Radio Havana Cuba interview with Wayne Smith, ex chief of US Interests Section in Havana,
Wayne Smith was third secretary at the US embassy in Havana in the year
leading up to the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. When he decided
to leave the US Foreign Service in 1982 because of fundamental disagreements
with the Reagan Administration’s foreign policy, he was Chief of Mission at
the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba.
Professor Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy
and runs the Cuba Program there with the objective of trying to bring about
a more objective relationship between Cuba and the United States. He is also
an adjunct professor at the John Hopkins University.
In this interview with Bernie Dwyer for Radio Havana Cuba, Wayne Smith gives
a brief background to the rupturing of US/Cuba diplomatic relations in 1961
and his hope that better relations could be re-established when the
Interests Sections were opened in Washington DC and Havana in 1977. However
his hopes were dashed and he points out that, in his opinion, the present US
administration is behaving in a totally destructive way towards opening
dialogue between the two countries.
[Bernie Dwyer (BD)] As we are sitting here in the Cuban Interests Section
in Washington DC we are reminded that you have been involved with and have
played quite a large role in developing Cuba/US relations.
[Wayne Smith (WS)] I have been involved for a very long time. I don’t know
if my role has been a large one but I have been involved for a long time. I
was in Cuba as third secretary at the US embassy from 1958 until we broke
relations in 1961 and I vowed as we sailed out of the harbor that night in
January of 1961, I would be with the first group of American diplomats back
in and 16 years later I was.
And I became the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana. It was a very
hopeful period. This was under Carter. We opened the Interests Sections -
the Cuban Interests Section here in Washington and the US Interests Section
in Havana - with the idea that they would be the channels of communication
through which the two governments could discuss their disagreements, arrange
for conferences and so forth to solve those disagreements and move forward
to a more normal relationship.
[BD] What was the atmosphere like in the US embassy in Havana in those
years leading up to the Cuban Revolution?
[WS] I arrived in Cuba in 1958 and, of course, it was very exciting.
Castro’s forces were moving up the island. It was perfectly apparent as of
summer 1958 that Fidel Castro was going to win. Then January 1, 1959,
Batista fled the country and within a few days, Castro was in Havana. It was
very exciting, a very optimistic time for Cuba. Castro was going to bring
social justice and a better way of life for Cubans and we were hopeful that
we could have a decent relationship but there were too many things in the
way. It was too difficult with Cuba’s move to bring about social justice,
inevitably some American companies were expropriated and nationalized, which
didn’t help relations between the two governments.
Then Castro had the idea completing the work of Bolivar and Jose Marti. In
effect, as he often put it, turning the Andes into the Sierra Maestra of
Latin America and encouraging other revolutions. That also caused problems
between the two governments. And so we broke relations but I will say that
inevitably those issues moved away from the forefront and by 1977 with the
Carter administration coming in, it seemed that we might be able to engage
and to have a productive dialogue and begin to solve some of those problems
and have a more normal relationship.
And I think it would have been possible. Africa got in the way to some
extent. The Cubans went into to Angola but then Angola became independent.
We had no objection to Angola being independent so why not move ahead with
But I’m afraid that the atmosphere was soured here in Washington and there
were too many people who said: “No, no the Cubans have stabbed us in the
back, we tried to improve relations, they went into Africa” and so forth.
The Cubans did go in but on the other hand the United States was also there
in Angola with the other side. So it was not a matter of some bad faith on
We then come to the Reagan administration and Cuba again becomes the evilest
part of the evil empire and no possibility of really improving relations.
But I will say for the Reagan administration that at least they maintained
some dialogue and discussed problems when they needed to be discussed.
I left the Foreign Service in July of 1982. I couldn’t take any more. I had
seen too many misrepresentations on the part of my government so I left and
turned to what I am doing now. But even after I left, there were discussions
between the Interests Section and the Cuban government. There was some
degree of communications kept open and certainly that was true under the
But then we come to the Bush administration and all that ends. Now there is
virtually no dialogue at all. On the contrary the Bush administration has
said that its objective is to bring down the Castro government and that it
will not accept any successor regime. So if Castro was to die tomorrow and
be replaced by his brother Raul Castro or by some collective leadership
perhaps headed by his brother, we have decided that we won’t invade perhaps
but everything short of military force to bring down the Cuban government
and we do such silly things.
Now we have instructed an American hotel in Mexico City to kick out the
members of a Cuban delegation there to meet with Americans to discuss the
energy situation. Where do we get of telling a hotel in Mexico that it can’t
take Cubans guests and for a while we were not going to play baseball with
the Cubans? We are behaving in an utterly childish way and one would wonder
where would all this end. It’s really distressing. It’s humiliating to see
the measures our government is taking and the extremes to which it is going.
[BD] Do you think that George W. Bush is taking a leaf from his father’s
book? How Bush the father behave when he was president?
[WS] No, I don’t really think that George W. Bush is following in the
footsteps of his father, George Herbert Walker Bush. The first Bush
administration had its problems to be sure and I often disagreed with
decisions of that administration. But look at Iraq. We had the first Gulf
War and they had the possibility to invade Iraq. The Iraqi Army had been
defeated. It was retreating pell mell up towards Baghdad, but very carefully
they reasoned that if we go then we really are bogged down. It’s just not
worth it. We shouldn’t invade. We will then have the Iraqi people against us
and that would simply generate more opposition to our aims in the rest of
the Arab world so, very intelligently, they did not invade.
