Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1998
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APRIL 1998


He's been called the dean of Castro's apologists by some, an enemy of the Cuban Revolution by others. Wayne Smith is unperturbed. "Right-minded people know that my position is really sensible," he says.

P U B L I C    P O L I C Y    A N D    I N T E R N A T L.    A F F A I R S

Candid about Cuba
By Joanne P. Cavanaugh

WAYNE SMITH STEPS INTO A PRIVATE TAXI on a street corner in Havana, the big man folding himself into the back seat. The Cuban taxi driver glances back at his passenger.

"Hola, Wayne Smith," the young man says, growing excited. "You have done so much for Cuba. You are a hero. A donde vamos, Smith? Where are we going?"

Others are asking Smith the same question. In scenes repeated in Cuban cafés, hotel corridors, and along crumbling streets, ordinary Cubans recognize and welcome the burly, bearded ex-Marine. This former top American diplomat in Cuba, and longtime critic of U.S. policy, is well known here. And he is often called upon to predict the country's future by those on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Flash to the Levering cafeteria at Hopkins's Homewood campus. Smith, a Hopkins visiting professor, is eating a quick lunch: spiced curly fries, a fried fish filet, and a hunk of chocolate pie, before he teaches class--Cuba and U.S. Decision-Making: Case Studies. Students and colleagues stop by every 10 minutes. They want to discuss careers in the U.S. Foreign Service, pose a question about Smith's course, or just chat. He nods and smiles, answering them quickly and diplomatically.

Wayne Sanford Smith is a celebrity--with all the controversy that entails for someone who speaks his mind about a topic as emotional as Cuba. During Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in January, Smith was on hand in Havana for interviews with Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN, NPR, and a litany of networks, newspapers, and radio stations. In broadcast debates, he sparred with Cuban exile leaders on the U.S. embargo and other policies. He is what's known in the news business as a "quote machine."

In his role as Cuba analyst-- tapped by the press, politicians, academics, and students --Smith often swims against the mainstream. In Op-Ed pieces in newspapers, and in academic and political forums, he calls for dialogue with Castro's government. That can be a volatile position to an outspoken Miami-based Cuban exile community that opposes any deal-making with Castro. It also rankles anti-communist crusaders elsewhere in the United States. A formerly high-ranking diplomat, Smith also brutally criticizes U.S. foreign policy, calling U.S. decisions regarding Cuba-- mostly a series of ever-tightening sanctions--"specious," "irrational," and reaching "new heights of absurdity." Yet he also criticizes Castro and his government, citing restrictions on free speech and other human rights abuses.

In January, from his hotel room at the Havana Libre, Smith discussed Fidel Castro's monumental shift in attitude toward the Catholic Church. And Smith would know better than most. "It's astonishing to see a Catholic Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution," he says, pausing. "The contrast. I was the U.S. embassy liaison officer with the Catholic Church in 1960 as the church and Cuban government moved toward their clash. Foreign priests were expelled and churches were closed. Now the pope is coming and the Cuban government has completely done away with the clause in the constitution that describes this as an atheistic state.

"I guess if you live long enough, that's what happens," he adds.

Smith, 65 (who describes himself as ageless), has made Cuba his life's work--an interest ignited 40 years ago in the heady days when he was a low-level diplomat in Havana, and Castro and his rebels came down from the Sierra Maestra to lead a homespun revolution.

SMITH FIRST HEARD ABOUT CASTRO'S VICTORY in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 1959. Someone knocked on his bedroom door in Havana at 4 a.m. U.S. Ambassador Earl E.T. Smith was calling for a meeting, as embassy duty officers tried to sober up from the evening's revelry. Smith flipped on the radio. "The song `Mama, they're from the hills' was on, and it had been banned on Cuban radio," he recalls. "Apparently, the rebels had won and would be coming into town. It was a whole new world."

Over the next few days, Smith and other U.S. officials organized an exodus of Americans from the island. That's when the young diplomat saw the new Cuban leader in action: "I'll never forget Castro's first televised speech. They had released a flock of white doves as a symbol of peace, and one of the doves flew up and landed on Castro's shoulder. A white dove is a messenger in the Cuban religion of Santería that shows the anointed one. If there was any doubt in people's minds, they knew then that Castro was the man.

