Saddam's Tough to Persuade. Cuba Tried

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Sun Mar 9 09:30:54 MST 2003

(The author is the highest-ranking Cuban
to defect to the United States and when
he did that, last year, he endorsed the
full Bush-Cuban exile line on the island
in a detailed Wall Street Journal profile.
This author is a hardline rightwinger.

(This article's translator is a specialist in
hard-line rightist hostility toward Cuba.

(All the more significant, then, is what
this article, from this source, shows us
about Cuba's attitude toward Iraq.)

Saddam's Tough to Persuade. Cuba Tried
By Alcibíades Hidalgo
Sunday, March 9, 2003; Page B01
The Washington Post

In the fall of 1990, the author was part of a high-level
Cuban diplomatic delegation sent by Fidel Castro to Baghdad
on the eve of the Persian Gulf War to try to persuade Saddam
Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. His memories of a tense
afternoon spent in Hussein's company offer some insight into
the Iraqi leader's mind on the eve of a possible second Gulf

Saddam Hussein raised his right hand to interrupt a long
explanation by the chief of Cuban military intelligence.
Both men were poised over a large map of the Arabian
peninsula, on which was marked in great detail the growing
deployment of American and allied military forces, a land
armada that would inflict lethal punishment on Iraq for its
invasion of Kuwait. "I have received various reports quite
similar to yours," Saddam said. "I get them from my
ambassador to the United Nations. They almost always
end up there," he said, raising his voice and pointing to a
grand marble wastebasket in a corner of the huge room.

His remark -- the first he had made in almost two hours,
after patiently listening to visitors at his Al Qadissiya
Palace -- seemed intended largely for the benefit of the
Iraqi military leaders who sat in their finest dress
uniforms along one side of a huge table. On the other side
was our delegation, sent by Fidel Castro in an attempt to
convince his Baghdad ally that a war in the Persian Gulf
would be disastrous for Iraq. We Cubans sensed it would
be a tough afternoon.

The meeting took place in November 1990, three months
after Iraq had applied overwhelming military force against
smaller, independent neighbor. The scenario was troublingly
similar to Cuba's worst fears about its own powerful
neighbor to the north. It was necessary for us to take a
strong position.

Cuba's foreign ministry at first counseled silence: The
Kuwaitis offered no tangible benefits to Cuba. Saddam was a
long-standing friend with whom Cuba shared many positions.
But in the Central Committee of the Communist Party some
of us argued for the opposite: The outright act of
aggression was irreconcilable with international law.
Cuba's interests would be better served by maintaining
our distance from Saddam's latest adventure.

Castro agreed. At the time Cuba was a member of the U.N.
Security Council, and in that capacity it voted in favor of
Resolution 660, condemning Iraq's actions. That moment
constituted the height of Cuban opposition to Iraq during
the crisis. Subsequently, Cuba's U.N. delegation -- under
direct orders from Fidel -- would work on behalf of Iraq
within the Security Council, but those efforts did not win
Saddam's forgiveness for our initial condemnation.

The idea of a direct appeal to the Iraqi dictator had come
from Castro. The mission required enormous discretion. It
would be headed by the vice president of the Cuban Council
of Ministers, José Ramón Fernández, who was a key figure
during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Rodrigo Alvarez
Cambras, an orthopedic surgeon who years before had removed
a tumor from Saddam Hussein's spinal cord, was included.
His presence would underscore the friendly, almost intimate,
nature of the mission.

In my own case, besides being the acting head of the foreign
relations section of the Central Committee of the Communist
Party, I was familiar with Iraq and its leader thanks to a
long tour in the Middle East with the Cuban news agency.
Col. Jaime Salas, the acting chief of military intelligence,
was designated to brief Saddam on intelligence concerning
the allied deployment. Bodyguards, assistants, translators
and the deputy foreign minister in charge of Arab states
filled out the delegation.

The heaviest load was to be carried by Col. Salas.
The Soviet military, which was kept fully informed on the
mission's activities, provided us with detailed descriptions
of the allied forces and equipment en route to the region,
including information on new weaponry. At the Soviet base in
Torrens, on the outskirts of Havana (known as Lourdes to
Americans), electronic intelligence had been culled from
command centers throughout the United States, to which
was added information sent by Moscow.

Fidel and some of us quickly drafted a cordial, four-page
message to Saddam. It listed the reasons the Iraqi leader
should not give Washington the opportunity to begin a period
of world domination. It suggested that he accept mediation
by friendly forces, namely Cuba and the other non-aligned
members of the Security Council: Colombia, Malaysia and

These four would provide diplomatic cover for Iraq by
suggesting in the council that Iraq withdraw immediately
from Kuwait. That way, Saddam could agree to a "Third-World
solution." Iraq's outstanding territorial demands with
Kuwait could remain on the table to be resolved later.
With that, the Cuban leader said, Iraqi honor, a key
concept, would be saved. The document was then sent
to a Cuban expert in Soviet matters to produce the version
most acceptable to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Fidel spoke to us of the personal risks we were about to
undertake. He regarded us, he said, as soldiers on the way
to war. Unusually, he embraced each of us.

