Our Woman in Havana
A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle With Castro’s Cuba
BY Ambassador Vicki Huddleston (Peru 1964–66)
The Overlook Press
Reviewed by Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru, 1962–64)
The title of Ambassador Vicki Huddleston’s memoir, Our Woman in Havana, is a riff on Graham Greene’s novel, Our Man in Havana, published in 1958. In the novel, Graham sardonically takes on British intelligence, especially M16 and its use of Cuban informants.
Ambassador Huddleston, by contrast, has written a forthright memoir covering the years 1999-2002 when she worked as Chief of the US Interests Section in Havana. As backstory to those years, she provides an interesting narrative of the historical events leading to early US attempts to dominate Cuba and shape its future. In a brief epilogue, she brings us up to the year 2017 when hopes for a continuing Cuban Spring were jeopardized with Donald Trump’s election.
Huddleston, who, after leaving Cuba, went on to become ambassador to Madagascar, and later, Mali, writes honestly, unafraid to acknowledge her mistakes. If, at times, there’s a little too much attention to her Afghan hound, “Havana,” or to her referring to the short-wave radios her office distributed to dissidents and ordinary Cubans as “my little radios,” she can be forgiven. These little indulgences add a homey quality to an otherwise hard-hitting self-assessment of her three-year stint as, essentially, the US Ambassador to Cuba, a role she admirably filled.
The memoir is full of notable details regarding Fidel Castro’s affronts to her dignity, as, for example, when he asks, “Who are you? Someone’s spouse?” She provides sweeping evidence of Castro’s vise over all aspects of Cuban life; one chapter is entitled, “Fidel is Cuba,” for example, a reference to playwright Arthur Miller’s quote after he and writer William Styron dined with Castro when invited by Nobel winner, Gabriel García Márquez.
One anecdote of special interest to me involves John Bolton, who now serves as security advisor to Donald Trump. In 2002 he was serving as undersecretary of state for arms control during the George W. Bush presidency. In that capacity, he delivered an address to the Heritage Foundation in which he accused Cuba of engaging in biological weapons research and of providing “dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states.” That story was a massive whopper and nearly undid President Carter’s May, 2002 visit to Cuba, where he had to tread the line between supporting the dissidents in their quest for more freedoms and not wanting to antagonize his Cuban hosts. Bolton, along with other hawks, had previously urged President G.W. Bush to take out Saddam Hussein because he could use non-existent nuclear weapons against the United States. In 2008 Bolton wanted the U.S. to strike inside Iran at the same time we had 158,000 troops in Iraq. More recently, he argued in favor of a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang, later tidying up after himself by saying that, if North Korea skillfully plays its hand, it could benefit from the “Libya 2004 model.”
Getting back to Cuba, John Bolton, with the backing of Otto Reich, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, proclaimed that any interaction with Cuba—any people-to-people exchanges, trade, tourism–would only prop up the Cuban government. These two hard-liners were held up as heroes by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and other bastions of resistance to any openings with their native country. It didn’t matter (and it still doesn’t) that our isolationist policies have only consolidated the Castros’ control over the country. Huddleston repeatedly points out that whenever the U.S. turned the screws on the Cuban government, Castro responded by clamping down further on the people, using the US Aggressor as justification.
The opposition of prominent and influential Cuban American organizations like CANF to any openings that would encourage private entrepreneurship, for example, never wavered. Despite President Clinton’s efforts to assuage them throughout his tenure, in 2000 they called for a voto castigo, a punishment vote against him. Cubans voted massively in favor of George W. Bush, denying the election to Al Gore. They sought payback for Clinton’s decision to turn over to the justice department the case of young Elián González. The courts ultimately decided that the boy belonged with his father in Cuba. Given that as few as dozens of votes, perhaps up to a few hundred, cost Gore the election, the voto castigo succeeded in influencing the long-term political future of the United States. Consider that an invasion of Iraq and all of the tragic aftermath would have been highly unlikely under a President Gore, for example. Through that vote, conservative Cuban Americans also repudiated the American justice system under which they came to live. (Elián’s saga could be a stand-alone story within this book.)
