Washington, D.C., April 29, 2021 – John F. Kennedy may have secretly warned Fidel Castro against executing survivors of the Bay of Pigs invasion 60 years ago this month while also dangling a pledge of strict non-intervention if the Cuban leader spared their lives, according to new evidence posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive. Kennedy’s secret channel to Castro, the records suggest, was the president of Brazil, João Goulart.
The declassified Brazilian and U.S. documents, along with a provocative journalistic report from the period, help to illuminate a residual mystery linked to that iconic event in Cold War and U.S.-Cuban history. The episode is a fresh case of "back channel" communications between Washington and Havana at a time when they lacked direct diplomatic relations, and a new instance of Brazil acting as a third-party mediator, or at least a communications conduit, in that relationship. Brazil’s role climaxed during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Compiled and edited by George Washington University historian James G. Hershberg based on his research on Brazil, Cuba, and the Cold War, today’s posting examines a tense moment in the Kennedy Administration's more than twenty-month struggle to gain the release of the nearly 1,200 CIA-trained, financed, and equipped anti-Castro Cuban exiles between their failed April 1961 invasion attempt and their release by Fidel Castro in December 1962.
In late March and early April 1962, the captives went on trial in Havana for treason, and U.S. officials feared they might receive harsh punishments, or even be executed – triggering an untimely crisis, sharply intensified public pressure on the Cuban issue, and even a possible U.S. military intervention.
The U.S. and Brazilian evidence presented here tells, at least in part, the story of the Brazilian president's public appeal to Castro, at U.S. behest, to spare the lives of the Bay of Pigs invaders. In addition, the new materials pose the question whether he also secretly relayed a more explicit appeal reflecting JFK's "thinking" (as conveyed by aide Richard "Dick" Goodwin to Brazil's ambassador in Washington) and a de facto carrot-and-stick proposition.
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Saving the Bay of Pigs Prisoners: Did JFK Send a Secret Warning to Fidel Castro – through Brazil?
By James G. Hershberg
Did John F. Kennedy send a secret "backchannel" message to Fidel Castro – through Brazilian President João Goulart – intended to secure clemency for, and the eventual release of, the roughly twelve hundred survivors of the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, after they were convicted of "treason"? And did Goulart's appeal(s) affect their fate? The episode is an obscure residual mystery from an iconic moment of the Cold War and U.S.-Cuban relations, which took place sixty years ago this month.
On April 17, 1961, about 1400 anti-Castro Cuban exiles, secretly armed, equipped, trained, financed, and organized by the Central Intelligence Agency, landed on Cuba's southwestern coast. The operation, approved a year earlier by Dwight D. Eisenhower and inherited (and then slightly scaled back) by Kennedy when he became president in January 1961, failed abysmally: Castro's armed forces pinned down the invaders at Girón Beach (Playa Girón), killed over a hundred, and captured the bulk of the survivors. (About 175 of Castro's soldiers, and hundreds more militia fighters, also died in the intense combat.)
Over the ensuing twenty months, the prisoners were the object of a fitful bargaining process that ultimately resulted in their release and return to the United States in late December 1962. Famously, JFK welcomed back the "Brigade 2506" members in a ceremony at the Orange Bowl in Miami, pledging their flag would be "returned to this brigade in a free Havana." About eight months before that festive celebration, however, their fate had been in doubt: in late March-early April 1962, they had been tried and convicted for treason, raising fears among U.S. officials and the invasion’s supporters in Florida – based on Havana's prior record of sometimes executing alleged war criminals associated with deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista and other foes of the new revolutionary order – that the proceedings might end in capital punishments.
Officially, the U.S. government had stayed aloof from those negotiations to secure the prisoners' lives and freedom – both because Washington did not formally recognize Castro's rule, having broken diplomatic ties with Havana in the Eisenhower Administration's final weeks, and because hardline U.S. anti-communists (including Congressmen and Cuban exiles in Florida) angrily opposed paying Castro "ransom" after Cuba's leader demanded "indemnification" for the invasion. That demand took the form of 500 bulldozers, funds to buy them, and/or other items, in exchange for the prisoners' release.
Yet JFK felt a sharp moral burden to safeguard the invaders' fate. He had, after all, admitted responsibility for the assault ("victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan...," he told a press conference, "I'm the responsible officer of the Government"), and desperately wanted to secure the prisoners' release, minimize their suffering, and above all avoid their execution. As William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh wrote in Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, Kennedy's "deep sense of angst and obligation over the capture and imprisonment of 1,214 members of the exile brigade led him to authorize a major behind-the-scenes negotiation to obtain their release. 'They trusted me, and they're in prison now because I fucked up,' Kennedy told his aide Richard Goodwin. 'I have to get them out.'"
