Gabriel García Márquez is renowned for his magical realism and recognized as the consummate interpreter of the phantasmagorical mists that surround the harsh historical, political, social, and cultural landscapes of Latin America. On the eve of the US publication of his new novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, a fresh dimension to García Márquez's storied career has emerged—the writer as secret emissary. Revelations of his role as a special envoy between President Fidel Castro and President Bill Clinton are contained in what is, for all practical purposes, an unpublished short story of intrigue and back-channel diplomacy in the form of a classified report submitted to Castro in May 1998. (This past May, Castro publicized the document in a speech.)

This story begins in late March 1998, in the aftermath of a series of terrorist bombings of tourist hotels in Havana carried out by anti-Castro exiles. García Márquez informs Castro he is on his way to the United States to do a literature workshop at Princeton and will likely see Clinton in Washington in early May.

We came up with the idea that Fidel would write Clinton a confidential message about a sinister terrorist plan that Cuban intelligence had just uncovered, and which could affect not only their two countries, but many others as well. Fidel decided that it shouldn't be a personal letter from him, so as not to put Clinton in the position of having to respond, preferring instead that it be a written synthesis of our conversations about the plot and other topics of mutual interest.

Castro personally drafts this message, which alludes to continuing "plans for terrorist actions against Cuba" that Cuban intelligence agencies believe are being financed by a right-wing anti-Castro political foundation in Miami. He and Gabo—as the novelist is known in Latin America—are old friends; at the time of the Cuban revolution, García Márquez was actually a correspondent for Prensa Latina, a regional newspaper started by Castro's movement, and since the mid-'70s the writer has maintained a residence in Havana. The novelist also has ties to Clinton, who is an avid admirer; Clinton removed the Nobel Prize winner from the INS Cold War blacklist of Latin American leftists who were not allowed to freely travel to the United States. For Cuba, which has only limited, low-level diplomatic mechanisms to communicate with the United States, García Márquez is the perfect courier to transmit a private message—a trusted friend who has the highest-level access to the White House.

But almost immediately the secret mission runs into an inevitable snag. In the dicey, byzantine politics of US-Cuban relations—worthy of a García Márquez novel—Clinton's aides decide to shield him from any potential leak that might make it appear Washington and Havana are secretly engaged in a dialogue through a world-famous writer.

As soon as I arrived in Washington, on Friday, May 1st, one of [UN Ambassador Bill] Richardson's assistants told me by phone that the President could not receive me because he would be in California until Wednesday the 6th, and I had to fly to Mexico the day before. They proposed that I meet with the director of the National Security Council, Sandy Berger, who could accept the message in the President's name.

My nasty suspicion was that circumstances were getting in the way so that the message would be delivered to the security services, and not directly into the hands of the President.... I didn't feel authorized to accept the alternative of Berger receiving me instead of the President, above all because I was bringing him a very sensitive message that wasn't even mine. My personal opinion was that I should only deliver it directly into Clinton's hands.

I was in no hurry. I had written more than twenty good pages of my memoirs while staying on the idyllic Princeton campus, and this rhythm hadn't lagged in my impersonal hotel room in Washington, where I wrote for up to ten hours a day. Still, though I never admitted this to myself, the real reason I kept myself in solitary confinement was to watch over the message that lay under lock in the safety deposit box.... I dedicated myself to guarding the message while I wrote, ate, and received people in the hotel room, whose safe deposit box earned no trust from me because it didn't close with a combination lock, but rather with a key that looked like it came from the corner hardware store. I always carried it [the key] in my pocket, and after each inevitable outing, I checked to make sure the paper was still in its place and in the sealed envelope. I had read it so many times that I had almost learned it by heart, and I felt sure of myself in case I needed to explain any of its topics at the moment of delivery.

At this point the mission has stalled. García Márquez is unsure what to do
with the message if it cannot be handed directly to Clinton as was Castro's mandate. In his after-action report to Castro, García Márquez recognized he had a "serious problem" because "I could not discuss my doubts with anyone without violating secrecy."