"Some people were skeptical and said the rebels had trained the dove while they were in the mountains," Smith says. "But that was even more impressive. Think about the foresight."

Castro, at first welcomed by the United States, quickly made his own statement. In 1961, he declared Cuba a socialist state, having nationalized U.S.-owned sugar mills and factories. He also barred Cubans from owning their own businesses or selling property. Thousands of Cubans fled to Miami. For those who remained, Castro promised an equal share of the state's riches and a higher living standard. Health care, higher education, and basic food supplies would be provided for. And, to some degree, they were, even in the face of a U.S. trade embargo that's been in effect since the early 1960s. But with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union--Cuba's trading partner and ideological patron-- the island's economy fell apart.

Over the past four decades, Smith has maintained diplomatic-style connections to Cuba's socialist government. Those ties have earned him various monikers: remarkable American diplomat, insightful Cuba analyst, and, to his critics, the dean of Castro's apologists.

"By some hard-line Cuban-American sectors, Wayne Smith is perceived as the enemy," says Damian Fernandez, chair of the Department of International Relations at Florida International University. "But he is someone who is keeping the debate [about U.S.–Cuban policies] alive and that in itself is important. He has always argued his point with passion and intelligence.

"Wayne Smith is a diplomat at heart," says Fernandez, who left Cuba at age 5 and returns to do research when allowed by the Cuban government. "He knows the more pressure you apply, the more you may hurt the people rather than help. Wayne Smith has been critical of the Castro government, so I don't think he's an apologist for Castro. He is not as critical as I would be, but everyone has their take on reality."

Frank Calzon clashes with Smith on Cuba-related issues on Capitol Hill and in press forums. "Dr. Smith is certainly vigorous in his defense of what he thinks is the right policy toward Cuba," says Calzon, executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, an advocacy group. "But Dr. Smith has to be wrong. He's wrong in pretending there is something left of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban Revolution is dead. What's left is a dictatorship."

For Smith, a man raised on the Monroe Doctrine and weaned on the Cold War, it's not easy making sense of a new world order in which the United States has a constantly shifting role. "No one officially recognizes that the Monroe Doctrine is dead and that there is nothing to replace it," Smith says. "That was the standard U.S. policy for 200 years and now it's gone. What guides our policy today? Nothing guides our policy, except maybe whim and responses to the pressures and circumstances of the moment."

Smith left the Foreign Service in August 1982, after a communist-gunning Ronald Reagan was elected president and Smith's push for normalized relations with Cuba became moot. Three years later, he was named director of the Cuba Exchange Program at Hopkins, where he is also a visiting professor of Latin American studies. To establish his advocacy efforts, he joined the Center for International Policy, a left-of-center think tank, as a senior fellow in 1992.

Smith opposes the 38-year-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba and has fought to lift U.S. bans on the importation of food and medicine to the impoverished nation. In that stand, he joins the ranks of Pope John Paul II and some top Cuban dissidents on the island. Yet so far, he can name no concrete success in Washington: "Our policy towards Cuba has become to me more and more of an embarrassment. It has never been very logical or rational and now it is distressingly irrational. Relations are the worst they've been since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis."

To illustrate his point, Smith will call up his own words, his favorite quote cited in The New York Times: "Cuba seems to have the same effect on American administrations as the full moon has on werewolves."

"It's awfully frustrating," he adds. "I left the Foreign Service in 1982 and vowed to take up this cause, and 16 years later the relations are worse than they ever were. It's my cause and I just can't let go of it. I can't go off and sail around the world or retire to a mountain meadow while this is still there."

Smith's dedication, even to an unpopular crusade, can be traced first to his own childhood. Raised by a family of Texas ranchers, cowboys, and oil business types, Smith was a tackle on the Corpus Christi High School football team and a roughneck in Texas oil fields. As a teenager, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and fought in the Korean War. That experience would set his career compass.

"I was fighting in the winter in the Korean War and decided on a cold night that I was going to be a diplomat," says Smith, who made the rank of sergeant before leaving the Marine Corps in 1953. "I thought, `There has to be a better way to solve problems.'"