That meant, in practice, working indirectly to influence and, in the end, satisfy Castro, through third parties – from ostensibly private Americans, to Cuban émigré activists and families of the prisoners (based mostly in Florida), to governments and other international actors with connections to Havana. Recent years have seen increased attention to the history of indirect, third-party, and other back-stage or side-door communications between Washington and Havana in the decades after the U.S.- Cuba diplomatic rupture in 1961. Those channels, long obscured in secrecy, have been illuminated by the gradual, sometimes grudging declassification of U.S. documents, the recent opening of non-U.S. historical sources (though, regrettably, very little from Cuban archives), and scholarly investigations. Most importantly, the subject was excavated, explored, and analyzed at length by LeoGrande (American University) and Kornbluh (National Security Archive) in Back Channel to Cuba, published in late 2014, just before the breakthrough in bilateral relations between the Obama and Raúl Castro governments (which is covered in Back Channel to Cuba's 2015 paperback edition).
The Unexplored Dialogue
Of course, the Bay of Pigs invasion has been extensively recounted by participants, journalists, historians, and both U.S. and Cuban officials – starting with secret post-mortems of the disaster by the Kennedy Administration and CIA that only emerged after declassification decades later, often in response to protracted Freedom of Information Act requests. Yet, the dialogue with Castro that eventually freed the Bay of Pigs captives (or "prisoners of war," as they and their supporters insisted they were, entitled to corresponding legal protections) has received far less attention; most accounts focus on the following two aspects of that story.
First, in May 1961, a month after the failed invasion, Castro demanded 500 bulldozers, to be used to aid Cuba's faltering economy and agricultural production, for the captives' release. With the Kennedy Administration officially detached but quietly supportive, a nominally private "Tractors for Freedom" committee, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, Milton Eisenhower (Dwight's brother), and labor leader Walter Reuther, formed to try to cut a deal with Fidel. JFK publicly praised this "wholly private humanitarian movement" but some hardline commentators angrily denounced the idea of paying Castro's "blackmail" and objected to giving Havana heavy-duty bulldozers worth up to $28 million that could allegedly be used for military purposes. Frustrated by such criticism and by Castro's terms, the "Tractors for Freedom" group soon disbanded. Exchanges that followed, furthered by a group representing prisoners' families, lagged for months, and failed to produce progress. In mid-March 1962, Castro lost patience and retracted the offer to swap the prisoners for tractors or bulldozers or their cash equivalent.
The second, best-known effort to obtain the Bay of Pigs prisoners' freedom involved negotiations between New York lawyer James B. Donovan and Fidel Castro, beginning in the summer of 1962. They eventually succeeded, with Castro agreeing to let the prisoners go in exchange for $53 million in food, medicines, and other humanitarian supplies, and produced a fascinating friendship between Cuba's leader and JFK's engaging unofficial emissary. Before his Bay of Pigs mission, Donovan had negotiated the trade of convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for U.S. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, held by the Soviets since his high-altitude reconnaissance plane was shot down over the USSR in May 1960. Hollywood later immortalized the swap, which was consummated in February 1962 at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, in the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as Donovan. Now Donovan worked pro bono for the Bay of Pigs prisoners' families, repeatedly visiting Cuba to cut deals with Castro to release not only them but afterwards, in 1963, thousands of other Cubans, in a dramatic tale equally deserving of cinematic recreation.
However, this Electronic Briefing Book concentrates on a brief but intense crisis that took place between those two stages of the affair: in late March/early April 1962, after Castro announced that his prior exchange offers were no longer valid, the prisoners were put on trial for treason, by a special military tribunal, in the courtyard of the Principe Castle Prison in Havana where the prisoners were held. Those proceedings aroused acute fears in Washington (and Florida) that harsh sentences, perhaps even executions, might be imminent.
