By Salim Lamrani, French, expert on Latin American and Cuban issues
A career diplomat with more than three decades of experience, Michael E. Parmly was appointed head of the American Interests Section in Havana from 2005 to 2008, during the George W. Bush administration, in a period when Relations between the two countries were particularly tense, due to the hostile approach adopted by the White House against Cuba.
Indeed, during the eight years of the two Republican mandates, Washington increased the economic sanctions against the island and adopted in May 2004 and July 2006 a series of measures – whose declared objective was to overthrow the Cuban government – that mainly affected the Cuban population. The most emblematic measure, denounced from both sides of the Florida Straits, was the one that limited family trips to the island by the Cuban-American community to two weeks every three years, in the best of cases. Indeed, in order to obtain authorization to visit relatives in Cuba, it was necessary to demonstrate that there was a “direct” member of the family in the country of origin. The Bush Administration had redefined the concept of “family” in a very restrictive way, limiting it to grandparents, parents, siblings,husbands and children. Thus, a Cuban-American from Miami who had an aunt in Havana could not travel to the island, not even fourteen days every three years. Similarly, remittances to family members – in the new narrow definition – were limited to $ 100 per month, while they constituted the country’s second source of income.
Upon his arrival in Havana, while trying to better understand the Cuban idiosyncrasy, Michael Parmly distanced himself somewhat from his predecessor James Cason, whose attitude that the Cuban authorities deemed provocative was far from the demands of traditional diplomacy and the principles of the Vienna Convention.
Also a professor in national security studies at the National War College, Michael Parmly has spoken in favor of a normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States and has published a study on Guantánamo, in which he invites Washington to return the naval base To Cuba. In these conversations, the diplomat, now retired, shares his point of view on the conflictive relations between the two countries.
Salim Lamrani: Mr. Ambassador, you are a career diplomat with long experience. Could you tell us a little about your career?
Michael Parmly: First, I thank you for the promotion. The fact is that I never had the rank of ambassador, only the level. In effect, the Senate never confirmed my appointment as we did not have diplomatic relations with Cuba. Although everyone calls me Mr. Ambassador, I do not have the title.
My career as a diplomat lasted 34 years. I joined the diplomatic corps on June 29, 1977, to be precise, and I retired on November 30, 2010. During this period I held various positions in Western Europe, in Eastern Europe – Romania, in the Balkans, Bosnia and later in Kosovo – in Morocco and in Cuba to crown all that. I’ve also been in Washington function five times during my career.
I could divide my career into three stages: before Bosnia, after Bosnia and Cuba. Before Bosnia I had a traditional career, I held classical positions and learned my trade. After Bosnia I discovered another type of diplomacy and from there I held positions of leadership, as ambassador or director. Finally the position in Cuba, which was something exceptional.
SL: You were in Havana as Chief of the North American Interests Section between 2005 and 2008 under the Bush Administration, at a time when relations between the two countries were tense. What was your relationship with the island before you left for Cuba and what knowledge did you have of this country?
MP : I am going to confess something to you. I arrived in Havana on September 15, 2005. But it was not the first time I had visited the island. I spent the summer of 1959 in Cuba with my family, that is, just after the triumph of the Fidel Castro Revolution. I spent the summer with my cousins, my aunts and my uncles in Havana, Matanzas and Varadero.
I did not speak a word of Spanish at that time, but I saw that something exceptional was happening. It was not just because the men wore beards and uniforms, but because at night I was listening to the conversations of my uncles and aunts that they were wondering what to do.
As an ambassador he spoke Spanish quite well. I had been a Spanish teacher to pay for my doctoral studies and then had a good technical knowledge of the Cervantes language. On the other hand, this was not the case with my team and I reproached my colleagues for not speaking Spanish well enough. I then encouraged them to leave the offices and go to meet the Cubans to learn the language.
Before arriving in Cuba, I had directed the Human Rights Division in the State Department. Anywhere in the world where there was a human rights problem, my division dealt with the issue. So I had many contacts with the Cuban reality.
SL: What was your mission in Cuba? What is the role of a working diplomat in a country that had complicated relations with the United States?
