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Home / World / "My dearest Fidel": The secret connection of an ABC journalist with Fidel Castro

"My dearest Fidel": The secret connection of an ABC journalist with Fidel Castro

Lisa Howard had been waiting more than two hours in a suite at the Hotel Riviera, enough time to bath, dress and apply make-up, then she took everything off to get ready when [196592002] she thought he was not I'm not coming. But at 11:30 am That night in Havana – February 2, 1964 – Howard, an American correspondent at ABC News, finally heard a knock on the door. She opened it and saw the man she had been waiting for: Fidel Castro, the 37-year-old leader of the Cuban Revolution and one of the leading antagonists of the Cold War in America.

"You may be the prime minister, but I" I am a very important journalist. How dare you let me wait? "Howard explained with mock rage, then invited Castro to her room, accompanied by his top adviser René Vallejo.

Continuation of the story

In the following hours, they talked about everything from Marxist theory to Treating Cuba's Political Prisoners Recalling President John F. Kennedy, who had been murdered a few months earlier, Castro told Howard about his trip to Russia last spring and the "personal attention" he received from the "brilliant" Soviet PM Howard warned Castro for the repressive regime he was creating in Cuba, "To make an honorable revolution … you must give up the idea as long as you live to become prime minister." "Lisa," Castro asked "Do you really think I'm running a police state?" "Yes," she said, answering, "I'll do it."

In the early morning, Howard Vallejo asked to leave At last alone with her, Castro wrapped his arms around the American journalist, and the two of them lay on the bed, where Castro, as Howard remembered in their journal, "kissed and stroked me … expertly with restrained passion." [1

9659002] "He talked about wanting me," Howard wrote, "but would not undress or go all the way. "We like each other very much," Castro said, admitting that he had difficulty finding the words to express his reserve. "They did a lot for us, you wrote a lot, they talked a lot about us. But when we go to bed, it gets complicated and our relationship is destroyed. "

He told her he would see her again-" and that it would come naturally. "Just before the sun set on Havana, Castro hid Howard in, put out the lights and left.

Howard's trip to Havana in the winter of 1964 was crucial to developing one of the most unusual and consistent partnerships in the history of American-Cuban relations She became Castro's leading American confidant, as well as his covert counterpart to the White House – the key link in a top-secret return channel she single-handedly established between Washington and Havana to explore the possibility of rapprochement following the Cuban missile crisis By the end of 1964, Howard was secretly directing Cuban revolutionary regime messages to and from the White House, using her reportage skills and high-profile position with ABC to publicly challenge the Cold War attitude that Castro was a relentless enemy of US interests role as a peacemaker based on a complex, poorly understood personal relationship she was able to forge with Castro herself – a relationship that was political and personal, intellectual and intimate.

Today, almost nobody remembers Lisa Howard. But in the early 1960s, she was one of the most famous female television journalists in the United States – a glamorous former soap opera star who reinvented herself as a reporter and then rose to the top of the men-monopolized world of television news. She became the first ABC female correspondent and the first woman to anchor her own news show on the network. Her influential role in the media strengthened her efforts in Cuba, though she appealed to US White House officials who were her constant pressure for change

In top-secret reports from the era, these officials speculated on "a physical relationship between" Howard and Castro, fearing they would use their position at ABC News to cover the story of Washington's secret talks break the Cuban comandante. But she and Castro took the secret of their intimate diplomacy into their graves. Only now, thanks to released official documents and, most importantly, Howard's own unpublished diaries and letters, can the story be finally told how a stubborn journalist won the trust of the legendary leader of the Cuban Revolution and enslaved two Americans [2] 19659015] ***

Lisa Howard was born to Dorothy Jean Guggenheim as the daughter of a middle-class Jewish family in Ohio, but she was first known to the world as a TV "First Lady of Sin" – a label, Hollywood was given her because in the early 1950s she played temptresses, murderers and thieves on forgetful TV programs and second-rate films. In 1957 she played the recurring role of Louise Grimsley in the popular CBS series "The Edge of Night". But when she caught the eye in Hollywood, Howard signaled much greater ambitions. "Although an eye-catcher (5 3 3; 109 pounds; 35-23-35 from bust to hip)," read a sickly 1953 cover story in People Today "Miss Sin prefers to think she herself as the "sensitive-intellectual type" who goes to & # 39; places

and she was. "I became more and more interested in politics and world affairs … and I was less and less interested in the fate of Louise Grimsley, "Howard later told the audience on the lecture tour." I wanted to talk to people who made news. I wanted to be in place when history was written. "When she lived in New York City with her husband Walter Lowendahl and two daughters in 1960, Howard abandoned her acting career, grabbed a tape recorder and began to count exclusive radio interviews as an unpaid volunteer for the Mutual Radio Network, gaining access to key political figures including the then Senator John F. Kennedy, the former First Lady and Eleanor Roosevelt and even President Dwight Eisenhower.But it was Howard's lengthy interview with Khrushchev in September 1960 – the first that made the Soviet leader a reporter In May 1961, ABC hired Howard, then 35, as its first female correspondent, and two years later, the network gave her her own show – a daily lunchtime afternoon television program on housewives named "Lisa Howard and news with the woman's touch "was aligned.