Declassified Brazilian and U.S. evidence presented here, together with an unconfirmed journalistic claim, suggest JFK turned to Brazil for help. The Kennedy Administration, along with Cuban émigré activists in Florida, urged appeals to Castro through various channels with ties to Havana – from Czechoslovakia (and possibly other communist, Soviet-bloc nations) to the Vatican to the handful of Latin American countries that still maintained cordial, or at least correct, diplomatic relations with Cuba and embassies in Havana, including Mexico, Brazil, and Chile. But Brazil played a special role – not only due to its size and importance in South America, but because its leader, President João Goulart of the center-left Brazilian Labor Party (PTB), was about to visit the United States for a summit with President Kennedy in early April, and sought U.S. economic aid – and therefore had an incentive to do Washington a favor. Moreover, Goulart and his foreign minister, San Tiago Dantas, had preserved friendly ties with Havana by stoutly resisting U.S. pressure for stern anti-Cuban sanctions, most recently at the January 1962 Organization of American States (OAS) foreign ministers' conference in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Brazil had also previously sought to mediate between the U.S. government and the Castro regime – cooperating with Argentina to try to facilitate contacts between Fidel Castro and U.S. ambassador to Cuba Philip Bonsal in 1960, and to arrange a nocturnal conversation between JFK aide Dick Goodwin and Cuban/Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Montevideo, Uruguay, in August 1961.
The sudden resurgence of the Bay of Pigs prisoners as an immediate impending crisis in U.S.-Cuban relations and for the Kennedy Administration came on March 20, 1962, when Cuba announced that in nine days the 1,179 prisoners would go on trial as "war criminals"; two days later, Fidel confirmed that the step superseded the tractors offer. The following sequence of documents and newspaper articles tells, at least in part, the story of the Brazilian president's public appeal to Fidel Castro, at U.S. behest, to spare the lives of Bay of Pigs invaders – and pose the question as to whether he also conveyed a more explicit, secret appeal more directly relaying JFK's "thinking" (as conveyed by Goodwin to Brazil's ambassador in Washington) and de facto carrot-and-stick proposition.
Appealing to Castro
On Friday afternoon, March 23, the head of the Cuban Revolutionary Council (the CIA-supervised anti-Castro exile organization), former Cuban Prime Minister José Miró Cardona, saw Brazil's ambassador in Washington, Roberto Campos, to relay an appeal to Goulart from the families of the 1,182 Bay of Pigs prisoners. (Miró and fellow CRC leader Manuel Antonio "Tony" Varona also met diplomats of other Latin American states with embassies in Havana – Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico – and appealed to Spain, the Vatican, UN, Red Cross, and others.) Seeking Brazil's "good offices" to postpone the "summary judgment" in Havana, Miró Cardona cited legal, moral and humanitarian grounds: 1) the captives were "prisoners of war," entitled to "humanitarian treatment" guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions; 2) talks with Italian carmaker FIAT were "in an advanced state" to supply $28 million in tractors to Cuba; ignoring Castro's statement the day before that the swap offer had lapsed, Miró Cardona stressed the deal could be done by 15 April, "under the conditions established by the Cuban 'Premier,' which did not provide for a time limit for their offer, which would represent a delay of only seventeen days from the date set for the trial"; 3) humanitarian reasons; with their lives at stake, almost 1200 "human beings, almost all of whom are family members," were being tried in secret by a special court, "without the right to legal assistance of any kind." Campos dispatched the appeal early that Friday evening. [Document 1]
It's unclear whether Miró Cardona's appeal moved Goulart, or, for that matter, whether any other appeals did, but Brazil's president had another incentive to urgently implore Cuba to spare the Bay of Pigs prisoners: his own visit to the United States and summit with JFK, barely more than a week away. Whatever the cause(s), that night Brazil's foreign ministry (known as Itamaraty, after the Rio de Janeiro palace where it was formerly based) cabled its ambassador in Havana, Luís Bastian Pinto, to notify him that Goulart wanted Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticós and Premier Fidel Castro to delay the trial's start for 30 days (which, coincidentally or not, might allow the tractor deal Miró Cardona mentioned to bear fruit; more important, it would let Goulart's trip proceed in peace). The foreign ministry tasked Bastian Pinto to sound out the Cuban leaders and report back "with the greatest urgency" on their likely receptivity to such an appeal – and added, just to make the point clear, that it would be "very important" for Goulart to get a positive answer before he arrived in Washington. [Document 2]
Monday morning, March 26, Bastian Pinto saw Cuban foreign minister Raúl Roa, who pledged to relay the plea that afternoon to Dorticós and Castro and get a response "even today." However, Fidel was a bit busy, confronting a serious political crisis. That night, he gave a bombshell televised speech blasting "sectarianism" among communist "militants" and purging figures belonging to the pro-Moscow Popular Socialist Party (PSP), most prominently Aníbal Escalante, who left for exile in Prague. Castro's "unexpected and extremely violent attack," as Bastian Pinto termed it, confirmed whispers of an internal clash between "old" communists and the July 26 Movement's barbudos; though Fidel reaffirmed his own fealty to Marxism-Leninism, the speech spurred speculation about possible strains between Havana and Moscow.