MP: Complicated is a very Cuban word. If a Cuban says “it’s complicated”, that means that it is really the case. From a formal point of view, I was in charge of 51 career diplomats, of professionals. I hired about fifteen people, because we had a lot of work, mainly the partners of the diplomats on duty. On the other hand, I had at my disposal more than 320 Cubans who were not my employees but those of the Cuban Government, to help the mission of the American embassy.
I had a conversation with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice about two months after my arrival in Havana. He literally said the following to me: “Michael, I don’t want you to make Cuba a question of American domestic politics. I want you to do foreign policy in Cuba ”. This statement from Condoleeza Rice was very important to me. My predecessors had interpreted his role as the representative of Miami, of the Cuban community in the United States. But Condoleeza Rice told me, in the presence of witnesses, that she wanted me to make Havana a normal position, that is, to take care of foreign policy.
There were other opinions within the Bush Administration and the symbol for that was the sign . Some people in the Bush administration had the idea of installing a light panel that constantly broadcast messages, day and night. You can imagine Fidel’s reaction to this sign. It was the only time he came to the American embassy and said verbatim to his guards: “Take that away from me.” As it was the diplomatic representation of the United States, the guards did not have access and the illuminated panel remained there. However, I modified the content of the messages on the sign during my stay, because thinking about the words of Condoleeza Rice, I believed that my role was to understand Cubans.
American diplomats had a very important role, since we were the only Americans to have contact with the Cuban people. You had to listen and understand the Cubans, since no one in the American government had that capacity. There were official visits from time to time, but it was something very rare. So I wanted to understand the Cubans and transmit my knowledge to Washington, so that the Government would understand the country. My President George W. Bush did not understand what I was thinking about Cuba and it was thanks to us that he understood the island better.
SL: Did you receive during your tenure as ambassador orders with which you disagreed?
MP: You have to know something about American diplomats: we are very disciplined, as much as the military, although we have much more flexibility and possibilities for dialogue. I always had the opportunity to dialogue with my superiors. There were two bosses that I greatly admired: Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell. Also, Colin Powell, who was Secretary of State under George W. Bush, chose me for the post in Havana. The first day when he came to the State Department, he said the following: “You have to know something about me. I get angry quickly, but I calm down quickly too ”. What he meant was that, during an argument, in case of disagreement, the interlocutor should not give in his position, but on the contrary, present his arguments. Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton had the same attitude and were open to dialogue.I was lucky in my career as a diplomat to have bosses who were in favor of dialogue. So I cannot say that I received an order with which I did not agree.
When I was appointed in Havana, I knew that the idea of installing the light panel, the sign, in the embassy was in the State Department. I knew it was not going to be to the liking of the Cubans. I had the following choice: refuse to install the sign or choose the content of the messages. If I had listened to the hard line from the White House under George W. Bush, I would have put up the most insulting slogans. But since I was the Head of Mission, it was up to me to decide on the content. I was severely criticized at the State Department. Once, they even called me in Washington for inquiries and said, “Parmly, why don’t you put more radical slogans on the sign?” I replied that I knew how to communicate with the Cubans and that I knew what could or could not damage their sensitivity.Then I gave the order that only young diplomats, who were starting their careers, were to be in charge of the messages. I had the right of veto. If something provocative had been suggested to me, I would not have accepted it. But it was never the case. They had understood my way of managing relations with Cuba and they never proposed provocative messages. For example, we always put the results of American baseball games because Cubans love this sport.We always put the results of American baseball games because Cubans love this sport.We always put the results of American baseball games because Cubans love this sport.
When I was criticized in Washington, I knew I had the support of Condoleeza Rice. One day a Cuban-American deputy went to the State Department to criticize one of my actions in Havana. Condoleeza Rice then responded verbatim: “If Michael did it this way, it was because it was the right way.” That the Secretary of State responded in those terms to an American deputy was all the support I needed.
In a word, I never received an order that could have led me to disobey because I always had a dialogue with my superiors.
SL: Did you ever fear for your safety as ambassador to Cuba?
