Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the famed Colombian novelist who died April 17, 2014, played a fascinating cameo role in the story of the Cuban Five. In the spring of 1998, he carried a secret message about a terrorist plot against Cuba from Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton. That session led to an unprecedented sit-down between the FBI and Cuban State Security in Havana in June 1998. And it was those meetings that triggered the events that ultimately led to the arrest of the Cuban Five on September 12, 1998.
You can learn more about that backstory in this excerpt from What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuba Five.
Havana, April 18, 1998
Gabriel García Márquez needed to call Bill Richardson. Immediately. He needed to let the American ambassador to the United Nations know that plans for his upcoming visit to Washington had taken a sudden, “unforeseen and significant turn.” García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning author, had stopped in Havana for a few days on his way to the United States to clear up some literary loose ends.
He was writing an article about Pope John Paul’s recent visit to Cuba. When the Pope made his historic speech three months before to hundreds of thousands of Cubans — believers and non-believers alike — García Márquez had been a front-row guest of Cuban President Fidel Castro in Revolution Square. It had been a fascinating speech. The Pope had publicly called for the release of Cuba’s political prisoners while chastising the United States for its ongoing blockade and attacking what he described as a “capitalist neo-liberalism [that] subdues human beings and nations’ development to the blind forces of the market.” García Márquez was looking forward to writing more about its larger meaning.
Given that García Márquez and Castro had been friends for decades, it was hardly surprising the author would visit the Cuban leader during this stopover in Havana. Or even that Castro would ask his well-connected friend to carry a message for him to another of the novelist’s good friends, United States President Bill Clinton.
What was surprising — shocking, even horrifying — was the content of the message Castro wanted him to deliver to the president of the United States. Cuba had just discovered what Castro would describe as a “sinister terrorist plot” against Cuba, and he wanted Bill Clinton to know about it so he could take appropriate action. But Castro didn’t want to put this information in an official letter in order “to avoid putting Clinton in the predicament of giving an [official] answer.”
Instead, Castro had prepared a written summary of the plot and “other subjects of mutual interest,” which Márquez could crib from when he spoke to Clinton. The note, entitled “Summary of Issues That Gabriel García Márquez May Confidentially Transmit To President Clinton,” touched on seven different subjects, but it was “Point 1” that really mattered: “Plans for terrorist actions against Cuba continue to be hatched and paid by the Cuban American National Foundation using Central American mercenaries… Now, they are plotting and taking steps to set up bombs in planes from Cuba or any other country’s airline carrying tourists to, or from, Cuba to Latin American countries.”
Thanks to Cuba’s many and various intelligence agents inside the many and various plots, Castro was able to describe the plan in detail. The bombers intended to “hide a small device at a certain place inside the plane — a powerful explosive with a fuse controlled by a digital clock that can be programmed 99 hours in advance.”
While the immediate threat was against Cuba, Castro predicted that the simple, “really devilish procedures” involved and the use of components “whose detection is practically impossible” made such attacks so easy “they might become an epidemic as the hijacking of planes once became.
“The American investigation and intelligence agencies are in possession of enough reliable information on the main people responsible,” Castro’s note concluded, throwing down the gauntlet. “If they really want to, they have the possibility of preventing… this new modality of terrorism. It will be impossible to stop it if the United States doesn’t discharge its fundamental duty of fighting it. The responsibility to fight it can’t be left to Cuba alone since any other country of the world might also be a victim of such actions.”
Now, García Márquez picked up the telephone. He had promised to call Richardson a week before he was to arrive in the United States to find out whether Richardson had been successful in lining up his meeting with Clinton. But now it was no longer “a simple personal visit.” On the phone he explained to Richardson he was carrying an “urgent” message for the president.
“Out of respect for the agreed secrecy I didn’t mention on the phone who was sending it,” García Márquez would write later, though he assumed Richardson would make the connection, “nor did I let it transpire that a delayed delivery could be the cause of major catastrophes and the death of innocent people.” He also didn’t mention the “two unwritten questions” Castro had suggested he could raise face-to-face with Clinton “if the circumstances were propitious.”