Tuesday morning, March 27, Roa got back to Brazil's envoy with a mixed response. Bastian Pinto could tell his foreign minister that Castro and Dorticós had personally considered his appeal but, despite their "exceptional considerations" for Brazil and Goulart, lamentably could not postpone the trial since that would negate an important governmental decision, taken for reasons "of great gravity." Yet . . . Cuba would respond affirmatively if Goulart made a public appeal for clemency referring explicitly to the "magnanimity or generosity" of "the 'victors'" (i.e., the Cubans) if they imposed non-drastic sentences, and noting that one reason for such lenience was that the invasion's co-participants or co-organizers were not subjected to such penalties. Seeking Brazil's understanding, Roa said, flatteringly, that Cuba's government "would not answer any type of appeal made by any Chief of State other than President Goulart." [Document 3]
Convening the OAS
As Bastian Pinto sent that proposition to Dantas and Goulart, and alarm about the now imminent opening of the trial in Havana mounted, the focus of diplomatic efforts to pressure Castro shifted to Organization of American States headquarters in Washington. That Wednesday night, the Dominican Republic requested the Council of the OAS (COAS) convene an emergency meeting to call on Cuba to give the captives a "fair trial," appealing to the hemisphere's "public opinion and conscience." Most delegates agreed, though some feared that, given the antipathy between the OAS and Cuba, Council action "could incite the Havana regime to tough actions against the prisoners."
On Wednesday, after the COAS heard Dominican Republic Foreign Minister José A. Bonilla Atiles advocate the proposed appeal to Cuba on "essentially humanitarian" grounds, U.S. delegate deLesseps S. Morrison implored the group to "act "immediately" to "avoid the imminent sacrifice" of more than a thousand lives. Mexico's representative warned a statement might boomerang and provoke a "violent [Cuban] reaction" – better for nations that still had diplomatic relations with Havana to try to secure the defendants' rights, and lives. A majority, favoring action, entrusted Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan, U.S., and Venezuelan delegates to draft a resolution to consider the next morning. Brazil's ambassador, Ilmar Penna Marinho, lacking instructions, had largely kept a "prudent calm" despite sympathizing with Mexico's arguments. Cabling Itamaraty afterwards, he revealed suspicion of U.S. motives: Brazil, he urged, should "advise prudence" to the Cubans, because some in Washington may hope to exploit an "unexpected violent reaction" by Fidel Castro to exacerbate OAS-Cuba relations and create a climate for collective (military?) action against the island. Penna Marinho sought his foreign minister's guidance; otherwise he planned to vote for the draft resolution unless language were added offensive to Cuba or the non-intervention principle. He also asked for an update on what Brazil "has done or intends to do in Havana" to support the prisoners. [Document 4]
Late that night, Dantas responded: Penna Marinho should abstain on the resolution and argue, like the Mexican, that it "could even have a counterproductive effect." Better to work bilaterally since Brazil had diplomatic relations with Cuba and was "already making and continues to make" an overture to Havana to attain "exactly the same noble purposes" that had inspired Chancellor Bonilla's proposal, supported by other delegations. For Penna Marinho's exclusive information, he was informed that Brazil was already sounding out the Cubans, both through Brazil's embassy in Havana and Cuba's in Rio de Janeiro, "about the possibilities of having an appeal made directly by President Goulart." [Document 5]
Thursday morning, March 29, in Havana, in the courtyard (now an outdoor basketball court) of Principe Castle Prison, formerly an 18th-century Spanish colonial fortress, the prisoners' trial, a military tribunal, began – closed to the public and to "Non-Red" reporters – with the lengthy reading of charges accusing them of carrying out a "treacherous attack" against Cuba's people at the "direct instigation of the imperialistic Government of the United States."
In Washington, the OAS Council gathered to vote on appealing to Cuba. Before the meeting opened, Penna Marinho reported, Morrison "accosted me and very gently asked me if we would support the resolution about the Cuban prisoners." The Brazilian replied that, while understanding and agreeing with the lofty humanitarian motives that inspired the resolution, for reasons of maintaining relations with Cuba and enhancing the prospects of a similarly-aimed diplomacy "we will tactically abstain" though remain "sympathetic." The U.S. delegate to the OAS, long frustrated by Brazil's attitude on Cuba, was unconvinced. "Despite all the care that I used to say that," Penna Marinho cabled, Morrison "was visibly contrary" and said he "greatly lamented" Brazil's abstention, especially on the eve of Goulart's visit, since it "could be badly interpreted" by U.S. public opinion. "Without losing serenity, I stressed" that the resolution could be "badly received in Cuba and prejudice seriously Brazilian gesture." We "fully agreed with the [resolution's] substance," he reiterated, but only for "purely tactical" reasons would abstain – had Washington relations with Havana it would probably do the same. Penna Marinho didn't know how the State Department would view Brazil's abstention, "because those who are not with us are against...more just and rational courses...." [Document 6]
The Council voted 16-0 to express "firm hope that the trials will take place within the strictest respect for human rights" with the prisoners receiving full legal protections and guarantees, but three countries with embassies in Havana – Brazil, Bolivia, and Mexico – abstained, arguing that direct entreaties by governments who still had ties with Cuba might yield more productive results.