But luck, and his high-level access to other policy players in Washington, provide a solution. After several days of waiting at his hotel, García Márquez receives an invitation to dinner at the house of the former president of Colombia and then-head of the Organization of American States, César Gaviria. Also invited is Clinton's just-retired special ambassador to Latin America, Thomas "Mack" McLarty, a close friend and confidant of the President. McLarty's wife, it seems, wants to have the chance to "clarify with me some points about my books," García Márquez recalls. For him, "the occasion seemed providential." At Gaviria's urging, after dinner has been consumed, the writer/emissary takes the opportunity to speak privately to McLarty.

When Gaviria and his family left us alone in the dining room, McLarty and I were like two old friends. Without hesitation, I disclosed the contents of the message for his president, and he did not conceal his apprehension over the terrorist plan, even if unaware of the atrocious details.... He ended the conversation with the promise that he would speak to the president.

As García Márquez waits for an answer, he communicates to Castro through the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC. If Clinton won't meet face-to-face, does García Márquez have authorization to actually provide the written message to McLarty or to Sandy Berger? The Cuban government sends back a message to proceed. Finally, McLarty passes a message through Gaviria saying that García Márquez should come to the White House on the morning of May 6 for a meeting, sans the President, with him and three other officials.

I wanted to establish from the start that I was going to speak for myself, without any merit or calling beyond my status as a writer, especially about an issue as tough and divisive as Cuba. So I began with a declaration, for the benefit of the hidden tape recorders, that didn't seem at all superfluous:

"This is not an official visit."

They all nodded in agreement and their seriousness surprised me.

I gave [the message] to McClarty [sic] in the sealed envelope, and I asked, as a favor, that he read [it] so we could talk...

McClarty [sic] didn't read it aloud for everyone as I had hoped, and which he certainly would have done had he known its contents beforehand. He just read it to himself, as if using the speed reading techniques made fashionable by President Kennedy, but changing emotions registered upon his face like glints of light on water. I had read it so many times that I could almost tell exactly which points in the document corresponded to each of his changes of expression.... When he had finished, he handed the paper to Dobbins, and then he to Clarke...

The entire meeting, including Mac's late arrival, lasted fifty minutes. Mac concluded it with a stock phrase: "I know you have a very tight schedule before returning to Mexico, and we also have much work ahead." Then [McLarty] spun a brief and concise speech that seemed to be a formal response to our visit. I would be reckless to try and provide a literal quote, but the essence and tone of his words was meant to express his gratitude for the great importance of our message, worthy of all the attention of his government, and which they would attend to with urgency. And in the manner of a happy ending, looking me in the eyes, he crowned me with his own personal laurel: "Your mission was of the highest importance, and you have carried it out admirably." Neither my excessive shyness nor the modesty I don't possess has allowed me relinquish that phrase to the passing glory of the microphones hidden in the flower vases.

Mission accomplished? García Márquez's back-channel diplomacy set in motion what appeared to be a quiet but significant counterterrorism collaboration between Cuban and US authorities. In response to Castro's invitation—transmitted through the novelist—the White House decided to send a team of FBI agents to Havana on June 15, 1998, for a briefing by Cuban intelligence on wealthy exiles in Miami who were financing the hotel bombings being carried out by the renowned anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. But instead of arresting the financiers, the FBI traced the intelligence provided to them back to five Cuban spies in Miami. On September 12, 1998, they were arrested; subsequently the five were prosecuted and sentenced to life terms in prison (although their convictions were overturned on appeal in August). Castro's government was furious at Washington's perceived betrayal. And even more so when the Bush administration allowed Posada Carriles to illegally enter the United States last March and reside unmolested in Miami while he filed a request for permanent asylum. On May 20, 2005, three days after Homeland Security agents finally detained Posada Carriles, Castro called a massive demonstration in Havana and gave a speech titled "A Different Behavior," in which he revealed the report García Márquez had filed after leaving Washington—and read aloud an untold story of Cuba's effort to find common ground with the United States on the threat of terrorism.

Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive and is coauthor of a forthcoming book on the history of communication between the United States and the Castro government.

 
     
     
 
top
 
     
   
     
 
 

CUBAN PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO AND GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ
IN HAVANA, 2000. PHOTO: GETTY