Washington, May 6, 1998
“After a warm embrace,” Gabriel García Márquez would write in his report to Fidel Castro, “he sat in front of me with his hands on his knees and started speaking with a common phrase so properly said that it rang of truth: ‘We are at your disposal.’” But the man sitting across from him in the White House this morning was not — as both he and Castro had hoped — U.S. President Bill Clinton. It was Clinton’s oldest and closest friend, Thomas Mack McLarty, the president’s advisor on Latin America.
Clinton was still in California and would be for another day. García Márquez had only discovered that after he’d arrived in Washington from Princeton six days before. A staffer from Bill Richardson’s United Nations ambassador’s office had suggested he meet with the president’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger instead. García Márquez had met Berger in September 1997 during an earlier face-to-face meeting with Clinton. Berger had seemed to be on the same wavelength as his boss on the issue of Cuba, but should he agree to meet with him instead of the man he’d been sent to meet?
García Márquez worried Richardson might be “interposing conditions” to prevent his message from getting directly to his intended recipient. If it was just a matter of timing in terms of meeting with the president himself, García Márquez told the staffer, he’d be glad to delay his own scheduled departure for Mexico by a day or two. We’ll let the president know, the aide replied.
García Márquez passed that message on to Cuba’s diplomatic representative in Washington who used a “special envoy — confidential communications are so slow and hazardous from Washington” — to convey the latest developments to Havana. “The response was a gentle request to wait in Washington for as long as necessary to fulfill my mission,” García Márquez wrote. “At the same time I was humbly asked to be most careful to avoid offending Sam Berger for not accepting him as an interlocutor. The funny end of the message [from Havana],” he added, “left no doubt about the author, even without a signature: ‘We wish you can write a lot,’” it read.
García Márquez, for his part, was “not in a hurry.” During his literary workshop at Princeton, he had managed to produce “20 useful pages” on the memoir he was writing. And “the pace had not diminished in my impersonal room at the Washington hotel where I spent up to 10 hours a day.” He would write, eat his meals and receive occasional visitors in the room.
One reason he rarely went out — even to enjoy the city’s spring blossoms — was the sobering reality that he had placed Fidel Castro’s written message for Bill Clinton inside his hotel room safe, and “it had no combination lock but a key that seemed to have been bought at a convenience store around the corner. I always carried it in my pocket and, after every inevitable occasion in which I left my room, I checked that the paper was still in its place and in the sealed envelope… Just the idea that I could lose it sent shivers down my spine, not so much for the loss itself as for the fact that it would have been easy to identify its source and destination.”
Two nights earlier, however, García Márquez had agreed to attend a private dinner at the home of former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria. Gaviria had invited McLarty and his wife because she was eager to talk to the famous author about “some points” in his books.
After dinner, Gaviria — who knew the outlines of the message García Márquez was carrying — arranged for him to have a private chat with McLarty. “He did not conceal his apprehension over the terrorist plan,” Márquez noted, “even if unaware of the atrocious details.” McLarty said he hadn’t known about García Márquez’s request to speak directly to Clinton but promised to pass on the message.
The next morning, García Márquez sent another message to Havana. If he couldn’t get to see the president himself, he asked, should he deliver the message to McLarty or to Berger. Havana’s response “seemed to be in favor of McLarty, but always [being] careful not to offend Berger.” In the end, the Cubans were happy to let García Márquez follow his instincts. “We trust your talents,” the message said. García Márquez would call that “the most engaging consent that I have ever been given in my life.”
After lunch with McLarty’s wife — they hadn’t found the time to talk at dinner the night before — the White House called García Márquez to tell him a meeting had been arranged for him the next morning with McLarty and three senior officials from the National Security Council. There’d been no mention of Berger. Had García Márquez’s phone been tapped, or the communications between Havana and Washington been intercepted? He could only guess.
The next morning at 11:15 a.m., García Márquez was ushered into McLarty’s office at the White House, where he was introduced to the three NSC officials: “Richard Clarke, leading director of multilateral affairs and presidential advisor on all subjects of international policy, especially for the fight on terrorism and narcotics; James Dobbins, senior director at the NSC for Inter-American affairs with the position of ambassador and presidential advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean; and Jeff Delaurentis, director of Inter-American affairs at the NSC and special advisor on Cuba… The three officials were gentle and highly professional.”