The U.S. Deliberates
At the White House, a Cuban Revolutionary Council delegation led by Miró Cardona and Varona sought to see JFK, but were instead received by McGeorge Bundy, who "expressed the Presidentʼs deep personal concern over the prisonersʼ fate and said that the U.S. would continue its diplomatic efforts on [their] behalf." (Kennedy's national security adviser also deflected the CRC's requests for greater resources "to invade Cuba and overthrow the Castro regime," even when Miró said such U.S. policy limitations might mean the group should disband.) Also on March 29, Dick Goodwin, now deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, updated Bundy on actions being taken "to deal with the Cuban prisoner trials aimed at "attempting to assure that executions will be held to a minimum or not conducted" and "counteract[ing their] propaganda impact." Noting that one of those steps was to "ask all our posts in Latin America and our NATO representative to approach their governments to see if appeals can be made to Castro for fair trials, justice, etc., or if they will protest the trial," Goodwin added: "We intend to make a special effort with regard to Brazil whose good will means much to Castro." Another measure being considered, he noted, was "an approach to Castro – through intermediaries – to make a deal for the life of the prisoners; offering money or food to spare their lives." [Document 7]
That concept was discussed the same day at an overseers' meeting for Operation Mongoose (the covert CIA scheme to spark an anti-Castro revolt that was unlikely to oust him alone but might "prepare for and justify," then "facilitate and support" direct U.S. military intervention). That meeting approved "an exchange of food for the Cuban prisoners," though two key CIA figures – Mongoose director Gen. Edward Lansdale and Task Force W (TFW) head William K. Harvey – opposed the idea. The U.S. aid would go, in this scheme, through a third country retaining ties with Cuba, though CIA Director John McCone rejected State's suggestion of Canada and State nixed the CIA chief's notion of France; it was left to State to choose a third country for the approach. McCone, frustrated, later said he seriously mulled urging "immediate military action to bring back the prisoners now concentrated in Havana" but held back due to the food-for-captives concept.
On Friday, March 30, as concern grew that the trial might end with death sentences, U.S. officials probed more intensely to see whether Brazil might intercede with the Cubans. In Rio de Janeiro, Chargé d'Affaires Niles Bond (acting ambassador with Amb. Lincoln Gordon in Washington) learned from "authoritative" Itamaraty informants at least part of the story of what had already transpired between the Brazilian and Cuban governments. Responding to Brazil's request, through its Havana embassy, that the trial be put off for a month "to allow time for certain moves to be made on behalf [of] prisoner[s] (e.g. reconsideration prisoner-tractor exchange, arrangements for defense attorneys)," the Cubans had said that they viewed Brazil's initiative "sympathetically" but were "unable for prestige reasons [to] postpone trials." Yet, he heard, Cuba would consider a clemency request "providing GOB [Government of Brazil] would agree meet certain conditions." Bond's sources did not specify those terms but called them "sheer blackmail" and Cuba's reply "highly irritating" to Brazil's government, "including President himself." Consequently, Brazil did not plan to follow up, though it might reconsider appealing for clemency "in event death sentences involved." Given Brazil's irritation, Bond did not feel "any useful purpose would be served by approach to Goulart" which (as Goodwin had told Bundy the day before) a recent State Department telegram had suggested. [Document 8]
Washington Approaches Goulart
Still, U.S. consternation prompted a renewed effort to persuade the Brazilians to intercede to save the prisoners' lives – and head off a serious foreign policy crisis. On Friday morning, Lincoln Gordon (already in Washington in advance of Goulart's arrival) importuned Campos, who telephoned Foreign Minister Dantas. Even more compelling, Richard Goodwin also met Brazil's envoy to transmit the U.S. president's "personal appeal" to Goulart to use Brazilian "good offices" to preclude a summary judgement of the anti-Castro Cuban prisoners which might come any day. Now at Foggy Bottom rather than the White House, but still close to JFK, Goodwin had just been visited by three Cuban exiles pleading for help; after flying up from Miami, they had earlier seen State Department aide Robert