He carried with him lessons taught at home. "My father and grandfather were very important to me. My father was a man of very high principles. He did what he believed was right. I can't imagine my father doing anything he would be terribly ashamed of," Smith says. "My grandfather told me if you want to change the world, the merit is in the effort. He told me, `Do what you think is right and don't expect any reward.'"

Smith earned his bachelor's degree in Hispanic-American literature at the University of the Americas in Mexico, and earned a master's there in international relations (later earning an MA at Columbia University, and yet another MA and a PhD at George Washington University). In the 1950s, when a position opened up in the Foreign Service for a specialist in communist movements in Latin America, he applied: "I didn't know anything about that, but for the salary they offered, I didn't think anyone else would either. I got the job."

Smith was assigned to Havana as a third secretary in 1958, two weeks after marrying his wife and constant companion of 40 years, Roxanna. He served there until the U.S. broke off relations with Cuba in 1961. For the next decade, he worked in Foreign Service posts in Brazil, Argentina, and the Soviet Union. He was director of Cuban Affairs for the U.S. Department of State from 1977 until 1979, when he became the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, America's diplomatic mission in Cuba. That role suited the independent Texan well. As U.S. mission chief, he helped guide policy during violent anti-American protests, the 1980 Mariel boatlift of refugees to Florida, and other diplomatic crises. He retired early on his birthday, August 16, 1982.

Throughout his diplomatic career, Smith kept his sights on Cuba. There was a nostalgic connection: it was his first overseas post. He also had the tactile experience of being there during the Cuban Revolution and other historic turning points. But even more than that, he says, his commitment stems from his respect for the Cubans themselves: "I love the Cuban people. They are about the nicest I've ever met. I found that in 1958 and since then I've been impressed with the fact that they don't hate anyone. I grew up in the South before the Civil Rights movement, so I knew hate. Cubans may resent U.S. domination of their country, but that doesn't translate on a personal level to Americans."

One of his early State Department assignments was determining if the newly formed Cuban Revolution was communist--the death knell for diplomacy in the eyes of the United States. "We thought then that it wasn't," says Smith, of Castro's pre-victory days. "There were no ties, no ties whatsoever. And Fidel Castro was not a person who subjected himself to the discipline of another unless it served his purpose. But this was a person with colossal ambitions. Cuba was too small a stage, unless he had the support of the Soviet Union."

Throughout the 1960s, as Castro became more committed to exporting communist-style revolution and strengthening ties to the U.S.S.R., relations with the United States continued to deteriorate. They leveled off somewhat in the 1970s--a relatively open period in U.S.–Cuban relations--when President Carter discussed the possibility of lifting the U.S. embargo. But, at the same time, Cuba sent troops to aid Ethiopia's socialist army. Smith found himself in the middle, pushing both sides to open a dialogue about their disputes. And after Reagan was elected, American officials shunned several Cuban efforts to negotiate, according to Smith. It was that stonewalling that pushed Smith to leave the Foreign Service: "Reagan came in and Cuba became the evilist part of the evil empire."

Robert Pastor was the National Security Council's director of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs from 1977 to 1981: "Wayne found himself in a very awkward position as an advocate for moving toward normalization at a moment when U.S. and Cuba interests were diverging. He was obviously disappointed with both sides."

Within days of his leaving the Foreign Service in 1982, Smith joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as a senior associate. He started firing shots: In a September issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Smith called administration policies "hackneyed" and said Reagan and previous presidents were wrongheaded in thinking the Castro administration could be removed, short of war. Such criticism was a rare move for such a high-ranking diplomat. "No incantations will make it disappear," he wrote. "To reduce it by fire and sword would cost far more in blood, treasure, and world opprobrium than the problem warrants."

Smith's analysis--and passion for the issue--hasn't changed much over the years: "The last thing the United States wants is some kind of bloody upheaval. There would be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Cubans on our shores," he says. "Cuba is in the reform process, and Castro is the only one who can bring about that process of change without bloodshed."

Over the years, Smith, perhaps more than any other American, has had Castro's ear. His insight comes from lengthy conversations with the Bearded One: "I've met Castro many, many times. I've spent hundreds of hours talking to him. It's not too hard to do. A conversation with Fidel Castro can last six hours."

