By Jeremiah Norris Colombia (1963-65)
The author of Our Woman in Havana, Vicki Huddleston, was raised in Hungry Horse, Montana. She graduated from the University of Montana, entered the Peace Corps as a Volunteer in Peru, 1964-65. After Peace Corps, she attended graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, followed by becoming a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Afterward, she went on to a distinguished career with the Department of State, serving as Ambassador to Madagascar, then under Presidents Bush and Clinton, as the Chief of the U. S. Interests Section in Havana, finally as Ambassador in Mali.
In her book, Vicki chronicles several compelling memories of her official interventions with Fidel Castro, as well as some risky initiatives she undertook to allow Cubans an opportunity to bridge the differences between what their government was telling them and external events in the outside world. All the while, she had to wend her way on a tightrope of intense political differences between dissent groups in Cuba and Florida, the Castro government, several presidential campaigns with differing views on relationships with Castro, and official U. S. government policy in the State Department. A misstep, even one that was innocently inadvertent, could have resulted in her being persona non grata.
While serving as Director of Cuban Affairs in Washington, Vicki first met Castro at an official ceremony, the signing of the Tripartite Accords at the Palaci de la Revolution.
He recognized Vicki among the guests and went over, saying to her: “Who are you, someone’s spouse?” Since Castro knew very well who she was, Vicki boldly stated in a voice loud enough for everyone in the room to hear: “No, I am the Director of Cuban Afffairs.” “Oh, said Castro, I thought I was.” Castro went to the entrance for the buffet and offered his arm to Vicki. Then, to the astonishment of the diplomatic corps present, he escorted her into the dining room.
Vicki’s term of service placed her at the core of momentous public events, beginning with the saga of five-year-old Elian Gonzalez found by the Coast Guard floating on an inner tube in the Florida Straits. His mother and several other family members (his father remained in Cuba) had perished at sea in their failed attempt to reach Florida. Elian’s unbelievable rescue set off a custody battle between the U. S. legal system, the Cuban diaspora, and Castro, generating as much international impact as did the Bay of Pigs invasion. When then-president Clinton finally agreed that Elian should be returned to his father in Cuba, Castro celebrated and paraded him throughout the countryside under the banner: “At Last in the Fatherland”.
A year after her arrival in 1999 as Chief of the Interests Section in Havana, Vicki began an outreach program, primarily based on the distribution of small AM-FM Shortwave radios. Initially, she distributed them as party favors, at events such as the Annual 4th of July celebrations. However, given their unanticipated positive receptivity among Cubans, she began to randomly distribute them to those she met during the course of her travels around the island, including the dissenting community. While Castro falsely claimed that the radios only received Radio Marti (supported by dissidents) transmission, listeners were free to listen to whatever they wanted, be it international news, popular music or Cuban state radio. As it turned out, what Castro really didn’t like about her radio distribution was that the outreach program defeated his government’s efforts to jam Radio Marti broadcasts. In the end, Vicki’s program successfully distributed thousands of little radios throughout Cuba.
Vicki’s tenure as Chief of the U. S. Interests Section in Havana is best exemplified by a mano-a-mano encounter she had with Castro at an official event, with the diplomatic and international community in attendance. Castro approached her and stated for all to hear: “Your blockade is killing our children. Not one aspirin to stop their suffering. How can you be so cruel?” Vicki looked him squarely in the eyes and responded: “That’s not true. The embargo is not a blockade. Cuba can buy aspirin from any country it wishes, except in the United States. If a child needs a medicine that is only made in the United States, we will sell it to you.” Castro scoffed, commenting mournfully: “You know it takes years to get permission”.
In Castro’s widest revolutionary dreams, as he strutted about Cuba dressed in his customary military fatigues, chest puffed out with a bullet-proof vest underneath a field jacket, did he ever envisage that a diminutive woman of five feet 5 inches in height, representing the Official Interests Section of the United States, and former Peace Corps Volunteer, would be the one person to defy him in an open, public assembly — on his own turf!
Truly, Vicki Huddleston was our Woman in Havana and a Profile in Citizenship.
Following his tour in Colombia (1963-65) Jeremiah Norris went to work on the Peace Corps Staff at PC/HQ. During the Administration of George H. W. Bush, he served as Director of Human Resources, Bureau for Europe, Department of State, managing the U. S. Government response for health in the former states of the USSR. He then worked for the Hudson Institute in Washington D. C.as Director, Center for Science in Public Policy.