Hurwitch, who seemed cool to their plea, then a more sympathetic Bobby Kennedy, who promised help and sent them to Goodwin. The U.S. government couldn't do anything directly, Goodwin told them, but "was quietly asking other governments to use their influence on the Cuban government." He told Campos: "Beyond the humanitarian reason to avoid the execution of prisoners, President Kennedy worries [about] the exacerbating effect that the execution could have on North American public opinion, [which had been] getting more tranquil and less emotional in relation to Cuba, reviving pressure in favor of new measures against Fidel Castro, disasters either from the American or Continental point of view." [Document 9]
Despite apparently resenting the earlier Cuban conditions, Goulart, about to visit Washington, could hardly resist Kennedy's direct inter-presidential appeal, conveyed by his intimate associate, atop the U.S. ambassador's plea. A few hours after relaying these messages, Campos informed the State Department that Dantas had told him he was drafting a message "from Goulart to Dorticos on non-execution Cuban prisoners." [Document 10]
Cuba figured only fleetingly in JFK’s briefing materials for Goulart’s state visit, April 1962. (JFK Library)
On Monday afternoon, April 2 – shortly before flying overnight to Washington, and as the trial continued in Havana – Goulart sent word to Kennedy, through Campos, that in response to the president's request, he was issuing a public appeal to both President Dorticós and Prime Minister Castro seeking "clemency for the prisoners who are being judged in Cuba." [Document 11] Itamaraty duly released the text of Goulart's telegram to Brazilian newspapers. Unbeknownst to U.S. officials, the Brazilians had carefully worded it to satisfy at least two of the three conditions that Castro and Dorticós had already, through Roa, laid down to Ambassador Bastian Pinto:
Moved by sentiments human solidarity which unite all American peoples, I take liberty directing to your excellencies appeal from entire Brazilian people that magnanimity be decisive factor in sentencing persons taken prisoner on Giron Beach [Playa Girón] on occasion invasion Cuba, with view avoiding application drastic penalties, I certain your excellencies will see to it this matter conducted with clemency that always characterizes victor's attitude toward defeated brother. The revolutionary Cuban Government -- against which April attempt was directed -- will I believe understand spirit in which this appeal made and will at same time demonstrate that its own humanitarian sentiments do not differ from those which at this moment animate Brazilian people and all America. [Document 12]
At first, Goulart's public appeal drew little notice in the United States, overshadowed by his arrival and summit with Kennedy. The New York Times and Washington Post ignored it, the Miami Herald buried a brief mention within a longer story about the trial alongside another plea for clemency from Chile's foreign ministry. Nor did Castro and Dorticós' public reply to Goulart, received a day or two later, with the trial adjourned so the military tribunal could judge the prisoners' fate, attract any evident U.S. attention, perhaps because the Cuban message, while friendly to Goulart and Brazil, was ultimately non-committal:
Our people's generosity has already been demonstrated in the treatment accorded the employees ("funcionarios") captured with arms in hands, in act of aggression and treason [against] their country, when we respected the lives of all of them. Later, Cuban Government expressed willingness place them at liberty if our country were indemnified for material damages this policy of aggression caused it. Cuba waited a year in vain reply. It was impossible [to] delay the legal process against them any longer. We are, however, certain your appeal to [the] magnanimity of revolutionary Cuba, in name Brazilian people, and at moment sovereign nation of Cuba prepares judge the facts, will weigh heavily in the minds of the people and of the court which has the decision in its hands. [Document 13]
The ensuing Sunday, April 8, with Goulart touring the United States after his summit with Kennedy, the military tribunal in Havana, after four days of "deliberations," pronounced the invaders guilty of treason and announced their sentences: 30 years in jail, or they could be freed for payments ("indemnification") totaling $62 million – up from the $28 million in agricultural supplies he had previously required. To widespread relief in Washington (and Florida), Castro let the invaders live, leaving their fate up to further negotiations.