There was none of the pro forma sabre-rattling or posturing that often opened such gatherings, García Márquez noted with satisfaction. There was “no mention of democratic reforms, free elections or human rights, nor any of the political clichés with which Americans pretend to condition any project of cooperation with Cuba. On the contrary,” García Márquez reported hopefully, “my clearest impression of this trip is the certainty that reconciliation is beginning to grow as something irreversible in the collective consciousness.”
The preliminaries out of the way, McLarty joined them from another meeting, and Márquez proceeded to outline the circumstances that had brought him to the White House today. He then handed McLarty the envelope with Fidel’s translated letter — six double-spaced pages covering seven topics.
McLarty quickly read the note, saying nothing, “but his changing emotions showed on his face as light in the water,” García Márquez would report back to Castro. “I had read it myself so many times that I could practically know which of his expressions corresponded to the different points in the document. The first point, about the terrorist plot, made him grumble and he said: ‘It’s terrible.’ Later, he suppressed a mischievous smile and, without interrupting his reading he said: ‘We have common enemies.’ I think he said it referring to the fourth point, where a description is made of a group of senators plotting to boycott the passage of the Torres-Rangel’s and Dodd’s bills and appreciation is expressed about Clinton’s efforts to save them.”
Once all had absorbed Castro’s message, the rest of the meeting focused, understandably, on the threat to blow up the planes, “which made an impression on everyone.” García Márquez understood why. He’d had to overcome his own “terror over a bomb explosion as I was flying to Mexico after having learned of it in Havana.”
García Márquez knew the circumstances were “propitious” to raise the two unwritten questions Castro had asked him to raise and that García Márquez had carefully written in his organizer as “the only thing I was afraid to forget.” The first question: “Wouldn’t it be possible for the FBI to contact their Cuban counterparts for a joint struggle on terrorism?” Though it wasn’t part of the unwritten question, García Márquez added “a line of my own making: ‘I’m sure that you’d find a prompt and positive reaction on the part of the Cuban authorities.’”
García Márquez was amazed at the “quick and strong reaction” of the NSC officials. Richard Clarke, for one, thought it would be a very good idea. But he cautioned that the FBI wouldn’t be keen if information about such cooperation leaked out during an investigation. Would the Cubans be willing to keep the information a secret?
García Márquez couldn’t help but smile. “There is nothing that the Cubans like better than keeping secrets,” he replied.
His second question wasn’t so much a question as a suggestion, a diplomatic opening: “Cooperation in matters of security,” Castro had suggested, “could open the way to a propitious climate leading to the resumption of American travels to Cuba.” García Márquez told his hosts he had personally met Americans from all strata of society who — knowing his friendship with Castro — asked for his help in making contacts for business or pleasure in Cuba. “I mentioned Donald Newhouse, editor of various journals and chairman of the Associated Press, who treated me to a lavish dinner at his countryside mansion in New Jersey at the end of my literary workshop in Princeton University,” García Márquez reported. “His current dream is traveling to Cuba to discuss with Fidel personally the establishment of a permanent AP bureau in Havana, similar to CNN’s.”
By the end of their meeting, which had lasted just 50 minutes, Clarke had promised the NSC would take “immediate steps for a joint U.S.-Cuba plan on terrorism.” Dobbins made a note in his pad that he would “communicate with their embassy in Cuba to implement the project.” Embassy? García Márquez joked that Dobbins had promoted the United States Interest Section in Havana to a new level in America’s foreign affairs hierarchy.
“What we have there is not an embassy,” Dobbins replied with a laugh, “but it is much bigger than an embassy.”
“They all laughed with mischievous complicity,” García Márquez reported.
And then it was over. “I know that you have a very tight agenda before you get back to Mexico and we have also many things ahead,” McLarty said. Then, looking him in the eye, he added: “Your mission was in fact of utmost importance, and you have discharged it very well.”
García Márquez couldn’t help but be pleased. “Neither my excessive honor nor my absence of modesty,” he reported to Castro, “has allowed me to abandon that phrase to the ephemeral glory and the microphones hidden in flower vases.” More importantly, “I left the White House with the firm impression that the effort and the uncertainties of the previous days had been worthy. The annoyance for not having delivered the message personally to the President had been compensated by a more informal and operative conclave whose good results would be forthcoming.” Gabriel García Márquez had done his part.