At a time when women were typically referred to news coverage on television news Howard's was the first female face to shine in the living rooms of America, with national and international events on a daily basis Reporting offered. "Six Pucci's Changes and Six Politicians in a Day Are Equal to the Course for Lisa Howard", read 1963 McCall's Magazine cover story about Howard, whom she described as a "dead reputable reporter", "Likewise "bright, swirling and bumpy. In another profile that same year, Time magazine wrote that the pioneer journalist "has achieved this distinction by peeling harder than six monkeys peeling the same banana. … Political leaders, domestic and foreign, have learned that Lisa Howard can not be avoided.

Fidel Castro was no exception.

In the early 1960s, the Cuban leader was one of the most dynamic and prolific for US – American politicians alarming, new figures on the international political scene.The young bearded guerilla fighter had overthrown on 1 January 1959 the US-backed authoritarian regime of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and a revolutionary government only 90 miles off the coast of Florida At first, the United States was impressed by Castro's charisma, but the US officials suffered His anti-American rhetoric and his economic commitment to the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1960, Eisenhower approved the planning of a secret CIA paramilitary intervention to repel the Cuban Revolution and install a more compliant government in Havana which abolished diplomatic relations in January 1961.

Kennedy inherited the covert operation it was the green light to continue in Bay of Pigs in April 1961, watching as it exploded into a major debacle when Castro's militia defeated the CIA-led brigade in less than 72 hours. Frustrated, he ordered a new program of covert operations against Cuba, known as Operation Mongoose, and a complete economic blockade in early 1962 – aggressive steps that Castro, who had recently declared Cuba to be a socialist state, persuaded Soviet nuclear missiles to discourage another invasion the US, which led to the Cuban missile crisis. 13 days in October, the world was on the brink of nuclear Armageddon until Kennedy Khrushchev offered a secret deal: removing US missiles from Turkey to eliminate the missiles in Cuba. Since Castro was angry with Khrushchev to remove the weapons without consulting him, some Kennedy officials saw the opportunity to lure Castro back to western orbit; The CIA, however, was determined to continue its efforts to overthrow it.

Cuba was an important news story. But with tensions high, embargo imposed, and no direct travel between the two countries possible, few of the establishment's reporters could gain access to the country, let alone interview their ardent leader. [196592] Howard had tried and failed to get an interview with Castro twice in the early 1960s and after the rocket crisis made her another attempt. "Given the current state of the world crisis," Castro wrote, "would not that be an ideal moment for you to speak with the American people?"

After months of wonder, the Cuban Mission finally arrived in New York Howard received a visa in early April 1963 to travel to Havana. Castro ignored her for several weeks as he ended negotiations with New York lawyer James Donovan on the release of US prisoners in Cuban prisons and on a long trip to Russia with Khrushchev. When he asked for his attention Howard Castro wrote a letter after she arrived – "I beg you to say YES," it said in Spanish. "Please give me this interview, please" – and passed it on to several interlocutors, including Donovan, whom she asked to speak a good word for her. "I told [Castro] that there was a beautiful blonde court of a reporter who wanted to interview him and he would give her some time," Donovan recalled. "I have awakened Castro's natural male curiosity and vanity."

Whether out of curiosity and vanity or feeling Howard could become a truly valuable channel to America, Castro gave in and agreed to meet Howard at the nightclub the Havanna Riviera Hotel. He arrived at midnight on April 21, and the two talked until nearly 6 in the morning, discussing Kennedy, Howard's personal impressions of Khrushchev – "a crafty old fox" that "would cut you off like a branch" – and Howard "the police state apparatus" under Castro's rule. Howard was impressed by Castro's vast knowledge. "Never, never have I found a communist who is interested in the feelings of Albert Camus," Howard later said in a letter. "And I certainly have not found dedicated communists eager to discuss the merits of our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, but Fidel enjoyed the conversation immensely."

Castro enjoyed the conversation so much that he agreed to a formal interview – the first he had granted to an American television journalist since 1959. In the early hours of April 24, with Cuban Communist Party cameras rolling on the Riviera, Howard asked the Cuban commandant a series of tough questions: When did he become a Communist? Did he ask Khrushchev for nuclear missiles? Why did hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to Florida? There were also lighter moments. Castro asked Howard if her light blonde hair color was natural. "We do not have to answer such questions in my country," she shot back. And then came the showstopper: Under what conditions could he support an approach to Washington? Castro cited his successful talks with Donovan on the release of the prisoners as a positive step. A rapprochement was "possible," he noted in halting English, "if the United States Government so wishes." Just months after a strained nuclear confrontation, Castro was hit by one of the Cold War's most famous enemies