An Unconfirmed Report
A few days after the verdict, Washington columnists Robert S. Allen and Paul Scott spotlighted the "intriguing role" played by Goulart and Goodwin "in influencing Castro not to execute any of the prisoners." Mysteriously, the "Allen-Scott Report" described a purported secret message from Goulart to Castro containing information and advice entirely distinct from his public appeal. In a column printed in the Miami News on April 12 and then syndicated in newspapers around the country, Allen and Scott wrote that Goulart had sent a secret message to Fidel Castro, through Brazil's embassy in Havana, relaying an "emergency appeal from Washington" to spare the prisoners' lives. Goulart's private message, they wrote, revealed that Goodwin had asked him to intervene on the prisoners' behalf and communicate JFK's "thinking" to Castro. Executing any of the captives, Goodwin had stressed, "would touch off such a storm of public protest in the United States that President Kennedy would have no other choice than to take drastic new action against Castro." Conversely, should Castro spare their lives, Goulart purportedly quoted Goodwin as saying, "President Kennedy would continue to follow a policy of strict 'non-intervention' in Cuba's internal affairs." (That description was a bit of a stretch. In mid-March, JFK had approved guidelines for Operation Mongoose.)
Allegedly, Goulart, in his message, said he believed Goodwin spoke for Kennedy and "cautioned Castro that any new blood-letting would greatly hamper his own diplomatic efforts to get other Latin American countries and the U.S. to adopt a policy of 'peaceful co-existence' with Cuba and renew their diplomatic and trade ties." That Goulart would cite Brazil's efforts to improve Cuba's standing in the hemisphere seems plausible, even if the phrase "peaceful co-existence," echoing Khrushchev, would irk anti-communist readers, as the columnists surely realized.
What amounted to Kennedy's de facto carrot-or-stick message to Castro through Goulart, effectively threatening U.S. intervention or pledging "strict 'non-intervention'" depending on what Fidel did, paid off, Scott and Allen wrote: "Castro's reply to President Goulart's message came earlier this week" when he opted to spare their lives, while more than doubling the price for their freedom.
Did JFK effectively send Castro, via Goodwin and Goulart, a warning that executing any of the Bay of Pigs prisoners might compel him to take "drastic action" against Cuba – implicitly threatening military intervention? One State Department aide involved in the story doubted it. In a 1967 oral history interview for the Kennedy Library, Robert A. Hurwitch, then handling Cuba, vaguely recalled U.S. "efforts" with "friendly Latin American governments. "I would not at all be surprised," Hurwich said,
that the record would show that this included President Goulart of Brazil, and, if I'm not mistaken, the Mexican government, as well, was helpful in sending messages to Castro entirely, if my memory serves me correctly, appeals on humanitarian grounds. But I do not recall messages that went out which in anyway contained a veiled threat of U.S. retaliatory action if the courts were to sentence one or more of these people to death. As a matter of fact, I would certainly not have cleared any such telegram because my own reading of the Castro regime was that nothing would ensure the execution of one or more of these young men [more] than threats, veiled or otherwise.
Of course, it's not clear whether Hurwitch, then a mid-level State Department official, would necessarily have known of a backchannel message from JFK to Castro transmitted through Goodwin and Goulart.
Scott and Allen did not mention any sources for their report, and the present author did not find any U.S. or Brazilian documents to confirm the existence of a secret Goulart-to-Castro message urging him to spare the prisoners and citing Goodwin's relaying of JFK's "thinking" – which does not necessarily mean it didn't happen (e.g., Dantas or Goulart could have telephoned Bastian Pinto). Their claim apparently failed to inspire any follow-up from reporters – or from later historians, for that matter – but their (JFK-to?) Goodwin-to-Goulart-to-Castro account did ignite a mini-controversy among Cuban émigrés in South Florida, who mostly aimed their ire at Goodwin. Expressing "Second Thoughts on Buying Prisoners," a Miami News columnist described an unnamed Cuban exile as criticizing Goodwin's purported actions as inappropriate, both for using Goulart and for leaving thousands of political prisoners behind in Cuba. In an advertisement in the Spanish-language newspaper Diario las Américas, one opponent of negotiations with Castro lumped Goodwin among the U.S. and Latin America "traitors" seeking "peaceful co-existence" with Cuba, specifically citing the claim that he had passed along Kennedy's "non-intervention" pledge if Castro spared the prisoners' lives through Goulart, a "repugnant rat and international spy of Communism."
Assessing the Evidence
Was Goulart's appeal (public, private, or both) really decisive? Of course, there were plenty of other pleas for clemency, including from other hemispheric countries with embassies in Havana, such as Mexico, Canada, and Chile. (It's not clear whether the Soviets, who would certainly have urged moderation, rendered such advice – or would have been listened to – in view of the tensions in Soviet-Cuban relations at that juncture due to the Escalante Affair, and the Cubans' disenchantment with Moscow's then-ambassador.) Also, Castro hardly needed Brazil's advice to grasp that executing prisoners would ignite sharper anti-Cuba passions in the United States, and even risk triggering a U.S. military intervention – while keeping them alive could let him extort a higher price that could aid Cuba's ailing economy.