MP: No, really. We had three levels of protection. There were the Cuban guards that we hired and who were our employees. There were the guards of the Cuban Government, who were members of the special brigades. There were also twelve marines who protected the embassy, not the diplomats, but the equipment, the secrets, etc.
There was an incident one day. If my memory serves me correctly, it was August 11, 2006. On July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro announced that he was retiring from power after his illness. August 11 is the date of Fidel’s birthday and the Cuban government organized a big party in front of the embassy to show its loyalty to the chief. For my part, I wanted to see how enthusiastic the Cubans were towards Fidel and if they were going to celebrate his birthday at the Anti-imperialist Tribune located in front of the embassy, which was a way of responding to the sign.
So I went, dressed casually, more to listen to the people present than to listen to music. A quarter of an hour after my arrival a Dutch journalist saw me and asked her cameraman to film me. Suddenly, a pack of photographers surrounded me and I didn’t feel very safe. However, I knew that there were Cuban guards who watched over what I was doing, they followed me, they knew where I was and who I was talking to. Everyone knows them in Cuba and knows that they have to be taken seriously. Those guards dressed in civilian clothes, wearing a guayabera, with a headset, approached me, calmly pushed the people aside and asked me with extreme courtesy: “Sir, do you want us to accompany you to your car?” People wouldn’t have hurt mebut there was a crowd phenomenon that could be dangerous and I agreed to be accompanied to my car.
One day I was in the White House, in the Oval Office, with George W. Bush. He said, “It must be terrible for you there.” I answered no. He replied: “But, everyone tells me that he is hostile!” I told him that people were hostile and we were hostile to them. If you listen to them, it is not the case. There were people who were angry with me in Cuba, but never to the point of physically threatening me.
I was in Afghanistan, in Kandahar for four months, and there was danger there because the situation was not controlled. In Cuba the government controls the situation. It is one of the advantages of a totalitarian state. Let me explain the term: what does “totalitarian” mean? It means that the totality of what happens on the island is controlled by the state. But what I can say is that the Cuban people are characterized by their spontaneity. If Cubans are disciplined, it is because they have decided to do so, not because it is a request from the government. They are too spontaneous for that. They are disciplined because they have decided it themselves.
SL: What is your view of the Cuban society that you met during your mission? What are the positives and negatives for you?
MP: Cubans are very spontaneous and I liked that a lot. They told me what they thought. As much as it is said that it is a totalitarian state, Cubans are so spontaneous that they say what they think. Sometimes that hurt, but I knew they were honest with me.
Cubans are very cultured. Young or old, poor or rich, they have an extremely broad culture, much more than any other country in Latin America. Mexico, which has a great culture and a great history, comes a little closer to this level. Cubans are aware of this. They are proud to have this level of knowledge in the arts, in music, in literature. In this regard, my favorite author in the whole world is Leonardo Padura. He is a Cuban who lives on the island and publishes formidable books. Cuban culture is very rich. On the other hand, my house in Switzerland, near Geneva, is decorated with Cuban art. One of my best friends is a Cuban pianist. Among the best artists, the best musicians, the best dancers, the best writers, many are in Cuba. Cubans are naturally proud of that.
SL: What do you think of the standard of living of Cubans?
MP: It is difficult to be Cuban today. The Special Period has nothing to envy to the current period. We, the United States, are partly responsible for this situation. But we are not the only ones responsible. I think that the Cuban government is in the right direction as it lets the people develop the economy in their own way. Cubans are good entrepreneurs. Raúl Castro opened the way when he initially authorized fourteen categories for private initiative. Today almost the entire economy and all professions are open to private initiative. I think, however, that the government’s control of the economy limited private initiative. The situation in Cuba is complicated – to take up a term used by Cubans. They don’t complain and they don’t cry about their luck because it’s not their temperament, but they will say “it’s complicated.”But in the face of every complicated situation, Cubans have the ability to “solve”, another term they use a lot, that is, to find a solution, to get by. Each Cuban resolves and does not complain.
SL: What is your view exactly on the Cuban people?
