Vicki Huddleston on US-Cuba Tensions and Relations

Por El Toque

Vicky Huddleston, a former chief US diplomat in Havana. Photo:

“We should get rid of US sanctions, begin to lift some of the tension between Cuba and the US and promote reconciliation.”

HAVANA TIMES – El Enjambre, is a podcast by El Toque about Cuban reality in the Twitter universe. It recently interviewed US diplomat Vicki Huddleston, who spoke about US-Cuba relations, and other related topics.

Huddleston was the Coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs at the Department of State. She was also Chief of the US Interests Section in Havana from 1999-2002. Before retiring, she was also the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

During her years in service, Huddleston received many awards from the US Department of State. These included the Distinguished Honor Award and a Presidential Meritorious Service Award, which was awarded by the US president.

Camilo Condis is a founder and one of the hosts on El Enjambre. He inquired into some of the difficult moments during her time heading up the US Interest Section in Havana. He also asked her opinion about US sanctions and what she thinks about the relationship between the two countries.

The Ambassador of Radios

“I have very fond memories of Cuba and the Cuban people,” the diplomat began. When in Cuba she became known as the Ambassador of Radios. This nickname made her popular across the island, during a time when officials from the US Interest section were giving out visas and traveling to different provinces; unlike today, when there aren’t that many staff and few activities are organized.

“The radios made me very popular,” Huddleston said. She gave people the opportunity to listen to foreign stations, by handing out shortwave radios, with FM and AM.

“Radios in Cuba aren’t shortwave, on the whole; so, you can’t listen to foreign stations. However, people could listen to radio stations from other countries with my radios. Everybody wanted those radios. One day, I gave two to some young women and they asked for two more for their brothers in jail. I remember a woman who started crying when she saw the radio and I asked her why she was crying. ‘I’ll be able to communicate better with my son now,’ she said, apparently he was living outside Cuba.”

Camilo Condis reminded podcast listeners that Cubans were unable to connect to the Internet at the time. Furthermore, the media was all under state control. Radio was the only alternative to getting information outside of official channels.

When asked about Fidel Castro’s reaction to her handing out these radios, Huddleston said: “he used to say that radios only served one purpose, for the Cuban people to listen to Radio Marti. In reality, these devices allowed you to listen to other stations and not just Radio Marti. Although the Cuban government finally blocked this radio station,” she explained.

The diplomat’s Afghan hound

Condis: “Reading about this time, I learned that you had a fallout with the National Association of Afghan Hounds in Cuba, a hunting breed. I found this all to be very surreal. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?

Ambassador Huddleston: “Yes, it’s interesting because Afghan hounds were popular in the US and in Cuba too, back in the ‘50s. They continue to be popular in Cuba, many people have them. They are very beautiful long-haired dogs, and there are owners’ associations in Cuba. This is quite strange in a communist country, but many Cubans like this breed. I met the father of my dog at Havana airport. The owner of this fine specimen had sold me my own hound, who I called Habana. She loved training dogs, which meant that Habana went on to win many an award.

“One time, I received a letter from somebody with the surname Castro, who wasn’t Fidel, telling me I was being kicked out of the Afghan hound club. It was all very funny. I spoke about what happened on different media platforms such as The Washington Post, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), Univision… I spoke about diplomats not being allowed to join a hunting dog association in Cuba. It was a pretext to show what the Cuban system is really like.

“Something I always talk about in interviews is my residence, where US ambassadors before the Revolution also lived. It was very big and very beautiful; yet Cubans weren’t allowed to step foot in this neighborhood at the time. All of the buildings around my house belonged to State Security. With this Afghan hound business and me being kicked out of the association, I was able to show the media just how restrictive the Cuban system was. Fidel wasn’t very happy with this, but I managed to get Habana back into the Afghan hound club. This was a rare victory for me. Anyway, the Government wasn’t happy with me or my dog trainer… things got very hard for her.”

Meetings with Fidel

Condis asked the Ambassador’s about her encounter with Fidel Castro during her time as the Coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs at the Department of State. Huddleston spoke about her visit to Cuba with a US delegation in the early 1990s. The trip was to celebrate Cuba’s compliance with a diplomatic treaty that involved withdrawing 50,000 troops from Angola.

