In the spring of 1998, Cuban intelligence became aware of a plot by Miami-based Cuban exiles to blow up an airplane full of tourists bound for Cuba from Europe, Canada or Latin America. If the plotters succeeded in their deadly mission, it would mean a human tragedy of horrific proportion, not to mention an economic disaster of incalculable consequence for a Cuban government still struggling to find its way in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fidel Castro knew Cuban authorities could not prevent such an attack by themselves. Since the terrorist attack was being plotted on American territory by American-based Cuban exiles, he would need to convince U.S. president Bill Clinton to take action.
But how to get that message to the American president?
Castro concluded his best hope to stop them was to ask his good friend, Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to carry a message to Marquez’s other good friend Bill Clinton.
Marquez had carried messages between them in the past. In August 1994, for example, in the midst of the crisis over the 300,000 Cuban boat people expected to seek asylum in the U.S., Clinton and Castro used Marquez to open confidential talks on finding a solution to the exodus. During an August 1994 dinner party on Martha’s Vineyard hosted by the writer William Styron and his wife, and attended by the vacationing Clintons, Marquez steered Clinton aside to outline Castro’s proposals to settle the issue and to personally urge Clinton to “try and come to an understanding with Fidel, as he has a very good opinion of you.” Over the course of the next two years—until the 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft by Cuban jets—the two sides did seem to be making quiet progress toward easing tensions between them.
As it happened, Marquez was visiting Havana in the spring of 1998 to gather information for an article he was writing about the Pope’s January 1998 visit to Cuba. Soon after, he was scheduled to fly to the United States for a literary workshop at Princeton.
Castro suggested he make a detour to Washington and arrange to meet with Clinton to pass on Castro’s message about the terrorist plot.
Though it didn’t all go exactly as planned—Clinton was in California for much of Marquez’s visit—Marquez did get to meet face to face in the White House with Mac McLarty, Clinton’s former chief of staff and one of his closest advisers, and three key officials from the U.S. National Security Council: Richard Clarke, a presidential advisor on terrorism and narcotics, James Dobbins, ambassador and presidential advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean, and Jeff Delaurentis, the NSC’s special advisor on Cuba.
McLarty, who’d hosted a private dinner party for Marquez the night before, began the meeting with a warm embrace and the injunction: “We are at your disposal.”
Marquez handed McLarty the envelope containing Castro’s message. After outlining the details of the plot his agents had uncovered, the Castro note got to the heart of the issue for him: “The American investigation and intelligence agencies are in possession of enough reliable information on the main people responsible,” he argued. “lf they really want to, they have the possibility of preventing in time this new modality of terrorism. It will be impossible to stop it if the United States doesn’t discharge its fundamental duty of fighting it. The responsibility to fight it can’t be left to Cuba alone since any other country of the world might also be a victim of such actions.”
Castro’s details about the plot, Marquez reported back to Castro, “made [McLarty] grumble and he said, ‘it’s terrible.’ Later, he suppressed a mischievous smile and, without interrupting his reading, he said: ‘We have common enemies.’”
After everyone had finished reading the document, Marquez asked one of the unwritten questions Castro had also asked him to pose: “Wouldn’t it be possible for the FBI to contact their Cuban counterparts for a joint struggle on terrorism?” Without waiting for an answer Marquez says he “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,’” he suggested to his hosts. In his later report to Castro, he noted: “I was amazed at the quick and strong reaction of the four.”
Clarke promised the Americans would take “immediate steps” to set up a joint American-Cuban plan to counter terrorism. And Dobbins pledged to communicate with their “embassy” in Havana to implement the project. McLarty, for his part, agreed to deliver the message to Clinton with the necessary urgency. “It would be reckless to try to give an exact quotation,” Marquez reported back to Castro, “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… I left the White House with the firm impression that… sooner or later the document would end up in [Clinton’s] hands in the familiar ambiance of an after dinner.”
The universe didn’t unfold as Marquez had expected—or as Castro had hoped.
Check out the complete text of Marquez’s report to Castro on his visit to Washington.