Ambassador Vicki Latham Huddleston (Peru 1964–66) is a retired career Senior Foreign Service Officer who recently published a memoir, Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba.
Over her thirty year career in foreign affairs she has worked for the Department of State, USAID, and the Department of Defense. Her last government assignment was as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from June 2009 through December 2011. Before that she was Chargé d’Affaires ad interim to Ethiopia, United States Ambassador to Mali, Principal Officer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and U.S. Ambassador to Madagascar. She was Chief of United States Interests Section in Havana from 1999–2002 and was earlier the Deputy and then the Coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs. Prior to joining the Department of Defense, she was a visiting scholar at Brookings Institution. She was Chief of Party for a USAID-funded capacity building project in Haiti from 2013-2015.
Ambassador Huddleston was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow on the staff of Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). She began her overseas career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru. She also worked for the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) in Peru and Brazil. Additional assignments as a career Foreign Service Officer include economic and consular officer in Sierra Leone, economic officer in Mali, Office of Mexican Affairs, and the Bureau of International Organization Affairs.
Huddleston earned a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a BA from the University of Colorado. She has received U.S. Department of State awards, including a Distinguished Honor Award and a Presidential Meritorious Service Award. In 2008, she was a member of the Obama-Biden Transition Team for the U.S. Department of State. She is the co-author of Learning to Salsa: New Steps in U.S.-Cuba Relations, and opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Miami Herald, and The Washington Post. She is a former commentator for NBC-Universal. She currently speaks and provides commentary on Cuba and Africa.
Vicki, where are you from in the U.S.?
I like to say I’m from Hungry Horse, Montana, which is close to the entrance of Glacier National Park; I lived there from the first to the sixth grade. The town was built for the men and women who were constructing Hungry Horse dam, the second highest and third largest in the United States; it is still the most isolated, located on a gravel road on the South Fork River. After Hungry Horse, my family and I lived in Oregon, New York, West Virginia, and Utah, finally ending up at Glenn Canyon dam, located in the northern Arizona desert. Moving often and living in isolated areas was perfect training for the Peace Corps because it taught me to be self-sufficient.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
I took a trip with my parents to Mexico and loved it. This convinced me that I wanted to live in Latin America. The Peace Corps offered adventure and an escape from a boring job in the US. And, this proved to be true.
What was your Peace Corps assignment?
I was assigned to a group of Volunteers who were trained to assist in the development of cooperatives in Colombia and Peru. The hand-full of women in the group of about 100 all were assigned to Peru because the priests in Colombia, many of whom were engaged in the cooperative movement, preferred not to work with women volunteers.
I was assigned to Juaja in the high altiplano for an anticipated electrical cooperative, but when the coop finally got started it was at the other end of the valley. I was happy to leave because it seemed a waste of time to tell small Indian communities about cooperatives when they couldn’t understand Spanish as everyone spoke Quechua.
I was then trained by ASINCOOP, a bank in Lima designed to assist cooperatives to obtain housing loans. This turned out to be a very satisfying job. I lived in the beautiful city of Arequipa in southern Peru, which is surrounded by three volcanos. There I assisted the beer and railroad workers to obtain housing loans. It was pretty amazing to work with them and see their joy as their homes became a reality.
After I completed my Peace Corps assignment I returned to Peru with a USAID contractor, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, AIFLD, which was overseeing the lending process. I then assisted ASINCOOP to make loans to housing cooperatives in other towns in Peru.
After you left the Peace Corps, did you go right into the Foreign Service or back to school?
I went to SAIS, got my MA and then passed the exam and entered the Foreign Service. My husband was in USAID so it was easiest to get assignment abroad in Africa, hence my Africa experience.
I have been a PCV and APCD in Ethiopia, when were you in Addis?
I was acting ambassador in Addis from August 2005 to November 2006. I arrived soon after disputed elections, and assisted the government and opposition to find a compromise that allowed the National Assembly to convene with about 150 opposition members. But about 30 opposition leaders refused to join the National Assembly and called a national strike. Again I worked with my diplomatic colleagues to help find a compromise, which resulted in the release from prison of members of the opposition.
I love Ethiopia. It is a marvelous country. It is one of the few countries in the world that has never been colonized. I was especially fortunate as I was able to visit the site where the fossilized skeleton of a 3.2 million-year-old early human known as “Lucy” were found. The American and Ethiopian team that found the Australopithecus afarensis skeleton name her “Lucy” for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Beatles song that was popular at the time.
Another Ethiopia question. What has the Saudi-Ethiopian billionaire Mohammed Al Amoudi done for the economy of Ethiopia, and what possible corruption charges could Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman make against him, and why do leaders in Addis want him released?
He is an important investor — perhaps the most important — in Ethiopia. He owns the beautiful Sheraton, one of the nicest hotels in Africa, construction companies, buildings, and a gold mine that looked to me as if it treated its workers well. He is also generous to the government and an advisor to its leaders. Like other Saudi billionaires, he was likely detained because he wasn’t paying sufficient taxes and respect to the Saudi government, but his case remains unresolved.
How did the Cuba assignment come about?
After two years as deputy of the Office of Cuban Affairs at the State Department, I was promoted to director. In 1991, I travelled to Havana with a delegation from the Africa division of the State Department.
