1981: Memories of Secretary Alexander Haig and Cuba

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Once in  a while, we find a good book and read something about US and Cuba talks over the years.   It happened last week when I got my hands on “Inner circles” by the late Alexander Haig.

We remember former Secretary of State Alexander Haig who was born in 1924 and died in 2010.   He lived a very consequential life in the military and later in government.

He served the country as a soldier in Korea and rose to become a 4-star general.

Later, he was a key player in managing the White House during President Nixon’s resignation and the transition to President Ford.

In 1981, he was named Secretary of State by President Reagan. I remember being very happy about the selection.

In the summer of 1981, the US and Cuba had talks in Mexico City, as James Chace wrote in a review of Secretary Haig’s memoirs.

President Reagan was hoping to persuade the Castro regime to take back some of the criminals that sailed into Florida during the Mariel Boatlift in the spring of 1980.

This is the account of those meetings:

At one point in early 1981 the National Security Council even tried to arrange a meeting with Fidel Castro through the good offices of the columnist Jack Anderson.

Naturally when Mr. Haig got word of this, he was upset at seeing such a maneuver undermine his military efforts to put ”fear into the hearts of the Cubans.”

Though he was reluctant to ease the pressure at so early a date, Mr. Haig felt it necessary to follow up on a suggestion from the Mexican President to mediate between Havana and Washington.

It is hard to see what Mr. Haig hoped to gain by this, since ”there could be no talk about normalization, no relief of the pressure, no conversations on any subject except the return to Havana of the Cuban criminals (in the United States) and the termination of Cuba’s interventionism.”

Indeed, he may well have gone ahead because of the President’s desire to see if Cuba would receive the some 4,000 criminals who had left Cuba along with 120,000 other refugees in the 1980 Mariel boatlift who were now in American prisons.

Deciding to test the waters, as he puts it, he met in November 1981 in Mexico City with Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, the vice premier and the man who, after Fidel Castro, is the most authoritative spokesman of Cuban foreign policy.
The conversations were amiable. The Cuban denied that Havana was sending arms to El Salvador but did not want a confrontation with the United States.
Mr. Haig did not appear eager for another meeting, but, at the President’s request, he dispatched Gen. Vernon Walters to meet with Mr. Castro and Mr. Rodriguez in March 1982.

At this meeting, Mr. Castro said that the return of the Cuban criminals was ”a solvable problem”; nor did he deny Cuban involvement in Central America.
Although the President continued to press for a solution to the criminal question, Mr. Haig recommended that Mr. Castro be given an ultimatum to receive the criminals or ”we would simply load them aboard an expendable ship, sail it into a Cuban anchorage under escort of the U.S. Navy and inform Castro that we had returned his citizens to him.”

At this point, Mr. Haig’s report over possible negotiations with Havana breaks off.

And so another round of talks with Cuba failed.

My guess is that Secretary Haig never put a lot of faith on these talks, specially after the Cubans gave confusing signals about their involvement in Central America.

Unfortunately, Secretary Haig will always be associated with the day that President Reagan was shot.

Secretary Haig said that “I’m in charge here” during a press conference.

He also said that he was in touch with VP Bush and in contact with him.  (VP Bush was out of town and on his way back to Washington DC)

Secretary Haig did not mean to say that he was the “acting president”. However, a lot of people read it that way, specially in the Reagan team.

It clearly hurt his image with a lot of Americans and led to his removal as Secretary of State in June 1982.

We remember Alexander Haig as a great American!

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