A point that Huddleston drives home is that our policies toward Cuba have had little to do with international affairs. They are domestic in that they are largely manipulated and determined by the leaders of a conservative fiefdom (my word) of older Cuban Americans in Miami and the Diaspora. Compelled to look through a glass darkly, that reflects their humiliations, losses, and early suffering, fifty-nine years after the Cuban Revolution, they still dominate our domestic affairs with Cuba. Just ask Marco Rubio who continues to benefit from their largesse. Is it understandable? Yes. Is it justified? No. Not any longer. They are harming the Cuban people, most of who were born after the Revolution, many of whom are their own relatives.
As the only senior woman diplomat in Havana, Huddleston blazed a trail for both American diplomacy and the American and Cuban glass ceilings. She had to weigh how her words and actions would be interpreted or misconstrued by Castro, his representatives, Washington D.C., the Fiefdom of the Cuban American National Foundation, and, equally important, so they not be disillusioned, the dissidents.
Although she never supported the embargo or other tactics that cut off exchanges between our peoples, Huddleston had a special commitment to those Cubans who remained after the Revolution and became part of the dissident community. Among many other efforts, she hosted them in her residence and developed a short-wave radio distribution program that would benefit them and other Cubans who had been cut off from the United States. Although these activities won praise from conservative Miami Cubans and from her own administration, she ran the risk of being booted out of the country for “undermining the Revolution.” Despite the widespread positive changes that took place after the Revolution, in education and medical care, for example, there remained endless restrictions on personal freedoms. Surveillance was ubiquitous and Cuban spies openly comprised part of Huddleston’s staff at her residence, all leading to some curious and funny incidents.
In December, 2014, twelve years after Huddleston’s departure, President Obama began to normalize relations with Cuba. The American Embassy opened on July 20, 2015, after having been closed for fifty-four years. In 2016 President Obama visited the country with his wife and daughters. He gave an address that electrified the people, especially students and would-be entrepreneurs, giving them encouragement and hope. Entrepreneurs might continue to move forward, take more risks, invest, and employ others. Young adults, who had been restrained in their efforts to shape their own futures, might dream that they would shape their own futures in a country that heretofore controlled their destinies. (Every five years, the Cuban State develops an economic plan that determines the number of students who will be accepted into each university, discipline by discipline, depending upon the country’s economic needs. Students may apply for openings in their preferred areas of study, but if those openings have already been filled, they will have to choose another program or wait until another academic season. In exchange for free tuition, students turn over their futures to the government.)
During TV re-runs of Obama’s address at the Gran Teatro Nacional, I watched the entranced faces of the young as they listened to our president:
President Obama’s visit was intended to make his opening ‘irreversible,’ to give Cuba and its people greater opportunity and a chance to build better lives. Obama acknowledged it was the beginning of a process. ‘I do not expect the changes that I am announcing today to bring about the transformation of Cuban society overnight. But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the twenty-first century.’ And it seemed likely to succeed. Cubans were joyful and Americans were seizing opportunities to travel to Cuba afforded by better relations.
Now President Obama’s hopes, along with those of the Cuban people, have been dashed. Donald Trump has made happy the Fiefdom and the John Boltons of his administration. Although we still have an American Embassy in Cuba, its staff has been slashed. Instead of an ambassador in Cuba, Philip S. Goldberg, former Ambassador to the Philippines, serves as interim Chargé d’Affaires, and the US Department of State has suspended almost all visa processing in Havana.
I fervently hope that someone with Ambassador Huddleston’s understanding of the political, social, and economic nuances that comprise Cuba will soon fill her shoes in the American Embassy. May an enlightened new president reverse Donald Trump’s reversals and help to restore the conditions under which Cuba may gradually bring prosperity and personal and political freedoms to its brave and persevering people. I’m reminded of the oft-told definition of insanity: Insanity is when you do something the same way over and over and expect a different outcome.
Read the book, especially any of you who have visited Cuba or hope to visit. If you’re in the Foreign Service and want to serve in Latin America, it’s a must. If you’re a woman working in a macho environment, you will find inspiration. If you’re interested in the ways in which well organized, well-financed groups with shared goals can direct a nation’s policies (in this case, toppling the Castros, calling the shots, and revamping a nation), you will not be disappointed. It would also be a useful text for students specializing in Latin America.
Patricia Edmisten is retired from the University of West Florida where she directed the Office of International Education and Programs. Her article, “Impressions of Cuba: a Thirty Year Retrospective,” was published on this site on May 21, 2016. Her books are available at www.patriciaedmistenbooks.com.