Acclaimed author Peter Kornbluh, an Ann Arbor native, advocated for open negotiations between the U.S. and the Cuban government with several anecdotes about secret meetings and spies at Literati Bookstore Monday evening.
Kornbluh spoke to promote his new book, “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana,” which he co-wrote with William LeoGrande, professor of government at the American University School of Public Affairs. The event had a question and answer format moderated by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, associate professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan.
The book explores events during former President Bill Clinton’s administration, the CIA’s attempt to recruit Fidel Castro as an informant and President Barack Obama’s appearance on a Cuban television show. It also discusses secret political associations throughout the Cold War and the American embargo on Cuba.
“We have to be able to say it is not heresy to negotiate with the Cubans; every president since Kennedy has done it. Even Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford wanted to normalize relations with Cubans — why can’t I?” he said. “And that was the history we wanted to put into place, to create a foundation for that argument.”
Kornbluh has traveled to Cuba several times with his work and interviewed many high-level figures, including the divisive former Cuban President Fidel Castro. For his book, Kornbluh also worked with The National Security Archive to help declassify documents and interviewed government officials on the significance of the documents.
“This is the best way, I think, to not only get to the heart of these events, but also to bring people together around it,” Kornbluh said.
He joked that many people accused him of having insider knowledge that Obama was planning to normalize relations with Cuba, as his book was released only a few months prior to Obama's July 2015 announcement.
“Everybody thought we were prescient, that we had known all along but were keeping the secret,” he said. “I had two reactions — one: damn, this is a timely book, and two: damn, I’m going to have to go back and rewrite it now.”
Hoffnung-Garskof said he thought the event was successful, especially given the amount of people who attended. The crowd was made up of graduate students, faculty, Ann Arbor community members and students.
He added that as a facilitator, his goal was to allow Kornbluh to share all his stories.
“In my experience, the trick to these things is to ask interesting questions and then shut up, because usually somebody who wrote a really good book is going to be really good at telling those same stories,” he said. “Pick out some stories that you know the audience would like to hear and ask questions that lead the author to tell those stories.”
LSA junior Jack Hibbard said the talk was especially interesting for him in the context of his study abroad experience this summer in Cuba.
“I just think there was a lot of interesting content,” he said. “There was some stuff I would have liked to hear a little more about, but it was a really good overview of the history.”