“It was very special and the US government was very satisfied. Fidel Castro invited us and other delegations to a party at Revolution Palace. During the celebration, Fidel saw me, came up to me and asked: “Who are you?” I got really annoyed because it was clear he recognized me, I told him: “I’m the director of Cuban Affairs.” Over 200 delegations were present and listening. He responded: “Oh, I thought I was the director of Cuban Affairs” (laughter).

“We then had quite a long conversation and he was very concerned about the Cuban economy. The Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing and, in addition to this, some US congresspeople and conservative Cuban-Americans wanted to push a new law with further sanctions. I told him: ‘If Cuba holds free elections and shows greater respect for human rights, we could change US policy.’

“However, it really was quite a big blunder on the US’ part. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was no longer a threat to the US. It would have been a good time for the US to change its policy. There wasn’t any reason to carry on with hostile policies or sanctions against Cuba.

“Instead of beginning to open up to Cuba, the US and Cuban-Americans imposed new sanctions again, such as the Cuban Democracy Act, then the Torricelli’s Law, Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, the Helms-Burton… More and more sanctions and Cuba wasn’t a threat.”

Enter Elian Gonzalez

“What were the biggest challenges you faced as a diplomat in Cuba and how did you tackle them?” Condis asked.

Ambassador Huddleston: “The toughest thing was the case of Elian Gonzalez because Fidel Castro and Cuban-Americans turned this into a battle. One which Fidel Castro ultimately won. It was very sad, Elian finally returned because the Law states that a child needs to be with his father. The US government wanted Elian to go back and so did Fidel Castro. Even though it made the US government and people look bad. Even so, Elian didn’t go back until after six months, and there was no way of improving relations after that.

“We had an opening with Clinton, not as great as we did under Obama. However, the Clinton administration didn’t want to do anything more after the whole Elian affair. So, any chance to improve US-Cuba relations disappeared.

The tightened embargo and sanctions

Condis: “You have vast experience when it comes to US-Cuba relations. You have published two books based on your work in Cuba. The first one was published in 2010, with the title “Learning to Salsa: New Steps in U.S.-Cuba Relations.” The second one in 2018, was “Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba”. What do you think about the US embargo and other sanctions against Cuba, which increased under the current administration?”

Ambassador Huddleston: “The book ‘Our Woman in Havana…’ was a labor of love because I love Cuba and its’ people very much. This whole sanction and embargo business is a tragedy because it has failed for 60 years. Sanctions have prevented normal relations with the Cuban people, and the Cuban people are much poorer because of these sanctions.

“If the embargo hadn’t existed, Cuba might have actually changed a lot. The embargo gave the Cuban government the opportunity to say that it has an enemy, the US. US policy towards Cuba isn’t good and it’s more of a domestic policy than a foreign one. It’s because presidential candidates seek out Cuban American votes and the most conservative in society. That’s why they are saying that they will maintain this hostile policy of sanctions against Cuba. It hasn’t brought about the change it was designed to, and it has prevented any chance for reconciliation.”

How to help the Cuban people

Finally, Condis asked the ambassador about possible actions and strategies that the US government could adopt to help regular Cubans.

Ambassador Huddleston: The diplomat believes the US should first return to Obama’s policy. She noted that Cubans were better off financially and had greater opportunities then to open up their own businesses.

“The private sector began to flourish in Cuba and this was very important because it presented new opportunities. People had a greater voice and told the Cuban government what they wanted. Cuba will never be what conservative Cuban Americans want it to be. It will never be a country like the US, with a capitalist system. Cuba will have a mixed system, I imagine, somewhere between capitalism and socialism. However, it should be a system where Cubans determine what they want. Not a system where the highest Cuban authorities or Cuban Americans decide, but instead a system built by every Cuban.

“We should end US sanctions and lift some of the tension between Cuba and the US and promote reconciliation. US sanctions are why there is no future in Cuba, why young people don’t see their future on the island. I believe that it isn’t right or acceptable, which is why we need to change it.”

Read more interviews on Havana Times.

11 thoughts on “Vicki Huddleston on US-Cuba Tensions and Relations

  • You know very well Nick, that I do not side with the US. But I am opposed to totalitarian rule. As for aggression, how would you rate urging a nuclear strike upon the population of the US?

