The Untold story Behind Obama's Historic Visit to Cuba
President Obama's historic visit to Havana starting on March21st marks the end of a 55 year diplomatic standoff between uber-capitalist USA and uber-communist Cuba. In fact so 'uber' has each country's opposing political ideology been that Cuba's decision in 1962 to allow Soviet ballistic missiles to be deployed on its soil almost led to a full scale nuclear war between the super powers.
From then until now the US and Cuba, living cheek by jowl, have been at daggers drawn economically, politically and ideologically. It makes it all the more remarkable that, imminently, with the whole world watching, the leader of the free world is to be greeted as an honoured guest by one of the last remaining socialist countries to follow a Marxist-Leninist credo.
How then, from the political deadlock that followed the Cold War, has this sudden warming of relations, referred to as 'The Cuban Thaw', come about? Some say it is the result of secret negotiations in Canada and the Vatican City with the assistance of Pope Francis. Well, that may have facilitated the opening of a US embassy in Havana last July but it is not what first initiated the conciliation and accord we are now witnessing.
Astonishingly, the diplomatic ice was first broken six years ago not by consular officials, religious leaders or heads of state but by an ageing Royal Navy Destroyer on her final deployment. In November 2010 HMS Manchester and her 270 exhausted ship's company had just finished a gruelling seven months of counter narcotics and hurricane relief duties in the Caribbean. I had been on board for the entire period making a documentary and, along with everyone else, was looking forward to going home for Christmas. Before crossing the Atlantic, however, Commander Rex Cox, the Commanding Officer, had one last extraordinary duty to perform. His orders were to sail to Cuba on a five day diplomatic visit, something that had been carefully but secretly planned between Whitehall, Washington and Havana for over a year. This
was a very big deal for no British or American warship had entered Cuban territorial waters in over half a century.
On Monday 15th November at 0800 HMS Manchester, a sleek Type 42 Destroyer, known affectionately as the "Mighty Manch", passed the ancient battlements that mark the entrance to Havana's main port. Everyone on board was excited but nervous about how the Cuban people were going to react to the arrival of an "enemy" gun-boat?
"Here we go ladies and gentlemen" said Rex Cox from his captain's seat on the bridge. "Take us in please Officer of the Watch"
"Blimey" said Leading Hand Paul Bailey, standing on the starboard bridge wing. "Talk about 'into the bleedin' lion's den'!"
Until that day revolutionary Cuba had been a no-go area for any British warship due to its enduring hostile relations with our closest allies, the Americans, who refused, as they still do, to trade with the island. The US trade embargo of communist Cuba is long lived and uncompromising. Even smoking Cuban cigars is branded unpatriotic throughout the Union and US cruise ships visiting Caribbean islands are still not allowed into Cuba. At that time even foreign cruise ships were penalised for stopping there. To do so meant an instant six-month prohibition from stopping at any American port, a financially crippling penalty for any cruise-line.
HMS Manchester was no cruise ship but a ship of war and as she sailed ever closer towards the inner harbour Rex Cox was in no doubt about how vital his mission was.
"Normalising relations after so long will require careful handling on both sides so the best thing will be to establish common ground from the start".
The official line was that HMS Manchester was visiting Cuba for talks about drug interdiction and hurricane relief work in the Caribbean. Certainly Cuba had and continues to have a great interest in both but none of us doubted that our presence there, even if shrouded by diplomatic obfuscation, was to forge relations with a country that for a long time has been ideologically and politically beyond our reach and, more crucially, that of our American partners.
"We are playing a big part in history" observed Able Seaman Kelly Hamon. "Just by being here we can start to mend things and show the Cubans that they can trust us".
The Royal Navy is good at these things", said Cox. "As a warship under the White Ensign HMS Manchester is British sovereign territory and, as such, a fantastic diplomatic and political platform from which we can, quite literally, fly the flag."