MP: I am going to make another confession: I am a fourth Cuban. My maternal grandmother was Cuban. My cousin was one of the heroes of the 1933 Revolution. According to my Cuban friends, if I was able to do what I did on the island, it was because Fidel was aware of my Cuban roots. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Fidel Castro had great admiration – he expressed it several times – for my grandmother’s cousin, Antonio Guiteras, who was President of the Cuban students’ union at the time and who played an important role in the overthrow of the bloodthirsty dictator Gerardo Machado. Then he held the position of Minister of the Interior – Minister of the Interior – in the government of 100 Days.
I read your story before taking my post in Cuba. Antonio Guiteras was assassinated by Fulgencio Batista, because Guiteras was the main figure capable of preventing Batista’s rise to power. Guiteras was a Catholic revolutionary.
SL: For a large part of public opinion, the permanence of the conflict between Cuba and the United States is difficult to understand in the 21st century, more than thirty years after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. What, according to you, are the real reasons for this dispute that has lasted for more than six decades?
MP: I tried to find an answer to that during the three years of my stay in Cuba and I must confess that this question still leaves me perplexed today.
Let me give you my opinion, in a personal capacity and not as a former diplomat. From the beginning of our history, that is, since the end of the 18th century, there were Americans in the United States who wanted to dominate the island and make Cuba a State of the Union. The people of the South wanted Cuba to be a state of slaves. Let’s remember that slavery still existed in the United States, before the civil war. John Quincy Adamas, who would later become President of the United States, developed the “ripe fruit” theory in 1823 and predicted that Cuba would fall into the American pouch. Can you tell another that your country is worth nothing and that it is going to be absorbed?
The Cubans, aware of this and proud of themselves, refused to submit. There are still Americans who think that Cuba should submit to the American will, but it is not the will of the majority of Cubans. There are some Cubans who are willing to submit to the American will, but they are very few. Cubans are very proud of who they are. What characterizes Cubans is pride and character.
Unfortunately, there is still this mentality that is present among some Americans.
SL: What is your view on the sanctions imposed on Cuba during the Bush Administration?
MP: The 2004 sanctions were severe and explained by the American political context. There was a presidential election. There was a hard-line element in the Republican Party that had declared that if Bush wanted to win Florida again, a tough law must be imposed against Cuba. American policy then became more severe. I was unlucky enough to arrive a few months after the imposition of those measures.
Condoleeza Rice was a National Security Advisor during Bush’s first term. She became Secretary of State during the second term, when the toughest rules for Cuba were adopted. But I found out that he was not in favor of it.
Bush also had no real knowledge of Cuba. I remember him asking me strange questions about the island. So I told him: “You must visit Cuba.” He looked at me with big eyes and I told him that it could be done virtually, online. I made him visit the island five times and he loved it. George W. Bush’s views on Cuba evolved enormously during his presidency. I am a witness to it. The only condition imposed on these virtual visits was that I could not mention them publicly, as we were concerned about the reaction of Cuban Americans. It was a motive related to domestic politics. We were afraid of upsetting the Florida Republicans.
Laura Bush, his wife, had heard that the professors and teachers in Cuba were brilliant. He then expressed the desire to exchange with them in a virtual way and I can assure him that he loved the meeting.
SL: In 2014, President Obama, following in the footsteps of James Carter, decided to establish a historic dialogue with Cuba, which led to many advances. Could you say a word on the subject and explain to us why it took so long to proceed with this approach?
MP: Obama came with a different thought about Cuba, as was the case with Jimmy Carter who wanted to reestablish diplomatic relations. Carter took office on January 20, 1977, and opened an Interests Section in Havana that same year, thus establishing an official American presence in Cuba. The idea was then to transform the Section into an embassy. That could not materialize for various reasons.
Obama took up the torch and decided to formally establish diplomatic relations, in concert with the Cubans in 2016. Obama was convinced that the American policy towards Cuba was a mistake and he wanted to change that. In some way, my stay between 2005 and 2008 laid the foundations for Obama’s arrival at the White House because I wanted to have contacts with the Cuban people and President Obama also wanted the diplomats in charge in Havana to have contacts with the population. of the island.