Within hours of the interview, Castro flew to Moscow – but not before delivering a huge bouquet of flowers in Howard's hotel room. In return, the journalist Castro left what she described as "a small souvenir" – a deeply personal letter she wrote in her room on the Riviera. "I wanted to give you something to express my gratitude for the time you gave me, for the interview, for the beautiful flowers," began her message. "I have decided to give you the most valuable possession I can offer, namely, my belief in your honor, my faith in the form of a letter that, if it were revealed, could destroy me in the United States." [19659038] documents1.jpg ” data-size=”interrupt_lg”/>

L to R: A CIA memo about Howard's first trip to Cuba, marked "Psaw" (President saw); a draft of Howard's letter to Castro dated April 27, 1963. | CIA MEMO: National Security Records, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; Howard Letter: National Security Archives Lisa Howard Collection

Howard described her four-page letter, whose designs she had saved along with other notes of her journey as "a tribute, a poem to her – the man" intense criticism with sincere praise. "I do not want you to be destroyed. … You own what George Bernard Shaw called" that spark of divine fire, "Howard wrote. "You are not the reckless, cynical tyrant [your critics] have portrayed … I do not believe you wanted to hurt people, although I am frankly both sad and outraged that you have destroyed thousands and hurt many more "

Howard pleaded with Castro to find his way back" – to become the transforming historical figure she held to be his destiny. "What you have to offer to the world that is meaningful and universally applicable is not a moody brand of tropical Marxism (the world hardly needs it), but your humanity; your sympathy; your deep knowledge and sense of justice; Your sincere concern for the poor; the sick; The repressed; the defenseless; the lost one; the desperate. … And your sacred duty, your solemn commitment to humanity, is to make that quality ever stronger, to make it a reality for your people – all your people, every class and every sector. Let the goodness, which is your substance, flow unhindered and can be your salvation.

"I deeply feel that you are allowed to play your part," Howard continued, promising to do whatever she could to Castro's survival and bring the US and Cuba together. "I'll talk to certain people when I do She returned to the States, "she wrote," I do not overestimate my influence. But I will try to help. "

I am who I am and you are Fidel Castro and for us, at this moment in history, nothing personal could be realized … Our personal desires are not important."

A draft of her The message written on the letterhead of Hotel Riviera ended »personally. «» We met and came together and I felt that something was being felt for each other. I am who I am and you are Fidel Castro and for us, at this moment in history, nothing personal could be realized. No matter … our personal wishes are not important.

Howard canceled out this paragraph during a review, big blue Xs cut through the guy, "maybe we'll never see each other again," the letter concluded instead, "but I will treasure with all my heart as I travel to Cuba in April 1963 and my encounters with you, my dear Fidel, live. "


When" Fidel Castro: Self Portrait "aired on ABC on May 10, 1963, it dominated the Castro applauds US peace moves, the New York Times said, "Castro wants to talk to Kennedy," announced Cleveland Plain Dealer . "The interview was a big one Success, front page of almost every newspaper in the country, "Howard wrote in a private note to Castro." The entire interview is now being discussed at the highest level. "

That was just the public part of the message she was holding Scenes, like As she had promised, Howard met with representatives of the CIA and the State Department to personally convey Castro's interest in dialogue with the United States. She used the positive news from her ABC interview to argue that public opinion was not against better relations with Cuba, and even provided a list of possible mediators that could facilitate talks with Castro, including herself. "Liza [sic] Howard definitely wants to impress the US government with two facts: Castro is ready to discuss the rapprochement, and she is ready to talk to him if the US government so requests," she said a secret CIA report to the White House.

Howard also typed in a 10-page statement for Kennedy himself and explained what Castro had tried to get her during her conversations in Havana and . "I wanted to see you in person," she wrote, "to teach you how I feel that Fidel's alliance with the Communists is precarious … [and] that we could fish profitably in these troubled waters." Castro was "now ready to discuss everything: the withdrawal of [Soviet] troops, an end to the export of his revolution" to end the blockade and resume diplomatic relations with the United States, she reported. "And not only ready, sir, but positively eager."

"He was most interested in you, Mr. President," Howard continued. "He kept telling me, 'What is President Kennedy, what does he want … what does he want from us?'" She begged Kennedy to "sit down and negotiate with Fidel."

What Howard did not know, however, The CIA vigorously denied its message of possible reconciliation – and urged Kennedy to ignore it. In a secret memo to the White House on May 2, CIA Director John McCone recommended that "the Howard's report should be handled in the most limited and sensitive way" and "that no active steps have been taken in the area of ​​rapprochement at this time "Howard's initial efforts went nowhere.

But she would not be ignored, nor denied. Like McCall wrote about Howard this year: "Her massive ride is so straightforward and purposeful that she usually wears the day." "The key to understanding Lisa," her husband told the magazine, "is to look at her as a kind of mutation, she simply does not have the inhibitions that other people have." When she's looking for something, she's completely frankly, she has no qualms about operating second thoughts or reluctance. "

Howard, who had no traction in the White House, formulated her letter to the president in an article titled" Castro's Overture " September 1963 issue of Liberal Magazine War / Peace Report as cover story. Castro said in his talks "his desire for negotiations," she said. She called on Kennedy to "send an American government official on a quiet mission to Havana to see what Castro has to say."