The original orders were that this visit should be 'low key' especially as far as the press was concerned so I found myself in a very privileged position. Perhaps the need to be understated is why our arrival in the harbour was not greeted by the 18 gun salute that had initially been planned and one that, by protocol, we would have had to return. At the last minute the ship received orders from the Foreign Office that the gun salute had been "turned off" as it was felt it was a gesture too far at this stage.
Guided by two Cuban tug boats "The Mighty Manch", battered and sea-worn after seven months of chasing cocaine smugglers and battling hurricane driven seas, glided gently to her allotted berth at the Terminal Sierra Maestra in old Havana. Suddenly, as we came alongside, there was an explosion of music and cheering.
The ship's company, lining the upper decks in white tropical rig, stood proudly to attention as crowds on the jetty cheered and a military band played Viva la Revolution followed by God Save the Queen with determined gusto. One hundred Cuban sailors saluted smartly as a Union Jack, unfurled from the ship's bow, billowed in a brisk off-shore breeze. The crowds cheered all the louder.
So much for understatement. The protocols seemed to be writing themselves.
I crossed the gangway as soon as I could to film the excited crowds eager to see the British destroyer secured alongside. "Incredible!" said Maron Rivera Gonzales from his vintage Chevrolet taxi. "I never thought I'd see the day that a western warship would be allowed into Havana and that we'd welcome it like this". I was surrounded by waving, whooping Cubans clearly delighted to welcome the "buque de guerra Británico".
In front of me on the key-side Her Excellency Dianna Melrose, the British Ambassador to Cuba, introduced Rex Cox to the Cuban Navy Chief, Rear Admiral Carlos Alfonso Duque Ramos.
"This is an extremely significant visit", acknowledged a delighted Melrose. "Not only to the Cuban Government but to the Cuban people. They feel quite isolated on this island. They can't travel abroad with out permission. So to see the British destroyer in the harbour is very special for them. It's a sign that things are changing"
The last British warship to have come alongside in Havana was the frigate HMS Bigbury Bay in 1957. Since then the Royal Navy had not been welcome in a Cuba that increasingly distanced itself from any Western power sympathetic to the American cause. In the classrooms school children continued to chant eternal loyalty to the political martyr Che Guevara, the "Guerrillio Heroico" or "Knight without flaw and without fear" and vowed to "die in a hail of bullets like Che" if duty demanded. But since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989 Cuba, along with many communist states, has had to reinvent its socialism and explore more pragmatic and less rigid ways of running its affairs - both at home and abroad.
Ramos Jose Emmanuel, a retired history teacher, watched HMS Manchester arrive from his tiny second floor apartment overlooking the old harbour. "This was a special moment for Cuba" he told me, sucking on the stub of a fat cigar. "Now that a British ship has come it might not be long before an American ship arrives. And we need that to happen. The world has new problems with terrorism, global warming and recession that means that old enemies need to start working together."
One thing not widely known about Manchester's visit was that among our crew was an eight strong contingent of US Coastguard that joined as part of our counter narcotics operation. The US military are forbidden to set foot on Cuban soil unless it is in Guantanamo Bay or as part of a diplomatic delegation and so our US Coastguards assumed they would either have to stay on the ship or else be transferred to another vessel before entering Cuban territorial waters. But, in the end a special dispensation was made and the Americans were allowed ashore with their British shipmates. (If they bought any Cuban cigars they would have to smoke them there because it was still illegal to import them into the States)
So, for the first time in a long time, US military personnel were walking the streets of Havana. Their weapons, of which they had enough to start a small war, were a mere stone's throw away on HMS Manchester where, of course, they stayed.
Over the next few days the men and women of HMS Manchester embarked on a range of practical and symbolic diplomatic initiatives. Rex Cox had private talks with Cuban Navy big wigs and the drug interdiction and hurricane relief teams on HMS Manchester briefed their counterparts from the Cuban Navy and Coastguard. The ship provided a guard of honour to pay respects at the statue of the great national hero of Cuba Jose Julian Marti Perez who was instrumental in breaking away from Spain in the 19th Century. This was of particular significance because some years ago an American sailor was caught urinating at the base of the statue - something the Cuban people have never forgotten or forgiven.