Why did it take so many years? That’s a good question. American policy towards the island was a mistake that needed to be corrected.
SL: Instead, the Trump Administration opted for a total change in policy toward Cuba and returned to a more hostile approach. What is your opinion about the mandate of Donald Trump in general and more particularly about his position towards the island?
MP: I confess that I have never liked Trump. I worked for the Joe Biden campaign to get Trump out. The former president speaks out of both sides of his mouth , as they say in English, that is, he says one thing and the opposite. Anyway, I have no authority to talk about him because we have never met. It is therefore advisable to take my words with caution.
Initially, Donald Trump wanted to do business with Cuba. As he only thinks of himself, he wanted to build hotels in Cuba and explored the possibilities in this regard before his election. When he arrived at the White House, he made a total change, since he considered that Florida was important to him from an electoral point of view and he wanted the support of the Cuban-American community. Then he identified some groups in this community, that is, the most conservative part, and decided to adopt an extremist position that responded to the interests of that fringe. In my opinion it was a mistake.
Donal Trump’s arrogance leads him to think that he can give orders to Cubans and – since I am a fourth Cuban – I cannot accept it.
SL: What do you think of the current state of relations between Cuba and the United States? What should be President Joe Biden’s approach to the island?
MP: The potential between the two countries is enormous. Biden stated that he would correct Trump’s mistakes and it is one of the reasons I have supported him. I think it will. He has a certain sensitivity and will not make decisions that Cuba will not accept. I think Joe Biden cares about the Cuban people. The center of gravity – as they say in international relations theory – must be the Cuban people and this is what they have declared several times. At the same time, Joe Biden knows that he is not all-powerful. Trump thought he was. In the US Senate there is parity between Democrats and Republicans.
Furthermore, as regards the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is headed by Bob Menéndez, whom I know very well. Every time I traveled to Washington from Havana he received me in his office. He is a very intelligent person. He is a Cuban American, but he was not born on the island. I don’t think he has visited Cuba. Rather, he is a hardliner when it comes to relations with Havana. It is not as extreme as the conservative branch of the Republican Party, whose position is disastrous. But Bob Menendez is nevertheless conservative and holds the position of Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It should be remembered, however, that a senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, held this position. He is aware of the power of the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden is going to change the state of relations with Cuba, but he will act prudently, step by step. I do not expect a radical change in American politics from one day to the next.
They have asked me to share my ideas on the subject and I then sent a note to Washington. I have identified some important aspects. The first has to do with the American diplomatic presence in Cuba. It is symbolic because an embassy works and listens. I was a diplomat for 34 years and I loved my work because it allows us to understand other peoples, our neighbors. If Joe Biden wants to understand the Cuban people, he must have contact with Havana. It will not be able to advance without the agreement of the Cubans. The second aspect is the Guantanamo naval base.
SL: You worked precisely on the issue of the Guantánamo naval base. What should be the attitude of the White House on this issue?
MP: I actually wrote a paper on Guantánamo at the time that Barack Obama was President of the United States and Raúl Castro President of Cuba. These two men were able to understand each other and to dialogue. We took possession of Guantanamo in 1901 and it was a mistake, a big mistake. At the time, Cuba was occupied by American troops. The United States had declared that it would only withdraw its troops from Cuban soil if the Constituent Assembly agreed to integrate the Platt amendment into the Constitution. This amendment stipulated, among other things, that it was up to the United States to decide Cuba’s foreign policy. Article 8 of this text also stipulated that Cuba had to hand over bases in its territory to Washington. It was the condition for ending the occupation. The Cubans did not want to integrate the Platt amendment,but finally they had to accept with a short majority of 16 votes to 11. It was not a large majority. The Cubans realized that the only way to free the country from the presence of American troops was to accept the Platt amendment. In 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt took another approach to Cuba and repealed the Platt Amendment that allowed the United States to have control over Cuba’s foreign policy, except for Article 8 regarding the Guantanamo base.In 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt took another approach to Cuba and repealed the Platt Amendment that allowed the United States to have control over Cuba’s foreign policy, except for Article 8 regarding the Guantanamo base.In 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt took another approach to Cuba and repealed the Platt Amendment that allowed the United States to have control over Cuba’s foreign policy, except for Article 8 regarding the Guantanamo base.