At the United Nations, a US official named William Attwood read Howard's article. As former editor-in-chief of Look Attwood Castro had interviewed in 1959 and shared Howard's view that coexistence with the Cuban regime was both possible and preferable. He called them on September 12, and together they set up an action plan. Initially, Attwood turned to US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson to get Kennedy's green light for "discreet contact" with Cuba's United Nations Ambassador Carlos Lechuga. Then Howard came to Lechuga in the U.N. lounge and told him Attwood wanted to talk to him urgently. A cocktail party in their townhouse on East 74th Street served as cover for the two diplomats.

On September 23, as members of the New York Literati on Finger Food and Drinks at Howard's House, the United States and Cuba have held its first, albeit informal, bilateral meeting since the Eisenhower administration. In one corner of the living room, Attwood and Lechuga discussed how negotiations could be initiated between their two hostile countries. Lechuga "hinted that Castro was really in the mood to talk," Attwood told the White House, adding that "there's a good chance I'll be invited to Cuba."

Over the next two months, Howard's home became the center for secret communication between the US and Cuba. Howard made a series of calls to Castro's office to spark US interest in setting up a meeting, and Castro's replies to Attwood. Finally, Howard Attwood made time to speak directly to Castro's top advisor, Vallejo.

When Attwood arrived at midnight on the evening of November 18, Howard greeted him in a lush dressing gown. When she dialed Cuba over and over to find Vallejo, she listened to jazz, drank bourbon, and discussed French philosophers. In her journal, Howard noted this dramatic turning point in her lengthy efforts to connect Washington and Havana: "D & # 39; Day for the phone call … We put the call through No Vallejo Place at least seven calls … Read Camus out loud … I'm on the bed in a lacy peignoir – Bill sipping Bourbon and being shy, but dying to slip into bed with me – And there was that white telephone mute time. our connection to our secret and oh-so-longed-for mission, we have a deep shared bond, a relentless conviction that this can be an honorable rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. "

Howard made it to Vallejo around 3am to reach and bring Attwood into line to make arrangements for the two to meet in secret. That was the moment Howard had long expected. Last but not least, this first stop, the contact was made! ", She rejoiced in her journal. "I feel strong, this is just the beginning, a long, frustrating, exciting, but exciting experience lies ahead."


Three days later Howard reported the shocking story Kennedy's assassination for ABC. Howard, Castro, and a handful of US officials knew that the assassin's bullet had ended not only JFK's life, but his secret efforts to find common ground with Cuba. "The events of November 22 seem to be an even more dubious subject for Castro than it was," wrote National Security Council Gordon Chase in a "Top Secret / Eyes Only White House" evaluation. "In addition, the fact that Lee Oswald was announced as a pro-Castro-type, complicate the approach to Cuba."

But Howard did not give up. She persuaded her superiors at ABC to let her return to Cuba to make another TV special – this time about life under the Revolution. When she informed the new government about her trip, the White House staff said they were interested in Castro.

Howard and her entourage arrived at José Martí International Airport on February 1, 1964. Castro had Vallejo after meeting her and "I was guided like a diplomat by customs," she recalled. She was a diplomat – albeit a self-proclaimed one. While filming the new TV Special, she had also developed strategies with Castro to renew his delicate diplomacy with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

There was another reason why she wanted to be in Havana. "When will I see him?" Asked Howard Vallejo after her arrival. "He was crazy to know when you arrive," the counselor replied. "He's been asking for you all day." She did not see Castro until the next evening, February 2, 1964, when he arrived at their hotel around midnight, leaving them until dawn before he pocketed them and left.

During the next two weeks, Howard and her crew came around Cuba with the energetic Castro and filmed him playing baseball, visiting a cattle farm, and interacting with farmers. As much as Howard believed Castro was a dictator, the overwhelming public worship he evoked impressed her. "They bully him, they scream" Fidel, Fidel, "Children kiss him, mothers touch him," she wrote. "They are enthusiastic, enthusiastic … ecstatic, but mostly passionate, and there is no doubt that the emotion Fidel evokes in all women is pure, undiluted sexual desire." He is the most physical beastman I have ever known. "The attraction between them was undeniable. "I sat and stood next to him for five hours and I almost lost my mind," she said.

