Salinas Discusses Clinton-Castro Negotiations in New Book

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In a memoir of his 1988-94 presidency, entitled Mexico: The Difficult Path to Modernity, published today, Oct. 8, in Spain, Salinas describes how he enlisted Colombian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez to help him on his sensitive mission.

Salinas' chapter on the event, which follows in extract form,reveals a side to White House diplomacy that never makes the front pages:

"On August 23, 1994, at 8:30 in the evening, my secretary came into my office in the official residence of Los Pinos. "President Clinton would like to speak with you." When I picked up the receiver, I thought that Clinton would make a comment about the peaceful and remarkably high level of voter turnout in the (1994) electoral process."

After congratulations from Clinton, writes Salinas, what followed was "one of the most important episodes in the second half of the 20th century for Mexican diplomacy." For the next six months, writes Salinas, "I participated in the attempts to break down the free trade barrier that the United States had imposed on Cuba for 40 years."

"President Clinton got down to business. He told me he was very worried about the flow of raft people from Cuba to Florida... 'Please check around,' he told me. He wanted me to establish direct contact with the Cuban government to find out their opinion on the flight of the raft people. Textually he said, 'We don't want a crisis.'"

Salinas continues: "I needed a link with the Cuban government that would guarantee total discretion and direct and immediate access to Fidel Castro."

As a go-between, Salinas phoned Gabriel GarcÍa Márquez, the Colombian novelist and Nobel prize-winner. He was known and trusted by both Salinas and Castro. Around midnight, GarcÍa Márquez and Salinas called "El Commandante" in Havana.

"After my message, Castro replied very clearly; he told me that the flight of the raft people was not a tactic by the Cuban government, but a reflection of the untenable situation created by the Americans themselves, through the economic blockade." With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Moscow severed its economic lifeline to Cuba, leaving the island with only a trickle of aid.

"The following day, August 24, Clinton called me again. I told him exactly what Castro had said; Clinton responded that he was willing to talk about immigration, as Castro proposed, but not other subjects (including the blockade)...Clinton pointed out that he was inclined to substantially increase legal immigration. He insisted that it was a good idea to sit down and solve the problem before it became an unmanageable situation."

Clinton's message was jotted down and relayed personally to Castro in Havana by GarcÍa Márquez. Castro told Salinas: "I understand the American proposal. We can talk about immigration without mentioning the other aspects... We will manage to talk without damage to the prestigue of either party."

High-level talks were held in New York between the Cubans and the Americans to defuse the boat people crisis. Still, both sides were suspicious of each other.

Salinas the messenger decided to play a more active role. "I told Castro that Clinton understood his arguments, but that he was facing a very serious internal political situation... Castro was very mistrustful. "I understand Clinton's complications," said Castro, "but I cannot forget our own problems... the strategy set out to destroy us." I repeated that I could perceive Clinton's good faith." Salinas assurances seemed to ease Castro's misgivings.

On November 1, Clinton told Salinas to pass on word to Castro that the U.S. had agreed to increase the number of visas for legal Cuban immigrants if Castro curtailed the departure of the illegal boat people. Castro was reluctant, but after Salinas' coaxing, he finally agreed to the deal. His conditions: that the U.S. lift a ban on charter flights to the island, telephone calls and the transfer of remittances from Cubans in the U.S. back to the families on the island.

At 11 PM on Sept. 6, Castro called the Mexican president and told him: "My answer to Clinton's message is this: we accept what he proposes and we trust his word." The flood of Cuban boat people subsided, and the U.S. began to open up telephone, air, and banking links between Florida and the island.

To Salinas' regret, talks on lifting the US blockade stalled in 1996 after the Cuban air force shot down a private aircraft from Florida killing everyone aboard.

When GarcÍa Márquez was told that Salinas had written about the Colombian novelist's role as secret envoy between Clinton and Castro, he replied with surprise: "Does Castro know about this book?"

Contacted at his Mexico City home on Oct. 6, the Nobel Prize winner confirmed Salinas' version of events. "I wrote a memo about all this, and gave copies to both Mr Salinas and Comandante Castro, but I forgot to keep one for myself."

In a telephone interview, GarcÍa Márquez, recalled how he was flown in the Mexican presidential plane to Havana to relay Salinas' message to Castro. Afterwards, the Colombian met with Clinton on Martha's Vineyard where the president was vacationing with his family. "The writer William Styron was offering a dinner for 18 people, and Clinton was invited. The president and Italked about literature, mostly we discussed William Faulkner."

Then GarcÍa Márquez took Clinton aside and passed on Castro's message. "Try to come to an understanding with Fidel," GarcÍa Márquez urged Clinton, "He has a very good opinion of you." Clinton heeded his advice.

As for his his foray into quiet diplomacy, GarcÍa Márquez feels he did the right thing. "My main concern is the relation between Latin America and the United States," he says, "If there's anything I can do to improve this, I am happy to do it."