Need to chat with Fidel Castro? In Washington, the man to see -- and pay -- is Kirby Jones, a former Kennedy Democrat who in 1975 began a career as a middleman between Cuba and American businesses and media.
From his K Street office, Jones, 38, organizes junkets for companies considering doing business with Cuba when (and if) the American trade embargo is lifted. He helps arrange interviews with Fidel Castro for new organizations, and he waits patiently as the United States and Cuba play an international tug-of-war that has become nastier in recent years.
"I think that right now we're missing our best opportunity to negotiate with Cuba," says Jones, whose opinion contradicts conventional politics and State Department sentiment. Jones, a perrenial optimist about the possibility of good Cuban-American relations, says that for the first time in 20 years Cubans may be willing to discuss foreign policy issues as well as bilateral issues without demanding the U.S. first lift its trade blockade. "If I was a State Department bureaucrat," says Jones, "I'd say, 'Holy cow, let's get down there and talk!'"
That's not quite how Dane Bowen, assigned to the Cuban desk at the State Department sees it. "Our relations are the worst they've been in three to four years," he says. "I don't see any prospect of any change until after the presidential election and inauguration and maybe people take a new look at Cuban policies."
But Jones, a cool-talking pol with the good looks of a television game show host, takes the long view, comparing relations between Havana and Washington with "a train that is never moving as fast or as slowly as we think." He does admit the current speed of that train is a "slow chug."
In earlier times, anything looked possible. In mid-1974, CBS paid $50,000 and Playboy paid $30,000 to Jones and an old friend from George McGovern's presidential campaign, Frank Mankiewicz, for an interview with Castro. The pair wrote a book, With Fidel: A portrait of Castro and Cuba, and a friendship developed between Castro and Jones. When Jones told Castro about businessmen inquiring about future trade with Cuba, Castro was interested. Jones formed Almar Associates -- named for a Cuban apartment project east of Havana that is easily pronounceable -- and began escorting trade delegations, for a price, southward.
Jones will neither name clients nor quote fees, but several years ago a Boston company told The Miami Herald it was paying Jones a $2,000 monthly retainer plus a percentage of any future income should a deal be struck. And last October, CBS paid Jones to arrange a "60 Minutes" interview between Dan Rather and Castro.
What effect the November election will have on Jones' shuttle business remains to be seen. Three years ago he predicted Jimmy Carter would permit trade with Cuba, but, like a master of Realpolitik, Jones figures he'll survive even a Ronald Reagan administration. Who would have thought, he notes, that Richard Nixon would have opened the way to China?