phrase: “I know that you have a very tight agenda before you get back to Mexico and we have also many things ahead”. He immediately followed with a short and concise paragraph, which sounded like a formal response to our effort. It would be reckless to try to give an exact quotation but the spirit and the tone of his words expressed his appreciation for the great importance of the message, worthy of the full attention of his government, of which they would urgently take care. Then, in the way of a happy ending, and looking straight into my eyes, he crowned me with a personal laurel: “Your mission was in fact of utmost importance, and you have discharged it very well”. Neither my excessive honor nor my absence of modesty has allowed me to abandon that phrase to the ephemeral glory and the microphones hidden in flower vases.
I left the White House with the firm impression that the effort and the uncertainties of the previous days had been worthy. The annoyance for not having delivered the message personally to the President had been compensated by a more informal and operative conclave whose good results would be forthcoming. Likewise, knowing Clinton and Mack’s affinities and the nature of their friendship dating back to grammar school, I was sure that sooner or later the document would end up in his hands in the familiar ambiance of an after-dinner.
At the end of the meeting, the Presidency of the Republic came across with a gallant gesture when outside the office an usher brought me an envelope with the pictures taken six months before during my previous visit to the Oval Office. So, on my way back to the hotel my only frustration was that until then I had not been able to discover or enjoy the miracle of the blooming cherry trees in that wonderful springtime.
I barely had time to pack and catch the five o’clock plane. The one that had taken me to Mexico fourteen days before had to return to base with a damaged turbine, and we waited four hours at the airport until another plane was available. The aircraft I took back to Mexico, after the meeting in the White House, was delayed in Washington for one and a half hour while the radar was repaired with the passengers on board.
Before landing in Mexico, five hours later, we had to over fly the city for almost two hours because one runway was out of service. Nothing like that had happened to me since I took a flight for the first time fifty two years before. But it couldn’t be any different for a peaceful adventure that will occupy a place of privilege in my memoirs.
May 13, 1998.