One night Howard returned to her suite and burst into tears, torn between her feelings for the man and her aversion to his revolution. "This revolution is not what he thinks," she wrote in her journal. "How can I say that to Fidel and why do I feel that I have to, but I think what keeps me involved is that when I tell him about the truth, the despair and the chaos that he has on this island could convince. "to end the existential threat that Washington's hostility towards Castro would contribute to this goal. Während ihres formellen ABC-Interviews in den frühen Morgenstunden des 13. Februar stellte Howard eine Frage, mit der sie die Antwort bereits kannte: "Sie sagten einmal nach Präsident Kennedys Tod, dass Sie unter Kennedy glaubten, dass es möglich sein wird, die Beziehungen zu normalisieren zwischen Kuba und den Vereinigten Staaten. Was veranlasst Sie dazu, das zu glauben? "" Ich bin der Meinung, dass er sich in der Art und Weise von seinen Fehlern über Kuba überzeugen konnte ", antwortete Castro in steliertem Englisch. "Wir hatten einige Beweise dafür, dass sich etwas in den Gedanken der Regierung der Vereinigten Staaten änderte … Ich möchte nicht über jetzt sprechen."

Es war weit nach Mitternacht, als das Interview beendet war, und Castro, Howard und Vallejo verlegten sich in das Schlafzimmer von Howards Suite. "Wir waren in einer wunderbaren Stimmung", schrieb Howard in ihrem Tagebuch. Der kubanische Führer legte sich auf das Sofa und legte seinen Kopf in ihren Schoß. "[Secretary of State] Dean Rusk sollte uns jetzt sehen", scherzte Howard, als Castro vor Lachen brüllte. Sie streichelten sich auf der Couch und überlegten, wie sie Johnson dazu bringen konnten, den Dialog zu beenden, den Kennedy begonnen hatte. Castro sagte, er wolle mit der neuen Regierung "über einen Handel sprechen": Die Vereinigten Staaten würden aufhören, Sabotageangriffe auf Kuba unter Führung kubanischer Exilanten in Florida zu unterstützen und ihre Bemühungen zur Zurückdrängung der kubanischen Revolution zu stoppen. Im Gegenzug würde Kuba seine Bemühungen beenden, die Revolution in andere Gebiete Lateinamerikas zu exportieren. Castro sagte auch, er werde tun, was er konnte, um sicherzustellen, dass Johnson im November 1964 gewählt wurde, anstatt sich der Aussicht auf einen hartgesottenen Republikaner wie Senator Barry Goldwater als Präsident zu stellen. Wenn die Johnson-Regierung "glaubt, dass sie eine feindselige Aktion für den politischen Konsum im eigenen Land ergreifen müssen", sagte Castro, dass er es sogar verstehen würde. "Wenn er von Amts wegen informiert wurde, dass dies eine politische Aktion war", würde er davon Abstand nehmen, sich zu rächen.

Um 3:30 Uhr morgens entschied Howard erneut, dass es Zeit für Vallejo war, ihnen etwas Privatsphäre zu geben, was Castro nervös machte. "Ich kann nicht ohne meinen Anwalt allein mit dir sein", scherzte er. Als Howard ankündigte, sie wolle sich in etwas Bequemes hineinversetzen, machte er einen vergeblichen Versuch, sie vollständig bekleidet zu halten. "Er machte ein großes Aufheben darüber, dass ich mein Kleid nicht wechselte, weil es so hübsch war und er es sich ansehen wollte", schrieb sie. Und als sie in Nachthemd und Pyjama aus dem Badezimmer kam, tadelte er sie, weil sie ihm ungehorsam war. »Du verstehst mich nicht«, beklagte er sich in einem blühenden Machismo. "Sie wollen nur das tun, was Sie tun wollen. Warum behandelst du mich nicht wie einen Mann? "

Du verstehst mich nicht«, beklagte er sich in einem blühenden Machismo. "Sie wollen nur das tun, was Sie tun wollen. Warum kannst du mich nicht wie einen Mann behandeln? "

Castro wandte das Gespräch ihrer komplizierten Beziehung zu. Nights earlier, Castro had confided that he used to sleep with many women, but not anymore—“that now that he is the leader all the women want to go to bed with him, but he thought it wasn’t him they wanted but to sleep with the leader. This seemed to trouble him,” Howard recounted. As Castro explained why he was reluctant to sleep with her, he asked Howard: “What do you want, Lisa? Do you want my body?”

Tonight, he was still conflicted. “He said he wanted me very much but the conditions had to be right and we had to be away somewhere where we could forget everything,” Howard wrote. Nevertheless, “we did get to bed and he made love to me quite expertly and it was, of course, thrilling and ecstatic—as much as anything I have ever experienced.”

“Lisa, you are not simple,” Castro told Howard just before he left. “With you and me it is not simple. But that is more interesting.”

They would engage in one more conversation on that trip, an emotional tête-à-tête as Howard readied to leave two mornings later. Castro arrived at Howard’s hotel suite at 5:30 a.m. to ensure she made her flight, and found her drugged from a sleeping pill, unable to wake up. While she, half asleep, entreated Castro to delay her flight—a request he refused, telling her “that would be arbitrary”—he managed to rouse her. “I dressed in front of Fidel like he was a schoolroom mate,” Howard recalled. Then, “he pulled me over and asked me to sit on his lap, and then spoke to me very gently, and said, ‘Lisa, you are very dangerous for me. I could love a girl like you very deeply. You’re very sweet, very pretty, very intelligent, very sensitive.” If they were together, he suggested, “we would have many fights, a hundred fights, two hundred fights, but in the end it would be all right.” He said: “You can teach me very much.”