    I am again entertained by your comical claim to have ” a fairly neutral political viewpoint” maybe you intended that one for the (British of course) marines.

    Remember that even IF, a trace of change was left after the Castro rejection of the Obama overtures, it was very short lived, as the Presidential election in the US was held only nine months later. Not time for shooting many political hoops. It took over two years of negotiation to arrange the Obama trip, only to be rejected in seven days.

    I note that you have avoided revealing where and when the Obama and Raul Castro families were “hanging out”.

  • Mr MacD,
    There has been an impasse between the USA and Cuba for many years.
    Perhaps you side with the USA.
    I don’t.
    Despite my fairly neutral political viewpoint, I am quite clear in my mind that the USA is and always has been, the aggressor in this relationship.
    It is the USA that needs to atone. Not Cuba.
    That’s what President Obama understood and that’s what he tried to do.
    He also held the view that this atonement would inspire a slow, long term change in Cuba.
    As VH states, that’s what was going on until trump came along.

  • I like you Nick, found Ambassador Huddleston’s views interesting. But may I suggest that as you are particularly enthusiastic about them that you pursue them with the lady.

    As I wrote, it was the Castro’s who doused any flames of hope – initially with the supposed “letter” from Fidel published on the front, second, third and fourth pages of ‘Granma’ on March 28, rejecting the overtures made by Obama at the Alicia Alonso Theatre on March 21, and read in full on Mesa Redondo that evening – it took some 14 minutes. On March 29, Bruno Rodriguez gave a speech in which he declared: “There will be no reciprocation.”

    As for the two families, it was you who wrote – maybe it reflected your sense of humour – that the two families were hanging out. I merely queried that, because I did not observe any such relationship and found the suggestion that the Obama’s had enjoyed the company of Raul Castro’s family almost laughable. Where and when did that occur?

    Perhaps you can describe where Ambassador Huddlestone was when the Obama’s arrived at Jose Marti Airport, when Obama laid a wreath at the Jose Marti Memorial, in the Palace when Obama inspected the Military Guard of Honour and the Stars and Stripes were played, during the Obama walkabout in the Plaza de Catedral, where she was sitting in the Alicia Alonso Theatre, and where she sat at the baseball game – just to provide a picture of an insider.

  • Mr MacD, For all your talk about this or that member of the Castro family, I still find Vicki Huddleston’s comments to be highly interesting. And I would pretty much go along with what she says about President Obama’s long overdue reforms and the changes that were happening in Cuba. I reckon she talks a lot of sense.
    Perhaps you could try and get in touch with her to register your divergence from her point of view?

  • If as you claim Nick, that Presidents Obama and Castro were “getting on like a house on fire” then it certainly was Castro who promptly doused any flames of hope one week later.

    As for the “their respective families all hanging out”, I failed to notice any members of Raul Castro’s family at the Palace, the walkabout in the Plaza de Catedral or at the Alicia Alonso Theatre.

    But maybe you know of a fun gathering in the middle of the night with Alejandro at the MININT offices or with Mariela at the Poder Popular? Or maybe you were referring to Raul’s nephew Rodriguez, his bodyguard who faithfully hangs out and around with his boss, and has recently been rewarded with the former house of the Spanish ambassador?

  • Mr MacD,
    Sometimes it seems you entirely misread my comments. If you read my comment again you may note that I did not suggest that President Obama sought capitulation. In fact you may even note that what I said was the complete and utter polar opposite. President Obama was in fact the first U.S. President in 60 odd years who admitted that there was no chance whatsoever of any Cuban Government capitulation. Therefore his policy was not aimed at provoking an impossible capitulation – it was aimed at provoking a thaw and provoking a long slow change in Cuba.
    Mr MacD, I don’t know what you understand by the term ‘thaw’. The whole world could see that Presidents Obama and Castro we’re getting along like a house on fire and that their respective families were all hanging out. If that ain’t a thaw after six decades of varying degrees of animosity then we must have a different perspective on what the term ‘thaw’ actually means.
    My interpretation of President Obama’s reasoning and objectives is not based on any particular political viewpoint I may have – it is based on the viewpoint of President Obama, his advisors, his interpreters, those who were present and on the perspective of insiders such as Vicki Huddleston.
    You may refute their version of the events that they were a part of, but I generally go along with the likelihood that they are talking truthfully and that they are making good pragmatic sense.
    To put it another way:
    If President Obama says he shot some hoops yesterday and Mr MacD says President Obama didn’t shoot hoops yesterday, I’m gonna go with President Obama’s version of events. Coz why on earth would a decent and intelligent man such as President Obama come up with some pointless BS about what he did yesterday??