George W. Bush did invade, very unwisely, but not following in his father’s
footsteps. His father would not have done it. I think in part that may be
why George W. Bush did. His father didn’t do it but he by golly will. He
will show his father a thing or two and he will invade and look where we are
[BD] Is the totally disproportionate influence that the Cuban American
community in Miami has had over successive US administrations regarding US
policy on Cuba just as strong over President George W. Bush?
[WS] I don’t think at this point that it is the Cuban American community in
Miami that controls our policy. They don’t have the votes for one thing. It
is no longer a monolithic community. There are as many Cuban Americans down
in Miami now who favor engagement as are opposed. Yes, you have this group
of extreme hardliners who want no engagement whatsoever with Cuba. They
don’t want any contact, not even any discussions. They are not really the
majority. But George W. Bush believes this himself. I think it’s an
ideological thing with him. He can use the Cuban American community to
support his policies and so forth but I believe that even if the Cuban
American community at this point was moving in a more moderate direction,
George W. Bush would not be. It’s a conviction of his. He has this strange
way of reaching conclusions that aren’t well founded but then being isolated
from reality and just following along with the decisions he makes on the
basis of these conclusions irrespective of everything to the contrary.
[BD] What do you think is going to happen with the Bush plan for a so-called
transition to a free Cuba? Do you think it is a paper tiger?
[WS] In a way, I do. I think it’s absurd and incredibly arrogant. He sits
down and he comes up with this commission and many of the hard-line Cuban
Americans come up with this plan to bring about Cuba’s transition to
democracy even including things like “we are going to inoculate all the
school children and make the busses run on time”.
Cuban school children are inoculated now. They don’t need the president’s
commission to bring that about. It’s extremely arrogant and unrealistic.
It’s unrealistic in the sense that they don’t have the means or measures for
bringing it about. They talk about bringing about the transition to
democracy. They talk about bringing down the Castro government in the
transition to democracy. How are they going to bring down the Castro
Well, they talk about restrictions on travel, which will reduce Cuban
revenues. Now we have tighter restrictions and it’s very, very difficult for
Americans to travel. It’s especially hard on Cuban Americans. They could
visit once every year and now it’s once every three years and there are no
emergency provisions so if you visit your mother in June and you come back
to the States and you hear in September that your mother is dying, you can’t
go to be at her bedside. You can go and visit her grave in three years but
you can’t go to be with her in her last hours.
It’s inhumane really and it causes suffering for Cuban Americans. But has
that reduced Cuban revenues appreciably? No, because there are more
Canadians and Europeans and Venezuelans and so forth traveling than ever.
Cuba had more tourists last year than it had the year before and it has more
this year than last year, so it hasn’t cut into revenues at all.
The other thing, which is almost laughable, is to say is that they are going
to increase Radio Marti and TV broadcasting. Radio Marti has been
broadcasting for almost twenty years now and it hasn’t had the slightest
effect on Cuban public opinion. The Cubans are tired of propaganda. They
recognize propaganda when they see it or hear it and tend to turn it off. TV
Marti has been broadcasting for a long time but it has never been seen in
Cuba. Now they are talking about getting an airplane and having it circle
off the coast and transmit the signals but it would have to transmit from
5.30 to 7 in the morning. Wow, there will be a lot of people up to watch and
even if they did watch, it wouldn’t have any more effect than Radio Marti,
so that’s absurd.
The other thing they have, I guess to break this information blockade they
talk about is this electric sign on the US Interests Section in Havana, sort
of like in Times Square, blinking around the building with passages from
Martin Luther King. Well, that would be fine but also from people who are
very hostile to the Castro regime. That’s going to make any difference?
Cubans are not going to sit around watching a sign. I mean that’s a clear
signal of intellectual bankruptcy that we would come up with such an idea.
And then the other measure to bring about the end of the Castro regime is to
increase support to Cuban dissidents. Well, I have worked with many of the
dissidents for a long time who would like to bring about change, who would
like to see Cuba move towards what they call, a more open society and so
forth but they are not in favor of trying to bring down the government and
they are totally opposed to US policy.
They say that “your policy is an impediment to change. It doesn’t help at
all. The more you threaten our government, the more defensive it will
become. So you could do far more by beginning a dialogue easing tensions
and letting Americans travel down there. That would be helpful. What you are
doing is not helpful at all”.
So, these measures they talk about are absurd. The policy isn’t going to
work. We are not going to break down the Castro government so we don’t
achieve the objectives. On the contrary, we work against what should be our
own interests and objectives in this.
[BD] What would you see as a recipe for good relations between Cuba and the
[WS] We should recognize that the Cold War is over. Cuba represents no
threat whatsoever to the United States. Why not indicate to the Cubans that
we are prepared to begin a dialogue to discuss our disagreements, and we do
have disagreements, and see if we can’t find ways of resolving them, maybe
step by step. Begin the dialogue. Lift the travel controls and allow our
Americans to travel down there and allow Cubans, to the extent that it is
possible, to travel up here.
We have this Latin American Studies Association meeting in Puerto Rico
coming up and the US State Department won’t give visas to the Cuba scholars
to come up to the meeting. This is stupid. We have always insisted that this
exchange of people is the best way of getting our message across and
furthering our own interests. In this case, we seem utterly blind to that.
So let Americans talk and as this dialogue begins to reduce tensions and to
resolve some of the tensions between us, we can begin to lift the embargo on
a step by step basis. But you can’t begin to make progress that would be in
the interests of the United States so long as you will not talk; you will
not have a dialogue; you insist that you are going to bring the other
government down but you don’t have any means of doing that. Its ludicrous,
it’s embarrassing. As an American, when I look at our Cuba policy, I feel