Fidel Castro and James Donovan fishing at the Bay of Pigs, April 8, 1963. Castro is wearing a scuba-diving watch given to him by Donovan.(John B. Donovan)
In early April of 1963, a New York lawyer named James Donovan traveled to Havana to negotiate the release of US citizens being held in Cuban jails. He carried with him page proofs of an article titled “How Metadiplomacy Works: James Donovan and Castro,” soon to be published in the April 13 issue of The Nation. In a conversation with Fidel Castro that lasted from 2:15 to 6:30 am, Donovan read the article out loud and discussed it at length with the Cuban comandante and his top aide. “I explained the great tradition of The Nation,” Donovan later recounted, and Castro was “enormously interested.” According to Donovan, Castro “thought that this article was excellent, that it showed wisdom. That was his word— wisdom.” The Cuban premier promptly ordered that it be translated into Russian and shared with the Soviet ambassador, who pronounced himself “very pleased with the entire tenor of the article” and said that he hoped it would be a “constructive step forward to a solution of the problems over Cuba.”
Written by the renowned New York Times Magazine staff writer Gertrude Samuels, the Nation article examined the first real dialogue between Washington and Havana after the rupture of official relations in January 1961. Donovan “has been the sole direct channel between the United States and Cuba,” Samuels reported. “Ostensibly a private citizen” and a “volunteer” with no diplomatic status (it was not publicly known at the time that Donovan’s missions were overseen by Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the CIA), he had negotiated the release and return to the United States of 1,163 members of the CIA-led exile brigade captured by Cuban forces at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In addition, he had secured the departure of some 3,500 of their relatives after the 1962 missile crisis. The article also detailed Donovan’s ongoing effort to obtain the release of thirty-one US citizens whom Castro had imprisoned as spies and saboteurs. By winning not only the release of more than a thousand prisoners but also Castro’s confidence, Samuels pointed out, Donovan had become by 1963 the “most successful American practitioner of metadiplomacy—higher diplomacy”—with Cuba.
Fifty years after the article was written, “metadiplomacy” continues to hold lessons for Washington’s approach to Cuba. Donovan “holds the stubborn hope that his current mission will broaden beyond the immediate rescues—that he is setting the stage for some sort of conciliation between the American and the Cuban people,” Samuels reported. “I do believe that in these negotiations there does lie the greatest hope of creating some equitable solution to the problems now affecting relations between the two countries,” he told her. His unique diplomatic effort remains relevant to the search for an “equitable solution” to the problems that continue to plague US-Cuban relations.