Howard told Castro he had “touched [her] very deeply.” But she confessed to being “overwhelmed by sadness” watching him intermingle with Cuban citizens because “he had such a genuine belief in the revolution and in what he was doing [when] in fact so much of what he was doing was truly evil.” He could not see it, “and I was not capable of making him see it,” she tearfully explained. “Castro said he understood part of what I was trying to say, and that I must return again and we must talk and talk and talk for many, many hours and days,” she wrote. He promised to take English lessons so that they could “understand each other better.”


Once back in New YorkHoward typed up a six-paragraph memo to Johnson from Castro, titled “Verbal Message given to Miss Lisa Howard of ABC News on February 12, 1964 in Havana, Cuba.” In the missive, Howard relayed what she and Castro had discussed in her suite—from Castro’s offer to weather a U.S. provocation during the campaign to his hope to continue the dialogue Kennedy had started. He recognized the need for “absolute secrecy,” and suggested that Howard could be trusted as an intermediary.

With the memorandum in hand, Howard placed a call to Gordon Chase at the NSC, now her contact in the new administration, and told him she had a confidential message for Johnson. “Lisa Howard wants very much to give her message from Fidel to the President only,” Chase reported to the national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. Bundy, however, was dubious of Howard’s dual role as a secret go-between and a prominent journalist. “She is an extraordinarily determined and self-important creature and will undoubtedly knock at every door we have at least five times,” he warned other White House officials. “It is quite impossible that she can see Castro and the president without writing about her peacemaking efforts at some stage, and I see nothing whatever to be gained by letting her play this game with us.”

Chase, however, pressed Bundy for permission to debrief Howard and try to “pump out” Castro’s message. As “a shrewd, aggressive, good-looking gal,” he argued, “she probably gets a lot closer to Fidel than most (pure speculation) and may be able to give us some insights about Castro’s intentions.”

On March 7, Chase traveled to New York to receive a briefing on Howard’s trip. As they pored over photographs and the transcripts of her interviews, they agreed on a common mission “to get Fidel to end his Soviet tie and end exporting the Rev[olution] and announce elections in exchange for a guarantee of American aid, trade, and official recognition.” Howard offered her services as an “effective emissary” and affirmed her discretion. “So the young man will make his report to Bundy and we shall see,” she wrote.

In his comprehensive Top Secret/Eyes Only report on their meeting—titled “Mrs. Lisa Howard”—Chase advanced Howard’s message “that we should be communicating with Castro” about normalized relations. “I regard Mrs. Howard’s motives as mixed,” he advised: “First, she is a newspaper woman and probably knows she is sniffing at a highly readable story. Second, because of her influence with Fidel, she probably regards herself, somewhat romantically, as fated to play a historical role in helping to bring about an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba. Third, she probably is a sincere, anti-communist, libertarian democrat who regards the Cuban scene as a tragedy and who wants to see the island living in the Western tradition and at peace with the U.S. (To go out on a dangerous limb, my own estimate is that as long as she can feel useful, the last two motives control the first.)”

Chase transmitted Howard’s assertion that she had “a rapport with Castro which a man will not easily duplicate. I am not certain that there is a physical relationship between them,” he informed Bundy, “but regard it as likely.”

Sensing she now had a strong ally inside the White House, Howard began placing evening calls to Chase at his home, seeking his help to obtain a meeting with Johnson so that she might deliver Castro’s message. Each time, Chase gently put her off and tried to persuade her to entrust the message to him, which she declined to do. In a top-secret memo on these conversations, Chase reported, “She roundly scolded me and the White House for taking her message from Fidel to the President as a joke. I assured her we didn’t.”

Stymied at the White House, Howard turned again to U.N. Ambassador Stevenson. Late in the evening on June 5, 1964, she went to see Stevenson at his room in the Waldorf Astoria. The two discussed how to persuade Johnson to continue dialogue with Cuba. She gave him Castro’s “verbal message” and entrusted him to personally transmit it to the president.

True to his word, on June 16, Stevenson sent LBJ a top-secret memorandum, with Castro’s secret communique—one of the most compelling Castro ever sent to a U.S. president—attached. Stevenson advised the president of the secret dialogue Kennedy and Castro were pursuing at the time of the assassination and recommended that “if it could be resumed on a low enough level to avoid any possible embarrassment, it might be worth considering.”


Three days laterHoward traveled to Cuba for the third time—this time not as an ABC journalist but as a secret emissary. Her mission was to report to Castro that she had finally gotten his message into Johnson’s hands. But she also carried a high-level warning from the White House: The U.S. government was concerned about threats Castro had made to shoot down U.S. reconnaissance planes that continued to overfly Cuba in the wake of the missile crisis.