The public were invited on board HMS Manchester for a ship's tour which generated massive queues from dawn to dusk. There were formal receptions on shore given by the Cuban Navy and also at the Ambassador's residence but perhaps most importantly a cocktail party was held for VIPs, dignitaries, foreign diplomats and business people on the ship herself. The Royal Navy is famous for its cocktail parties, invariably held on the helicopter flight deck of visiting ships and, whilst quite formal with speeches and toasts, they also provide an opportunity for people to interact informally and it is often what is said 'in the margins' that is most effective in promoting understanding and consensus. Being a working warship and British sovereign territory the cocktail party ended, as all do, with the nightly Sunset Ceremony when the colours, the White Ensign at the stern and the Union Jack at the bow, are lowered as a bugler plays the Last Post. Sailors call this "Putting the Queen to bed" and visiting foreign guests always love it.
Rex Cox had one other cunning plan to promote Anglo-Cuban relations - and very much his own idea. 'The Mighty Manch', when she got home was to be decommissioned so the visit to Cuba was the old ship's last hurrah. Accordingly, Cox ordered that the ship's company's nightly knees ups or "runs ashore" should be traditional "rig runs" - meaning that all sailors would not, as usual, wear civilian clothes but their No 1's - white tropical rig. Cox reckoned this would go down a storm with the people of Havana but the sailors needed convincing. "S'posing they have a go?" said Leading Hand Stuart "Moffs" Moffat, worried that military uniforms on shore might antagonise. Cox was gently persuasive "Go ashore in rig on the first night and see how it goes". It was an occasion I will never forget as I accompanied the unwitting envoys from ship to shore .
The evening was warm, redolent of tropical Jasmine and echoed with the rich sound of rumba, conga and calypso emanating from the multitude of bars that surrounded the Plaza de San Francisco immediately adjacent to the ship. Guitar, trumpet, maracas and flute combined in an Afro-Latin blend of rhythms and, just as Cox had expected, we were welcomed wherever we went - that night it seemed everybody wanted to meet and greet a British sailor. It was not long before we were throwing back rum infused Mohitos and puffing on Cohiba Lanceros - Che Guevara's cigar of choice. We were drawn gladly into the fun, mirth and musicality of Cuban nightlife and everywhere we were greeted as long lost friends. The crisp white naval uniforms marked the sailors out as something special and greatly increased their prospects, not only of free rounds in the bars, but also, and most importantly, with the girls!
The rig run was a diplomatic master stroke.
Four days later a military band struck up as port workers unbuttoned our securing ropes to release us for departure. HMS Manchester was heading back to the UK. To mark the occasion the band played neither national nor revolutionary anthems but swinging, up beat Latin jazz.
"Bloody fantastic!" enthused Paul Bailey. "Them Cubans are ace. Really friendly. I want to come back here for my honeymoon next year"
Rex Cox's task of gently nudging open the doors of rapprochement between Cuba and the West had been completed - not in an overtly political way but in a peculiarly naval way.
"This was really about two navies coming together as representatives of their nations. We have common enterprises and a shared nautical culture so, as brothers of the sea, we can commune in ways that other's cannot. Sailors can often break down barriers that politicians are unable to".
And do not underestimate the size of those barriers. Just consider the recent history that formed the background to HMS Manchester's probing diplomatic mission: A communist revolution; a martyred revolutionary called Che; another, who survived and thrived, called Fidel; a failed CIA sponsored invasion of the island; a missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of annihilation; a protracted Cold War.
Quite a challenge for the sea pummelled, weather beaten old warship on her final mission.
"We have spent the last seven months chasing drugs runners and providing help to hurricane hit islands. Said a proud Rex Cox as we headed back to sea. "But diplomacy is always a duty for us wherever we go. We have done what we came to do and now it is for the politicians, on both sides, to build on what my ship's company has achieved".
Over to you Mr Obama.