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The Closest of Enemies: A PERSONAL AND DIPLOMATIC HISTORY OF THE CASTRO YEARS by Wayne S. Smith (Norton: $19.95; 308 pp.)

March 15, 1987|Don Shannon | Shannon, a correspondent in The Times Washington bureau, traveled frequently to Cuba for The Times from 1977 to 1984

Wayne S. Smith began and ended a 25-year diplomatic career in Cuba, and both the start and finish marked low points in the United States' long and often vexing relationship with the island. Smith was a neophyte foreign service officer in Havana in 1958 as the crumbling dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista tottered to a close and a young Fidel Castro prepared to burst on the world scene. "The Closest of Enemies" recounts the missteps leading to the widening gap between the Eisenhower Administration and the revolutionaries, almost a dress rehearsal for Nicaragua two decades later.

Smith's pessimistic message is that we did things wrong then; we have done little right since, and we aren't likely to be able to do anything right about Cuba in the foreseeable future unless American policy-makers can really sit down and rethink their approach.

Smith recalls the shock of learning about the "secret" planning of the Bay of Pigs invasion by the Central Intelligence Agency, officially secret to the beleaguered U.S. embassy in Havana but known to every Cuban refugee in Miami. The break in diplomatic relations had already come on Jan. 3, 1961, and the young diplomat was observing from Washington when the ill-fated invasion hit the beach three months later, engendering such bitterness as seemingly to bar any reconciliation for a lifetime.

What Smith calls the "divorce" between the United States and a nation that had been its virtual colony for a half-century turned out to be less than eternal, 16 years to be exact; and when the Carter Administration moved to restore limited diplomatic relations with Castro, the once junior officer now headed the Office of Cuban Affairs desk at the Department of State and was an important player. Two years later, Smith returned to Havana with high hopes as chief of the U.S. Interests Section.

The bad luck that seems to dog Cuban-American relations struck almost immediately as Sens. Richard Stone of Florida and Frank Church of Idaho "discovered" the existence of a Soviet brigade in Cuba, a forgotten leftover from the 20,000 Soviet troops who were stationed in Cuba at the time of the 1962 Soviet missile crisis. President Carter at first called its presence "intolerable" and demanded its withdrawal, then lamely retreated from what Castro labeled a dirty trick designed to spoil the nonaligned summit he was hosting at the time. Cyrus Vance, secretary of state at the time, years later admitted to this correspondent that the incident was a "failure of institutional memory" that so frequently plagues a State Department that cleans house with every change of administration.

From there on it is mostly downhill from 1979 to the point in 1982 when Smith resigned his post in despair, his high hopes dashed less by conflicts between Castro and the Americans than by Washington's displeasure that Cuba was functioning as Moscow's agent in Africa and in Central America. Smith insists that Castro frequently offered to discuss U.S.-Cuban differences but could never find an official ear, particularly in that once again popular target of critics, the National Security Council. Castro finally caught the Carter Administration's attention in 1980 by flinging open the port of Mariel, a move which eventually deposited 125,000 largely unwanted Cuban immigrants on U.S. shores and proved to be one of Carter's more acute embarrassments. As the human tide got under way in April, Smith recommended--and was given to understand that his idea was approved--that the United States offer to negotiate an orderly emigration system as the price for Castro's calling off the boatlift. But when the NSC Latin adviser, Robert Pastor, arrived in Havana to talk to Cuban officials, negotiation was out.

"We thought the approach was too soft," Pastor told the baffled Smith.

"As soon as the Cubans realized that we had come only to demand suspension of the sealift, they tuned us out," the author recounts. "Three more months would pass before, in September, we made the kind of proposal the NSC had rejected in June. Thereupon the sealift was suspended. That might also have been the result in June, and had it been, 100,000 fewer Cuban refugees would have come to the U.S."

The Reagan Administration launched its Cuba policy with threats from Secretary of State Alexander Haig to "go to the source" of problems in Central America, following up with a white paper blaming the rebellion in El Salvador on Soviet expansionism exercised through its Cuban surrogate. Smith concedes that Cuba and Nicaragua gave major support to the January, 1981, offensive by the Salvadoran rebels, but insists that the failure of the offensive caused both Cuba and Nicaragua to search for a political solution. Haig interpreted this as weakness, and advocated a military solution for Central America. As Smith says:

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