We flew from Havana to Madrid and then to Amman, where
the Cuban ambassador advised us that Saddam's private jet
was waiting to take us to Baghdad. To fly in a plane that
obviously figured in the center of so many radar screens
was not necessarily the best option, but there was no
possibility of rejecting the amiable offer of our host.
Not for nothing had Fidel taken leave of us as if bidding
goodbye to soldiers off to war.

Happily, the short flight to Saddam International Airport
passed without incident. We were taken to a protocol
house reserved by the Cuban mission and began our wait.
The next day, an Iraqi attempt to obtain an advance
version of Fidel's message to Saddam met with a
stone wall. Fidel's letter would be handed over only
to the person to whom it was addressed.

Finally, after three days, we received an urgent message
that the meeting would take place the next day. The convoy
left at noon for an unknown destination: It proved to be the
president's favorite palace, Radwaniyah, also known as Al
Qadissiya. Saddam did not make us wait long. We were sitting
in an anteroom when he suddenly appeared with a half-dozen
of his highest-ranking military commanders, all heavily
decorated, like him, with campaign ribbons. With a grim
expression, the Iraqi dictator greeted Fernández, who
introduced the delegation, some of whom had already met
Saddam. Instead of responding similarly, Saddam simply
indicated his staff's presence with a vague gesture and
invited us to sit along one side of the table.

Fernández spoke first, at the invitation of our host. We
were motivated, he explained through a translator, by the
proven friendship between Iraq and Cuba, between Saddam and
Fidel. We were deeply concerned about the possible damage
that the Iraqi government would sustain and troubled by the
benefits the United States would accrue through the
demonstration of its military power. Fidel's translated
message was finally handed over to Saddam, who read it
slowly, without comment, save an occasional mumble to
himself and some movements of his head.

After Fernández's long speech, the Iraqi betrayed his
impatience. Then it was my turn: A diplomatic solution was
still possible, I said. Foreign envoys were arriving almost
daily in Baghdad, most prominently the Soviets -- who were
desperate to avoid publicly abandoning an Arab ally.

The U.S.S.R. was in a position to launch a last-minute
initiative in the Security Council, which China and several
other permanent members were expected to join. I added that
those most anxious to reach an honorable solution were the
council members from the Third World. I stated what Fidel
had said in his letter: All Iraq had to do was to announce
its withdrawal from Kuwait. Territorial claims could be
advanced on another day. The favorable disposition of U.N.
Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, a close friend of
Havana's, was key. Cuba was in a position to assure Saddam
that if he made the proper announcement, war could be
avoided. My recital of diplomatic options inspired no

Next, Col. Salas went to a blackboard where he had affixed
maps, tables, photographs and charts that illustrated the
deployment of the allied troops. He explained in detail the
characteristics of those formations, some of them the object
of long-term study by Cuba. His listing of powerful weapons,
many of them to be used in combat for the first time, was
especially compelling. Salas spoke of Tomahawk missiles of
various throw-weights that could be launched from the Red
Sea or the Persian Gulf; of Apache anti-tank helicopters;
of B-52 Stratofortresses; of new F-117A Stealth planes,
invisible to radar; of AWACS command systems that would
simultaneously guide hundreds of planes during aerial
combat; of Patriot missiles several times more accurate
than the Iraqis' Scuds; of Abrams tanks equipped with
120-millimeter gun sights; of new GPS spatial systems;
of pilotless airplanes and other forms of guided aerial
attackers. This war, he said, would be devastating.

Saddam listened impassively as Salas next described the
disadvantageous balance of forces -- an Iraqi army of fewer
than a million men, 7,000 tanks and many fewer artillery
pieces. Saddam brought the presentation to an end when
our colonel began to describe the enemy's manifest air
superiority . The Iraqi launched into a crude harangue on
the colonial injustices that had created the state of
Kuwait, which he called the true cause of the present

He condemned Arab ingratitude toward the only Arab
nation that had fought Persian expansion in the Gulf. Iraq,
he said, had been cheated out of its oil and now, isolated
and alone, was forced to face a new Western crusade.

He referred to the ingratitude of other fair-weather
friends, to Iraq's refusal to bend to the pressures of its
enemies, to the ineptitude of the U.N. and betrayal by
the communist countries. He evoked the memory of
Saladin, a native of his home region, and the formidable
lesson that the Iraqi people, determined to prevail,
would teach any aggressor.

"You can go tell Comrade Fidel Castro," he said, "that
I appreciate his concern." Then, raising his voice, he said,
"If the soldiers of the United States invade Iraq we will
smash them like this" -- and he stamped on the carpet
with his polished military boots.

Saddam shook hands with each of us unsmilingly. Fernández
took his leave by embracing Saddam, Arab-style. Saddam
asked him to convey his greetings to Castro.

On Nov. 12, 1990, Cuba's official daily newspaper, Granma,
announced the return of our delegation, even though its
existence had not been a matter of public knowledge.
When Fidel received us that day he showed no interest in
listening to an account of our trip. He asked only that
Fernández reenact Saddam's display of how he planned
to crush the American forces.

Alcibíades Hidalgo, a journalist and editor, was Cuban
first vice minister of foreign relations and permanent
representative to the United Nations. He sought asylum in
the United States last summer. This piece was translated
by Mark Falcoff.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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