He describes Castro as a "pragmatic man" who alters his ideologies to meet a changing world, as demonstrated by the pope's recent visit: "Castro obviously didn't put all this time and effort into a one-day image enhancement. It's a long-term strategy," Smith says. "He has a sense of the Cuban people and he uses the pope to give them optimism. What do they have to hold on to? No one believes in Marxism-Leninism."

When Smith left the U.S. Interests Section, Castro showed up at his going away party, a barbeque in the western city of Pinar del Rio. At one of their early conversations, Smith remembers Castro posing a question: "He asked me what zodiac sign I was born under. I said, `Leo, like you Mr. President.' And then he rubbed his beard and said, `I thought so.'" It's this closeness to Castro that inflames some of his harshest critics-- especially those in the right-wing Cuban exile community who resent Castro's takeover and have pressed the U.S. government to unseat him through sanctions or force. Even some Cuban-Americans who prefer a peaceful transition in Cuba are perplexed by Smith.

"Somehow, Wayne Smith has the same commitments and interests as the Cuban government," says Juan Carlos Bermudez, adjunct national secretary of the Cuban Revolutionary Democratic Directorate, a Miami-based group of young Cuban-Americans. "They have to have something on him. It doesn't make sense."

Or take the words of Smith's political nemesis, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), a Miami-based staunchly anti-Castro exile group that has long wielded political power on Capitol Hill. In 1996, the group won a libel suit against Smith for comments he made--questioning whether U.S. taxpayer money had somehow funded political campaigns through CANF--in a TV documentary on the group and its leader, the late Jorge Mas Canosa. A Miami jury ordered Smith to pay $40,000 in damages. He has appealed.

"Wayne Smith seems to have a much greater animosity for the foundation and Jorge Mas, God rest his soul, than he does for Castro," says Jorge Fowler, a Cuban-American and a CANF attorney. "He admits he visits Cuba frequently and has met Castro many, many times. He went to a barbeque with Fidel Castro. I don't think I could eat at a barbeque with Fidel Castro. Wayne Smith has developed a good relationship with a government we consider to be criminal."

Says Smith of the lawsuit and CANF criticisms: "It's an effort to intimidate and silence me. They have unlimited funds, and they know I'm not a wealthy person by any means. They have every right to advocate their position. But others in the community who argue for a different policy are written off as Castro apologists and communists."

Oddly enough, Smith's positions are also suspect in the hard-line pro-Castro contingent inside Cuba. "He is a very controversial figure here," says Gloria Leon, a Cuban historian and former University of Havana professor. "Some people suspect he's an analyst for the CIA. But for many Cubans, Wayne Smith has done much to demystify the image of the enemy. He recognizes all the positive the Revolution has brought about."

"By Cuban hard-liners, I'm regarded as a very dangerous fellow, someone who wants to destroy the Revolution," says Smith. "They say I may have a pleasing face, but I'm the enemy. Now, sensible, right-minded people know my position is really sensible."

Smith concedes that Castro is a dictator. "I don't argue with that, I say so. I tell Cuban officials, `What do you want? Some kind of toady?' If I'm viewed in the U.S. as a lickspittle, I lose credibility. Cubans know I believe U.S. policy is wrong, but I think they can do far more, and I encourage them. I tell them, `It's in your interest to move forward.'"

Among other things, Smith has urged Cuban officials to allow more free speech on the island, especially in the academic community. Last year, in a letter to the state-owned University of Havana, he questioned the firings or censure of several professors.

Franklin Knight, Smith's colleague and Hopkins history professor, describes Smith this way: "He's not a guy whose love for Cuba blinds his views, but it does qualify them. When he goes down there, the [official] groups he moves in may limit his vision. But what Cubans in Miami don't realize is that the same views they hate are not well received in Cuba because they tend to be reasonable views in a scenario where reasonable ground is not well entertained."

"Cubans know I believe that U.S. policy is wrong, but I think they can do far more for themselves, and I encourage them," says Smith.
CUBAN BUREAUCRATS SIT QUIETLY, fingers interlaced, as one or another speaks in rooms painted industrial grade blue. Framed photos of Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and a young, defiant Fidel Castro, adorn the walls, as do sculpted reliefs of Cuban patriot and poet José Martí. A plant or two garnish otherwise empty corners.

