The Miami Herald
Wed, Sept. 9, 2009

U.S.-Cuba dialogue team envisioned


New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has an old idea that's been tried before, which even its supporters say won't work: Create a team of exiles to dialogue with the Cuban government.

Richardson pitched the idea to top Cuban officials while on a recent trip to the island, and he's already approached Cuban-American leaders who have agreed to participate, he told The Miami Herald in an interview.

He won't say whom.

The Cubans here went for it. The ones on the island -- not so much.

"They weren't crazy about the idea,'' Richardson said. "They didn't reject it. They said, 'We always have dialogue,' but you can't have dialogue without those who have the political clout.''

Richardson, a former candidate for president, visited Cuba in late August on a trade mission. He returned advocating more legalized travel to the island, and saying that the Cuban government must do its part, too.

His trip was met with eye-rolls in some sectors of Miami, where even the people who promote dialogue said the plan would probably flop.

"I saw in the Cubans a lack of flexibility,'' Richardson said. "I told them, 'Look, there has to be reciprocity. You can't just want the embargo lifted and Radio Martí issues dealt with and an end to Guanánamo and you guys don't do anything.' Let the Cubans take some steps.''

His dialogue suggestion goes back some 30 years, when a Cuban-American banker named Bernardo Benes secretly negotiated the release of 3,600 political prisoners -- and became a pariah for it.

There was a time in this community that just advocating such missions got you bombed and shot.

"Maybe Richardson is bored,'' Benes said. "I applaud him.''

Benes said Richardson first approached him with that idea in 1997, the morning after Richardson was named the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That was a year after Richardson, then a U.S. representative, had met with Fidel Castro and negotiated the release of three Cuban political prisoners.

In 1994, three Cuban Americans flew to Madrid, Cuba and New York to meet with the Cuban foreign minister. That year, a local delegation attended the first migration conference there, which erupted in controversy in South Florida.

Attorney Alfredo Durán, who met with the Cuban foreign minister in 1994, said the challenge with negotiating with Havana is that they refuse to set an agenda.


"I refuse to act like a seal and applaud,'' Durán said. "They don't want an agenda, and they really don't want to deal with Cuban Americans.''

But Durán supports Richardson's idea anyway, as does activist Ramón Saúl Sánchez.

"Our experience has been that the government never talks to real members of the opposition,'' Sánchez said. "They try to have dialogue that is basically a monologue. But if there is will by the government of Cuba to dialogue, then you can rest assured you will find courage among exiles to do the same.''

Bay of Pigs veteran and dialogue advocate Marcelino Miyares said the trick is to start talks with "easy'' topics like humanitarian issues.

"The Cuban government has never agreed to talk to the opposition inside or outside Cuba, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying,'' said Miyares, spokesman for Consenso Cubano, a moderate exile organization. "The only problem with Richardson is that he's too public,'' Miyares said. "This type of thing historically is done in a third country, almost in secret.''

Critics say the idea is a waste of time cooked up by a politician dodging personal problems.


Richardson was forced to withdraw his nomination as U.S. secretary of commerce this year over a federal investigation into how a political donor landed a lucrative transportation contract.

"You cannot substitute dialogue with political prisoners in Cuba with dialogue with an ad hoc group of Cuban Americans,'' said Orlando Gutiérrez, National Secretary of the Democratic Directorate, a human rights group here.

"I think now he's seeking publicity and commercial and entrepreneurial opportunities for New Mexico. He's had bad publicity and needs good publicity with this diplomatic stuff.''

Jaime Suchlicki, who heads the University of Miami's Institute of Cuban and Cuban American Studies, said Richardson is underestimating howlittle Raúl Castro cares about the exile community.

"What does Raúl care about Cuban Americans?'' Suchlicki said.

"He has Venezuela, the Chinese just gave him $600 million, and Iran and the Russians gave him millions. What does he need Cuban Americans for?''

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called Richardson's proposal "one of the lamest'' ideas she's ever heard.