  • An interesting interpretation by Nick, that Obama’s overtures which were rejected by the Castro’s within a week, planted the seeds for “a continued thaw”. Neither did Obama seek “capitulation” as suggested by Nick. Following the two year long negotiations between the US and Cuba which took place in Canada, Obama sought – and clarified in his speech in Havana, that he sought negotiations including the lifting of the embargo and not excluding discussion of Guantanamo. Those who record that and the subsequent rejection by the Castro’s, are neither “hysterical” or “ideologically rigid” but addressing reality. But, many will however understand Nick’s endeavor to move responsibility for failure off the shoulders of the Castro regime and onto those of the US. Few observed the previous “thaw” referred to, The Castro regime remains frozen in both thought and in addressing change.

  • Extremely interesting interview.
    Vicki Huddleston makes informed and perceptive points.
    Certain U.S. policies are so dumb it’s unreal – and the outcome is always the opposite of the stated intention.
    Vicki quite clearly makes the point that President Obama’s intelligent policies were provoking changes. He was smart enough to smell the coffee – there was never going to be any chance whatsoever of Cuban capitulation. (Some of the more hysterical and ideologically rigid contributors here seem to think otherwise.)
    But there could be a continued thaw and Obama planted the seeds for this and for gradual change.
    It is a shame that vindictive little tinpot conservatives such as that Rubio individual actively and cynically seek to stall these changes. It is a disgraceful path that these sad and bitter individuals tread.

  • “US sanctions are why there is no future in Cuba, why young people don’t see their future on the island.”
    Give them passports and the future.


  • Despite US Ambassador Huddelston’s view that the policy of embargo failed – although it contained the similar conditions proposed by her in conversation with Fidel Castro: “If Cuba holds free elections with and show greater respects for human rights, we could change US policy.”, nothing actually changed, and the embargo continues to be a useful tool for the Castro regime.

    It is correct that following Obama’s policy changes and overtures, Cubans actually became optimistic that change might occur. The increase in private enterprise however, was not a consequence of Obama’s policies, but of Raul Castro previously deciding that he would reduce direct expenses, by forcing 500,000 state employees to find “private sector” employment and then publishing the list of licensed jobs in which they might qualify and engage. (one being pushing a wheelbarrow).

    It is undoubtedly the case that the consequences of Trump’s policies and actions, urged on by Marco Rubio, have been to drive Cubans back into their defensive shells, with much hope abandoned and resignation to a return to belt tightening. Covid has exacerbated that, and detestation for the US has increased.

    At some time, it may be that the US will eventually abandon the embargo, although the legislation to do so, was deliberately made complex, requiring an unlikely 60% approval by Congress to enable the President to lift it.

    Any change will necessitate policy adjustment by both governments. Cuba has to date, proven to be in a constipated mental lockdown – as evidenced by the Castro rejection of the Obama overtures. As long as Trump is in power, the US will continue to pursue the Miami exiles outdated antagonism expounded by Rubio.

    A change of US President, coupled with the possibility of the Senate having a change in balance of power and alignment with Congress, may offer a brief period of opportunity to re-open paths to negotiation. However, a major stumbling block remains. As Diaz-Canel clarified upon being appointed President, Raul Castro is still in charge. His demise would undoubtedly assist.

    Hope springs eternal!

  • Very good article. I read Vicki’s latest book, and believe me, she was no pushover to the Cuban government. I really agree with Vicki when she says the Cuban people flourished after the Obama opening and the private sector was taking off in a big way. I know. I was there in 2016 and most of the Cuban people were very optimistic that things were going to get better. It is really pathetic when all that was taken away from them after Trump, with the help of that creature, Marco Rubio instilled cruel and inhumane sanctions against Cuba. Vicki spent 3 years in Cuba and she certainly knows more about Cuba than the hardline Miami Cubans, many of them who haven’t been to Cuba or came over 60 years ago. Hopefully things will get better in Cuba after Joe Biden is elected in November.

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