High-level officials of the United States and Cuba engaged in secret discussions on a broad range of issues from November, 1974, until November, 1975, informed sources said yesterday.
The talks, which were known to only a handful of officials at the time, were acknowledged by the State Department as representatives of the two countries were meeting in New York City in new, publicly announced discussions. Though ostensibly dealing with fishing rights in the waters around the two countries, the current discussions are expected by many to lead to broader efforts to patch up U.S.-Cuban relations.
The earlier discussion, according to participants, led to a series of unilateral and seemingly unrelated steps by each side. On the Cuban side the steps included release of some political prisoners, invitations to U.S. lawmakers and other visitors, the return of the hijacker of an American airplane and $2 million in ransom money taken by an earlier hijacker, and "marked improvement" of public statements about the United States.
On the U.S. side steps flowing from the secret talks included U.S. approval for an end to the political and economic embargo imposed on Cuba by the Organization of American States, dropping of U.S. sanctions against trade with Cuba by overseas subsidiaries of U.S. firms, and easing of travel restrictions for Cuban diplomats at the United Nations. The Cubans were informed in advance of the steps before action was taken.
The U.S. participants in the 1974-1975 talks were Lawrence S. Eagleburger, then executive assistant to Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, and William D. Rogers, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Rogers who is now in private law practice here, said yesterday that Kissinger, Eagleburger and himself were the only State Department officials informed of the "very delicate" discussions at the time.
State Department officials working in Latin American affairs said they never heard of the discussions until a few days ago. The State Department acknowledged the talks at this time because the present open and direct talks with Cuba makes continued secrecy unnecessary, officials said.
The secret talks were initiated by telephone contacts from Ealgeburger to a key official of the Cuban mission to the United Nations in November, 1974. This was followed by a meeting between Eagleburger and a Cuban emissary at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Robers was brought into the discussions in February, 1975. He participated in three face-to-face sessions with Eagleburger and a final meeting between himself and a single Cuban emissary in the coffee shop of National Airport in late November, 1975.
The growing Cuban military intervention in Angola in the fall of 1975 was among the reasons for failure of the dipomatic effort. But specialists on Cuban affairs speculate that divisions at high levels in Havana about U.S. relations as well as the approach of the 1976 U.S. election may have contributed to the collapse.
Rogers, who declined to identify the Cuban negotiators, said the earlier discussions showed that "it is clearly possible and indeed essential to approach problems of U.S.-Cuban relations in a comprehensive way." He said the full range of issues between the two countries had been placed before the Cubans in 1975-75.