Castro arranged for Howard to stay in one of the confiscated mansions that now served as a protocol house. The house came with a Cadillac and chauffeur, a butler and cook, air-conditioned bedrooms and a sunken bathtub. She had come a “long way from ‘Edge of Night’ to guest of the Cuban government,” Howard confided in her diary.

Far less luxurious was their one evening spent together on Castro’s “yacht” in the Bay of Pigs, which Howard described as a small, battered boat with a broken shower that slept two. They stayed up till 5:30 a.m. talking about “politics, life, love, freedom, peace, hope, despair, my family, all of it,” Howard remembered. They also discussed the U.S. warning to refrain from shooting at any U.S. reconnaissance planes. Castro promised to restrain himself during the 1964 election season. “You are right, Fidel,” she later confided to him about their night on the boat. “Our intellectual relationship is the essential one. Though the other one is rather pleasant too … the frosting on the cake.”

Before she left Havana, they talked over how their back channel would work: To prevent future incidents between the United States in Cuba, Castro would rely on Howard to get messages to Stevenson and would count on his response, passed through her.

Less than two days after she returned to the states, Castro used this channel to address a crisis at Guantanamo, where a U.S. Marine had reportedly shot a Cuban soldier. On June 26, Vallejo placed an urgent call to Howard and shared his leader’s message: “Please call Governor Stevenson and tell him about the shooting, that the Cuban is in the hospital and Castro thinks he is going to die, that this is the second time there has been a shooting at the base. He wonders if it is part of a deliberate plan of provocation or an isolated act.”

Howard immediately called Stevenson. She told him what Castro had said about reconnaissance planes and asked for an answer on the shooting. He assured her “there was no plan whatsoever of deliberate provocation at the Guantanamo Base.” She then relayed the report to Vallejo. “Fidel was glad to get my message,” Howard wrote in her diary the next day. “I guess he feels our channel of communications has been established.”

Indeed, the back channel—known as the “Castro / Lisa Howard / Stevenson / President line” in top-secret White House documents—between the White House and the Cuban leadership was now open, and active. In a top-secret memo to Johnson written after the phone call, Stevenson reported Castro’s message that “there will be no crisis until after the November elections; that nothing will happen to our [reconnaissance] planes, and that we do not need to send him any warnings. He will use utmost restraint and we can relax.” Stevenson also conveyed Castro’s belief that “all of our crises could be avoided if there was some way to communicate; that for want of anything better, [Castro] assumed that he could call [Howard] and she call me and I would advise you.”


Howard had almost single-handedly built an unprecedented bridge between Castro and the Oval Office. But the White House wasted no time shutting her out. In a July 7, 1964, memo to Bundy, Chase warned that the newly established communications “make Lisa Howard’s participation even scarier than it was before. … Before this, the Johnson Administration had relatively little to fear from Lisa since, essentially, we were just listening to her reports on or from Castro.” Chase also warned Stevenson’s involvement would mean more media attention if news of the back channel leaked. “Lisa’s contact on the U.S. side is far sexier now (Stevenson), than at any time in the past (Attwood and then Chase).”

Extricating Howard from these secret operations without offending her and risking public exposure of U.S.-Cuba communications, Chase understood, would be a delicate operation. “Lisa should relax, stay quiet, and stand at the ready,” was the message Chase recommended passing to her. “We may want to use her influence with Castro in the future.”

It is unknown whether that message was ever delivered, but after July 1964, the Johnson administration appears to have cut Howard out of the loop. There are no more memos about contacts between Howard and Castro—and no more diary entries about communications with the White House. As for official communications with Cuba, U.S. officials turned a deaf ear to Castro’s public call for “extensive discussions” with Washington, and to an offer from his brother, Raúl Castro, to meet with U.S. negotiators “any place to discuss improving relations, even the moon.”

Deeply frustrated, in December 1964, Howard seized on the visit of Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary who had helped usher in the Cuban revolution, to the United Nations to renew her attempts to bridge the Cold War gap across the Florida straits. She shepherded Guevara around town—together they attended a premiere of a new documentary film commemorating the life of Kennedy—and organized a soiree for him at her New York apartment. “Che Guevara has something to say” to the White House, she told Chase on the phone, in hopes of once again using cocktail diplomacy as a cover for the two sides to confer. “I asked her point blank whether this was her idea or Che’s,” Chase reported to his superiors. “She would not answer me directly and kept repeating that she was ‘in a position to arrange a meeting.’” “Stevenson was all hot to go on this,” according to a top-secret White House memo, after Howard invited the U.N. ambassador to talk with Guevara. But State Department officials refused to authorize a Stevenson-Guevara meeting for fear it would quickly leak to the press.

Howard did manage to persuade the progressive senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, to come to her cocktail party and talk to Guevara off in a corner. “The purpose of the meeting was to express Cuban interest in trade with the U.S. and U.S. recognition of the Cuban regime,” McCarthy reported to the State Department the next day. But after debriefing him, U.S. officials concluded that “the conversation was entirely Lisa-generated and that Che really had nothing to tell us.”