So our presence in Guantánamo is not legitimate. It is my personal opinion, but I am convinced that history proves me right. I had retired when I wrote this article. He couldn’t have done it if he’d still been on active duty. A person who worked in the White House at the time – I’m not going to name her – told me the following: “Michael, never give up your idea about Guantánamo.” The day will come when the United States will leave Guantanamo, but unfortunately it will be too late. Our presence is not legitimate.
Why do we have military bases abroad? There is a very precise objective. What was the idea in 1901? At that time we needed a naval station to supply our ships with fuel. But today American ships no longer work in the same way. Then we need a place to host the refugees that we intercepted on the high seas, but now we have an agreement with Cuba that allows us to return Cuban refugees to their country. So we no longer need a basis for that. The American presence can be projected in another way than with a military base. Why do we keep this base? I do not know. Perhaps for a matter of pride.
SL: What other aspects did you mention in the note that you sent to the Biden Administration?
MP: The situation of the Cuban people is of great interest to the Biden Administration. Relations between governments are important, but diplomacy evolves. So it is interesting to know what the feeling of the people is. At this time the Cuban people are suffering and it is necessary to facilitate the sending of remittances from the Cuban-American community to the island.
The immigration issue is also important. It would be necessary to return to a humanitarian migratory policy. Republicans are trying hard to instrumentalize that, and Biden is naturally cautious on this issue. In the Government there are competent people such as Alessandro Mallorcas, Minister of Homeland Security, who was born in the United States to Cuban parents and who is sensitive to this issue. I can also mention Roberta Jacobson, who is a member of the National Security Council in charge of the Southern Border. She is a friend for whom I have deep admiration, who was an ambassador to Mexico and who knows the Cuban issue. Ricardo Zúniga, who was in office in the North American Interests Section in Havana,He is now the Special Envoy of the Biden Administration for the Northern Triangle (Mexico and Central America), in charge, among other matters, of migration problems. He has a deep knowledge of Cuba. This leads me to think that this issue should be well managed.
SL: The United States declares that its priority in Cuba is democracy and human rights, but few observers are really convinced by this argument that seems to be used with variable geometry. What is your point of view on this issue?
MP: I was in charge of American politics on the issue of human rights and it is a very important issue for me. In my opinion, there are human rights that are not respected in Cuba. I am convinced that this is evolving and that the current government is evolving on the subject. But Cuba will not act because the United States puts the knife to its throat. Cuba will act if it decides it herself and thinks that it is the best for the country. Remember what I have told you about Cuban pride.
However, I would like us to give proof of consistency on this subject. If we criticize Cuban policy on human rights, Cuba must also have the right to criticize the United States. Look at what happened on January 6, 2021 in Washington, with the assault on the Capitol. The United States is not blameless on the matter, either. We have the Guantánamo base and everything that happens there does not correspond to the idea that we can have of the best democracy in the world. We can also evoke the murder of George Floyd. The United States then has nothing to brag about on the human rights issue.
In my opinion, it is the International Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 that should dictate the way forward, and not American law.
Do you think that one day the United States will put an end to its hostile policy towards Cuba?
MP: As I know my people, I am afraid that will take time. Cubans are not hostile towards the United States. Most Americans are not hostile towards Cuba. But there are a handful of Americans, for various reasons, who are hostile towards Cuba. That is going to last. As Cubans would say, “it’s complicated.”
Hopefully there will be a return of a policy like Obama’s because he understood the Cuban soul and that was seen during his trip to the island in 2016. For my part, I tried to understand Cubans when I was in office in Havana. The role of a diplomat is to understand the people of the country you are in. Unfortunately there are a handful of Americans, with some power, who do not want to understand the Cuban people. It is the mindset of the 1901 Platt Amendment that wanted to dictate their fate to Cubans. Will that ever change? Hopefully, but unfortunately I know my people too much.