Former ambassador recounts tense clash she had with Fidel Castro in 1991
Twenty-six years ago, Vicki Huddleston was brand new in her job as a
U.S. diplomat to Cuba — and her dramatic first test came from none other
than the country’s charismatic and infamous dictator
VICKI HUDDLESTON 05.29.17
The year was 1991, the place was the Palacio de la Revolución in Havana,
Cuba, and my interlocutor was Fidel Castro, one of the most
consequential figures of the 20th century, and one of the most
commanding and charismatic men I have ever met.
A member of the U.S. foreign service, I had recently taken a job to
manage U.S. government relations with Cuba. It was a politically
sensitive position reserved for senior officers, but many of my fellow
diplomats avoided it because the powerful Cuban-American lobby dictated
a punitive policy toward Cuba. If you got on the wrong side of the
exiles ousted by the Castro regime, they could ruin your career.
Although I didn’t have the rank required, the State Department had
decided to make an exception, perhaps because of an ongoing legal
challenge on behalf of women foreign service officers that claimed
discrimination in awarding high-ranking jobs. Whatever the reason, I was
delighted and seized the opportunity, despite the risks.
One of my first duties was to accompany a U.S. delegation to Havana. At
the time, U.S.-Cuba relations were frosty, at best. We’d imposed a
destructive unilateral embargo on Cuba; a CIA-organized invasion at the
Bay of Pigs was a disastrous failure; and the Missile Crisis brought us
to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. Nevertheless, the United States
and the Soviet Union had played critical roles in negotiating what was
called the Tripartite Accord, which resulted in Namibia’s independence
and Cuba’s withdrawal of 50,000 troops from Angola. Fidel Castro had
invited to the Palacio de la Revolución ambassadors to Cuba from around
the world and additional delegations from five countries. Among the
200 guests there were only three women, Castro’s young, beautiful
interpreter, the Soviet ambassador’s spouse, and myself.
Immediately after the treaties acknowledging the successful completion
of the Tripartite Accord had been signed, Castro made a beeline for me.
I knew Castro preferred female interlocutors, assuming his formidable
charisma would work in his favor, but America was also his sworn enemy.
So I was not sure how he would react when we met. He was still handsome
at 65 with a long face made even longer by his heavy grey-black beard.
Castro smiled, clearly enjoying a moment where he could hover over the
petite representative of the “empire,” as he called the United States.
He then asked in English, “Who are you, someone’s spouse?”
I was furious. Fidel knew exactly who I was; he knew everything about
those of us who managed U.S. policy, and I had visited the island
several times when I was the deputy in the Cuba office. As I drew myself
up for an appropriately outraged reply, I realized that the entire room
was listening. No matter. I stood as tall as possible — at 5-feet,
5-inches — and announced boldly, “No. I am the director of Cuban affairs.”
Fidel, now purring with pleasure, surveyed the room to ensure that no
one would miss his next words. He boomed, “Oh? I thought I was.” Laugher
filled the great hall. My delegation was speechless; I was angry and
embarrassed. Fidel moved on, having skewered me. But just as I was
thinking that perhaps this job wasn’t the right fit, security guards
asked me to accompany them. Fidel was waiting at the entrance to the
buffet. He offered me his arm. I swallowed my pride and took it.
Fortunately, there were no media on hand and no cellphones to record
Castro and me, arm in arm. Had the ever-wary Cuban diaspora seen this, I
would have been fired instantly. But diplomats live in a world where
personal relations count and, at that moment, I decided the better
course was to accept his calculated gesture of graciousness.
At the same time, I realized that, without even trying, I’d become
Castro’s foil. Fidel gave a slight bow, indicating that I should lead
the guests in filling their plates with traditional Cuban delicacies. I
hesitated, uneasy, then took a few shrimps from the sumptuous display.
The impact of our embargo and dwindling Soviet subsidies meant that most
Cubans did not have enough to eat. Many survived on the tinned meat and
root crops they bought with their government-issued ration cards in
tiny, dingy, stores with unhappy clerks. Some were so desperate that
they raised pigs in their apartments, cutting their vocal cords to avoid
problems with the neighbors.
As I left the buffet table, a security guard again appeared, this time
to escort me to Fidel and his simultaneous interpreter, who were
standing alone on the far side of the room. By the time I’d reached him,
he was talking rapidly and passionately, throwing up his hands. The
American “Bloqueo” — Castro’s name for the embargo — was cruel to Cuba’s
children. They were suffering. It was all the fault of my uncaring
The other delegations were keenly watching this pantomime. They couldn’t
hear Fidel, but they could see his passion. They must have been
wondering how Fidel intended to humiliate the new American diplomat
next. Castro’s calculating brown eyes scrutinized me, like a cat toying
with a mouse. With plate, fork, and napkin in my hands, I felt at a
distinct disadvantage. I felt trapped and detected a fleeting smile
cross Fidel’s lips. I was on my own. This moment would determine whether
I was up to the job.
Fidel pushed closer to me, forcing me to step back. “Your Bloqueo is
killing our children. Not one aspirin to stop their suffering. How can
you be so cruel?” I took a deep breath. In fact, I disagreed with
American policy on exactly this point. Our embargo hurt the Cuban people
far more than its Communist leaders.
But as much as I disliked the embargo, I wasn’t going to be Fidel’s
patsy. It was my job to defend U.S. policy, no matter my personal
feelings. I looked him squarely in the eyes. “That’s not true,” I almost
shouted. “The embargo is not a blockade. Cuba can buy aspirin from any
country it wishes, except the United States. If there is a medicine your
children need that is only made in the United States, we will sell it to
Fidel scoffed. “You know it takes years to get permission.”
“When Cuba holds free and fair elections with international
observation,” I continued, “we will lift the embargo.” Castro moved
closer; he was intense, and seemed to be searching for a sign of
softening in my position. I stood my ground. “There is no change in U.S.
policy. Cuba must change first.”
Fidel fumed, “You will never give up the Bloqueo; the Gusanos won’t
allow it.” Gusanos, or worms, was the spiteful term he used to describe
Cuban exiles in America. Turning away, he stomped off. Relieved, I set
down my still full plate and poured myself a glass of Cuban rum. I had
not succumbed to Fidel’s forceful personality. I’d stood up to him and
proven to myself and my delegation that I could handle my new position.
I didn’t like the embargo, but I loved the job. By doing it well, I
hoped I might help craft a policy that would empower — rather than harm
— the Cuban people.
Ambassador Vicki Huddleston is a retired career senior foreign service
officer whose last assignment was as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of
defense for African affairs in the office of the secretary of defense
from June 2009 through December 2011. Before that she was chargé
d’affaires ad interim to Ethiopia, U.S. ambassador to Mali, principal
officer of the U.S. interests section in Havana, deputy assistant
secretary of state for African Affairs, and U.S. ambassador to
Madagascar. She is a member of Women Ambassadors Serving America. Her
book Our Woman in Havana: A U.S. Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long
Struggle with Fidel Castro’s Revolution, The Overlook Press, is due out
Source: Former ambassador recounts tense clash she had with Fidel Castro
in 1991 – Women in the World in Association with The New York Times –