Still, Brazilian documents show, Cuba's leaders had privately pledged to Goulart that they would heed a public appeal from him (and only him) that met their specific conditions – and on April 2 he, grudgingly, largely (if not fully) acceded to that requirement; Castro and Dorticós would have known Havana risked damaging relations with a politically crucial country had they blatantly violated their commitment. And if the Allen-Scott report proved accurate, and Goulart indeed effectively served as a conduit for JFK's "thinking" (as conveyed by Goodwin) to reach Fidel then his (private) message was doubly important, effectively transmitting a warning from Kennedy to Castro not to provoke an escalation that neither desired.
The Brazilian Backchannel
Either way, the episode gave the Kennedy Administration a timely reminder of the potential utility of Brazil's embassy in Havana – contrary to the desires of some hardline U.S. officials (like OAS rep Morrison) who preferred Brazil simply cut diplomatic relations with Cuba. The events foreshadowed, in that respect, two other instances later in 1962 when the Kennedy Administration used Brazil to gauge Fidel Castro's willingness to break with the Soviet Union. During Goulart's visit to Washington in April, Brazilian Foreign Minister Dantas proposed to U.S. Secretary of State Rusk that Brazil's ambassador in Havana probe the possibiity of "getting Fidel away from the communists" given Castro's evident strains with Moscow and the old-line Cuban communists and perhaps moving Cuba toward a more nationalistic, Yugoslavia-style regime. Rusk and CIA Director McCone were skeptical about this proposition but were curious about the chance of a "clear break with Moscow," though Rusk envisioned Castro's "disposal" in any event. Bastian Pinto, in Havana, met with Castro, who was polite but not ready to consider any concrete action. The initiative fizzled.
Kennedy's most important use of Brazil as an intermediary to Cuba came at the height of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. On Saturday night, October 27, after discussion at the ExComm, Washington authorized its embassy in Rio de Janeiro to give Goulart's government a message to transmit to Castro (in Brazil's name, hiding its actual origin) stating that if Havana removed the nuclear missiles Moscow had deployed on the island, Cuba would be welcomed back into the hemisphere, including by the United States, implying the lifting of the economic embargo Washington had imposed. However, by the time Goulart's special emissary (Gen. Albino Silva) delivered this proposition, Nikita Khrushchev had already agreed to withdraw the Soviet missiles, and Castro, unaware that Brazil had actually delivered a message from Kennedy, dismissed its importance.
Brazil's potential utility as a U.S. "back channel" to Castro's Cuba ended in Spring 1964, when Brazil broke diplomatic relations with Havana after a military coup ousted Goulart from power. Yet it may have played an important part in limiting the US-Cuba confrontation at a dicey moment by influencing Castro to safeguard and eventually release the Bay of Pigs prisoners – and to avoid any executions, an act that might well have triggered a full-blown crisis and potentially a U.S. military intervention that Kennedy preferred to avoid, or at least defer.
In prompt reply to Penna Marinho's request for guidance, Brazil's foreign ministry instructs its OAS delegate to abstain on the proposed resolution, since such an appeal could have a "counterproductive effect." Instead, he should inform the OAS Council, Brazil, while sympathetic to its "noble" aims, was already acting in a bilateral framework to urge the Cubans in precisely the same direction. The telegram informs Penna Marinho, for his exclusive information, that a possible direct appeal from President Goulart was being discussed with the Cubans both through their embassy in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil's embassy in Havana.
In this crucial telegram, Brazilian ambassador Roberto Campos reports that Goodwin has visited him to relay a "personal appeal" from President Kennedy to President Goulart to use Brazil's "good offices" to persuade Fidel Castro to avoid a "summary judgment" in the case of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. Beyond his "humanitarian" concerns, JFK feared any executions would sharply rile U.S. public opinion just as it was growing "more tranquil and less emotional" regarding Cuba and revive pressure for new harsh U.S. actions against Cuba – military intervention? – which would be a disaster from both the U.S. and hemispheric view. This meeting, on Friday, March 30, may well have formed the basis for later press reports that Goulart, in addition to his public appeal, privately relayed Goodwin's description of Kennedy's thinking directly to Castro. It's not known whether Goodwin also relayed JFK's appeal in meetings with representatives of other countries or organizations with representatives in Havana.
Apparently in response to U.S. appeals – most importantly, JFK's appeal through Goodwin – Campos informed the State Department that Brazilian Foreign Minister San Tiago Dantas was indeed drafting an appeal from Goulart to Castro to eschew harsh actions against the Bay of Pigs prisoners.