Back-channel conversations

October 5, 1997

The man from MINREX —officially the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Cuba, Cuba’s foreign affairs ministry—slid the formal note he had just finished reading aloud across the conference room table toward Michael Kozak.

Kozak was the Chief of the USINT, similar diplomatic shorthand for the United States Interests Section in Havana. USINT was what the Americans called what would have been their embassy in Cuba if they had one, which they hadn’t since the Americans and the Cubans broke off diplomatic relations in 1961. During the Jimmy Carter presidency, the two countries agreed to establish “interest sections” in their respective capitals—under the sheltering umbrella of real embassies of other countries—“to perform diplomatic and consular activities, for which both governments reasserted their compromise to comply with the international agreements on consular and diplomatic relations.” Whatever that meant.

“Regarding the information about a possible bomb attack on a tourist facility in Havana on October 1 or 2,” this morning’s Cuban note began, “we would like to say that although there was no explosion, it has been confirmed that this information was strictly accurate and the attack’s characteristics were similar to earlier plans.”

The note’s awkward, bland bureaucratese masked something quite extraordinary, at least to a casual observer of the traditional, almost invariably hostile public posturing between Washington and Havana. The Americans had quietly given the Cubans information about a planned attack and the Cubans were thanking them for it.

It had all begun four days earlier with an 11 p.m. phone call from Kozak to an official in MINREX. The United States, he said, had received information from sources in a third country that someone was planning another bomb attack on a Cuban tourist facility. He could provide no names or other details. The U.S. hadn’t been able to confirm the information either, he added, but he wanted the Cubans to be aware of it.

The next day, Kozak was summoned to MINREX, in part to quiz him about what the Americans really knew—not much—but also, and perhaps more importantly, to officially convey the Cuban government’s heartfelt thanks for the information.

Now today—three days later—the Cubans had summoned Kozak back to the MINREX conference room on a Sunday, this time to report on the outcome of their own investigation. “Insomuch as this might be of interest and of use to U.S. authorities,” the official note continued, “we wish to let them know that the source which provided them with this information has been shown to be truthful. We have acted with utmost discretion, as we were asked to do. We are very appreciative.”

The Cubans didn’t tell Kozak they’d found one unexploded bomb in a small shoulder bag at José Marti Airport and another in a minibus that shuttled tourists between the airport and Havana hotels. Neither did they explain that, on their own, they’d connected those explosives to yet another of Posada’s Central American mercenaries, who had already escaped.

It was enough for now that the two antagonists were, however tentatively and delicately, working together to prevent more bombings.

Kozak, for his part, thanked the Cubans for their information. Washington hadn’t been sure how much credence to give its source or his “rumour,” he said, but now his colleagues would be able to place more credence in future tips from this individual. Although Kozak told the Cubans he had no new developments to report regarding any possible American connections to the hotel bombings, he did add that Washington was now pursuing other leads in Central America, especially after Wednesday’s story in the Miami Herald.

On October 1—the same day Kozak initially contacted MINREX with his tip—the Herald had published the first, still-unripened fruits of Juan Tamayo’s investigation into the life and times of Raúl Ernesto Cruz León.

“Extensive inquiries in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have so far uncovered no hard evidence linking Cruz to the blasts or to any Cuban exiles in El Salvador or Miami,” Tamayo wrote, but then added that the investigation so far “points to a puzzling attempt to shroud [Cruz León’s] trips to Cuba in secrecy.”

According to the travel agent who booked his flights, two different men—neither of them Cruz León—purchased each of the two $1,125 ticket-and-hotel packages with cash. A third man—also not Cruz León—picked up the ticket and vouchers for the first visit. “There were a lot of different people paying for the tickets, picking them up and telephoning me,” the travel agent told the newspaper. “Whatever [Cruz León] was doing, he was not alone.”

On July 14, the day Cruz León was scheduled to return from Havana the first time, a man claiming to be Cruz León’s brother telephoned the travel agent to say he had come to the airport to meet him but couldn’t find him. Had he had changed his flight? The newspaper tracked down Cruz León’s brother who insisted not only that he wasn’t at the airport that day but also that he didn’t know the name of the travel agent his brother had used.

Two of Cruz León’s co-workers told the paper that after he returned from his first trip, Cruz León had pointed out “a chubby man” who visited him at work sometimes and claimed he was the person who’d won the first Cuba vacation in a raffle. “Cruz never introduced the man or explained who he was,” the Herald reported. Since his arrest, Cruz León’s friends had been trying to figure out the identity of the mystery man, Tamayo added, “but no one seems to know anything about him.”

Back at MIMREX, Kozak didn’t say exactly how the Americans might be following up on the information they’d gleaned from the newspaper. Like his Cuban counterparts, Kozak still kept much to himself. But he did end his visit today with a request that “any information that Cuba has and that it can provide to the United States will be very useful.”

The Cubans asked for the same.