During a reception at the Palacio de la Revolución, I had a long conversation with Fidel Castro that began rather badly. He embarrassed me by asking “Who are you, someone’s spouse?” despite knowing exactly who I was. When I replied, “I am the director of Cuban affairs.” He slyly replied loudly and to the astonishment of the other guests, “I thought I was (director of Cuban Affairs).”
Despite this inauspicious beginning, six years later I became the first woman to lead our diplomat mission in Cuba. My team of diplomats and I distributed portable AM/FM/shortwave radios and books and provided morale support to the dissident community. Sometimes I felt as if I were in competition with Fidel Castro for the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. To Castro’s surprise I once attended a rally that he had organized for the sole purpose of denouncing me for handing out “my little radios.” You can read more about these stories in my book, Our Woman in Havana.
I see your a board member of Finca Vigía — Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Cuba — you must know Bob Vila (Panama 1969-70). He is a founding board member as I understand it.
Yes . . . Bob is a lovely man. He and Jenny Philips, the granddaughter of Hemingway’s editor, Max Perkins, are co-presidents of the Finca Vigía Foundation, which is preserving Hemingway’s documents and memorabilia. The digitized documents can be found in the Kennedy Library in Boston. The Finca Vigía Foundation also advises the Ministry of Culture on the preservation of Hemingway’s home, the Finca Vijía (Lighthouse Farm), where he lived for twenty years.
What is you understanding of how Trump’s policies are affecting the lives of average Cubans, especially those who have left their professions or who have come into Havana from rural areas to take jobs in tourism-related businesses? And those who have taken big financial risks in opening paladares, enlarging them, etc.?
I visited Havana in October 2017 and Cienfuegos and Camaguey in January 2018. Cubans told me that they were saddened because they couldn’t visit family and friends because the consular section of the American Embassy had been closed. Many of them said it was “Trump’s” fault. When I served in Cuba in the early 2000s, Cubans blamed Castro, now they blame Trump. By returning to a punitive policy, Trump has dashed Cubans hopes for better lives and reconciliation.
What did you say in 1991 when you stood holding knife and fork and a small plate of shrimp at reception for a couple of hundred dignitaries in the Palacio de la Revolucion? Fidel Castro, I understand, was waving his arms and ranting at you about all the Cuban children who were suffering because his government couldn’t get U.S. aspirin because of the American “Bloqueo”?
I didn’t like the embargo then or now. I believe that it has hurts the Cuban people and retards economic development.
The recent crash of a Cubana flight is a case in point because it might not have happened if Cuba could lease safer aircraft from reputable companies in the United States.
One of the most damaging things about the embargo is that it limits Cuba’s ability to obtain dollars because US and international banks fear to undertake transactions with Cuba that might incur fines levied by the Department of the Treasury. Cuba is the only country against whom the United States’ maintains a comprehensive unilateral embargo. We do not sanction North Korea or Syria in this manner, rather we use targeted sanctions. Congress should focus on providing development assistance to the Caribbean, rather than on punishing Cuba.
Back to your question. It was my job to defend the embargo so I told Castro as he well knew that it wasn’t a “bloqueo” — with ships preventing entry into Cuban waters such as we imposed during the missile crisis with the Soviet Union — rather it is an embargo that makes US financial transactions with Cuba illegal. I also told Castro that we would end the embargo when Cuban had free and fair elections with international observers.
He wasn’t impressed, replying that the gusanos or worms — his word for Cuban Americans — would never allow it. Every time a US president has attempted an opening with Cuba, it has failed either because of Cuban-American opposition or Castro’s. In this case, Cuban-Americans demanded that the embargo be tightened because they were convinced that with the loss of Soviet subsidies, Cubans would rise up against Castro.
A few years later, Fidel Castro seeing an opportunity to strengthen his Revolución joined the battle for the five-year old Cuban boy found floating on an inner-tube in the Florida Straits. When President Clinton returned Elián González six months later, Cuban-Americans punished the Democrats by overwhelmingly voting against Al Gore.
No one knows what caused the recent damage to the U.S. Embassy employees in Cuba. What is your guess?
I don’t know, but if I had to guess I’d say malfunctioning listening devices. A University of Michigan study shows that more than one listening devices in the same area can result in the frequencies colliding and creating a sound that can cause harm. Listening devices are omnipresent in the homes of diplomats and in certain rooms in Cuban hotels where the injuries were sustained. The over-reaction of the Trump administration may mean that we will never learn what really happened. However, recent similar injuries to American diplomats in China may indicate that in fact the cause was malfunctioning devices. It is quite possible that the Cubans were using Chinese-made listening devices which caused the injuries in Havana and Beijing.
One things that is certain is that the US won’t treat China as it has Cuba, where the embassy is operating with a skeleton team and the consular section has been shuttered.
If you can generalize, what do you think the post-Castro US-Cuba relations will be under Trump?
Alas, with the Obama-Castro opening, the private sector was beginning to prosper and there was clearly more economic freedom and somewhat more political freedom. Unfortunately, we have lost the opportunity for a new relationship built with a non-Castro-non-military president, Miguel Díaz-Canel. Now, Cuba will go its own way without the US and this is a strategically and politically a major policy error. Cuba is moving closer to Russia and China who supply trade, investment, and military advice and equipment. Continuation of our punitive policy deals us out of Cuba’s future, and slows the process of change in Cuba that could give Cubans greater say in their government.
Thank you, Vicki. Thank you for your time.
Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba
Vicki Huddleston (Peru 1964-66)
$29.95 (hard cover), $14.16 (Kindle)