As Howard lost her Cuba cachet with the Johnson administration, she also lost her position at ABC News. In late September, as the 1964 election approached, the network summarily suspended her, citing her public participation in “Democrats for Keating”—a committee of prominent New York liberals who opposed Robert Kennedy’s bid to become a senator from their state. After the election, ABC fired her. When Howard moved to sue ABC for violating her constitutional rights to express her political beliefs, ABC executives let it be known that “her actions regarding the Cuba show” were among their reasons for terminating her contract.

Indeed, Howard’s internal struggle to control the tone and content of her April 1964 TV special, “Cuba and Castro Today,” marked the beginning of her downfall at ABC. According to Howard, she had waged “a titanic battle” with network executives to keep the broadcast from adopting a conventional Cold War approach to the complex issue of the Cuban revolution. “We fought over every inch of the show,” she recorded in her diary. ABC higher-ups—in particular the executive director of news, Jesse Zousmer—wanted “to present just one more indictment of Fidel Castro and his revolution,” she wrote. “I could not do that. I would not do that.” When the program finally aired, Howard believed she had “won all the major points.” The broadcast was “not an indictment of Fidel—and he comes off fairly well,” she wrote. Most important, “I think it will help U.S.-Cuban relations.”

Howard might have won the battle over her TV special, but in the ensuing weeks and months, she lost the war. Within the news division, Zousmer became a powerful, and in Howard’s mind, “brutally vindictive” foe. In mid-April, as the special was being finalized, Howard twice failed to appear for her daily show, and Zousmer circulated a memo stating that he planned “to take definitive action” if she failed to honor her contractual obligations. “You have tried to bully me, insult me and humiliate me,” Howard responded in a blunt memo to her boss. “I strongly advise you not to threaten me again.” According to Howard, Zousmer began chipping away at her job. During the July 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, she received few assignments, and the interviews she did were not used on the evening news.

By the time of the Democratic National Convention in late August, Howard had initiated Democrats for Keating and was lobbying party leaders not to support RFK’s Senate bid. During the convention, ABC received two calls from the White House press secretary, Pierre Salinger, complaining that Howard was creating “quite a stir” by speaking out against Kennedy. ABC dispatched an executive to the convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to tell her to cease and desist.

Never one to compromise her principles, Howard escalated her public efforts against Kennedy’s candidacy. “I can assure you that I am acting in my capacity as a United States citizen and my television broadcasts will in no way reflect my personal involvement,” she wrote her superiors in defense of her political activities on September 16, 1964. Without warning, two weeks later ABC suspended Howard from her daily show. Less than a month later, she was fired. Her efforts to get ABC to reconsider failed, as did her attempts to get a job at another network. One ABC executive informed her “she had been marked as ‘lousy.’” A civil suit Howard filed against ABC seeking $2 million in damages to her reputation and career was dismissed by the New York Supreme Court in early 1965.

And then came the personal tragedy. In the late spring of 1965, Howard suffered a miscarriage. Her ensuing depression resulted in a period of hospitalization that, sadly, failed to relieve her despondence. On July 4, 1965, while spending the holiday weekend in the Hamptons, Howard altered a prescription for 10 barbiturates and obtained a bottle of 100 tablets at a local pharmacy; she consumed the pills in the parking lot and died of the overdose. She was 39 years old.

The FBI would soon launch a bizarre inquiry to determine whether her death was somehow tied to Guevara’s disappearance following his visit to New York. (Unbeknownst to the U.S. intelligence community, Guevara had gone underground to lead guerrilla fighters in the Congo.) FBI agents interviewed Howard’s former colleagues at ABC about her Cuba work, her relations with Castro and Guevara, and why she might take her own life. The FBI also reviewed her case with members of the NYPD to ascertain whether Howard’s was “a legitimate suicide”—or sinister foul play tied, presumably, to her work on Cuba.

Howard's Cuba work is a fundamental part of her forgotten legacy. “I was an integral part of this fledgling new look at Cuba,” Howard once confided. Her efforts might not have fully paid off during her short lifetime, but they created the historical foundation for the back-channel diplomacy that led to the breakthrough in relations achieved by the Obama administration 50 years later. As Cuban President Raúl Castro steps down from power in April, and as U.S. policy makers revisit relations with Cuba in a post-Castro era, Howard must be remembered as an essential player in the original efforts to bring about what, in her diary, she called “an honorable rapprochement.”

“She showed us by her extraordinary sacrifice what moral strength means,” Senator William Proxmire said in his eulogy at Howard’s memorial service, without even knowing the extraordinary role she had played behind the scenes. “To live by the truth as she saw it; to dig out more of what she regarded as the truth than the establishment can comfortably permit. And to speak that truth loud and clear.”

Castro recognized her fearlessness, too—and knew what it had been able to accomplish. “You know no one could come down here and do what you did—with your will and persuasiveness,” he told her during one of their late-night phone conversations between Havana and New York in 1964. “No one.”

Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington. He is co-author, with William M. LeoGrande, of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

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