Smith has sat in thousands of rooms like these over the years. Early this January, he acted as an unofficial political tour guide for a group of U.S. dignitaries. It was at least Smith's 16th such trip since he left his diplomatic post.

Since 1982, Smith has been a citizen advocate of sorts. His impressive lists of contacts have opened doors, while his crusade may have drawn a few closed. On the heels of his anti-U.S. protests in the press, he began teaching at Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He taught at SAIS from the mid-1980s to 1993, when the Cuba Exchange Program he led, a rare exchange of academics and students, moved to the Homewood campus [see story, p. 42]. The program's CUBAInfo newsletter on Cuba-related issues, which circulates to nearly 1,000 people on Capitol Hill and in Cuba, was asked to find new quarters. "SAIS over time became uninterested in the Cuba project. It didn't fit," Smith says of the move from the Washington-based graduate school. "That's how it was put to me: "It doesn't fit in with the other things we are doing.'"

SAIS's director of Latin American Studies, Riordan Roett, had encouraged Smith to come on board in 1985. Roett was a longtime friend of Smith's from the days when Roett was a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil and Smith was posted there. Roett says the shift to Homewood allowed the program to focus on non-political studies taught on the undergraduate level, such as Cuban literature, history, or sociology, which Smith also supports. What's more, "students at SAIS were becoming far less interested in Cuba," Roett says. "There wasn't as much to say as there was in Mexico or Asia. In Cuba, there was an embargo, and things weren't going anywhere."

Some academics in the U.S. and Cuba hope things will change. They welcome Smith's efforts to establish educational ties between the nations. Nicholas Robins is director of the Cuban Studies Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans. "Wayne has been a strong supporter and a very good resource for us in getting our institute off the ground."

At least three times, Smith also has tried to test U.S. policy regarding academics by going to Cuba without licenses required for visits. In 1994, trying to prompt a court test case, he and two other scholars stood with a lawyer on a Miami tarmac and challenged U.S. Treasury agents to arrest them: "Let's do it," Smith said. Aside from a few lectures, his protests were ignored. Now he goes with licenses obtained through the Center for International Policy or Hopkins's Cuba Exchange Program. He says he knows it's the same process but feels better not having to apply personally: "I know that's splitting a hair."

In January, the group of dignitaries sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Policy flew to Havana to discuss ways the U.S. and Cuba could work together to halt drug drop-offs from planes or boats from South America, as well as curb tourism-related drug trade on the island.

Mark Hatfield, an Oregon Republican who retired from the U.S. Senate in 1997, and retired Coast Guard Vice Admiral and Commandant Benedict Stabile laid out American concerns to 40 Cuban Coast Guard and other officials. Smith sat back, black notebook in hand, interjecting thoughts when called upon. "Wayne Smith seemed to be genuinely interested in other perspectives, rather than being the old hand expert," notes Rick Rolf, a former foreign policy advisor to Hatfield who joined the trip.

"I think it's better for them to reach their own conclusions about Cuba that they can take back," Smith says.

Hatfield and Stabile, operating as consultants, are putting together a report for President Bill Clinton about Cuban officials' apparent willingness to cooperate on drug cases. "I don't see anything easy coming out of it. The Cubans don't see themselves as having a significant drug problem, but they know that the disease is bound to spread," says Stabile.

Smith, who initiated the visit, called the excursion a success. Yet he, too, expects little in the way of policy changes on either side. "We are preparing the ground," Smith says, "we are preparing public opinion. It's a long-term process."


In May 1980, Smith was chief of America's mission in Cuba during the Mariel boatlift, an exodus of Cubans that prompted Castro to release criminals from prisons. During street protests in Havana, about 400 Cubans took refuge in the U.S. Interests Section near the seaside Malecon Avenue. The group, mostly former political prisoners applying for asylum, had gathered outside to pressure American officials to hear their cases. During the protest, buses from the Cuban Institute for the Friendship of People pulled up, and Cubans piled off wielding baseball bats, machetes, and chains. The two sides rioted.

Smith sheltered the asylum seekers. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound ex-Marine walked into the chanting crowd and told rioters to respect the walls of the diplomatic establishment. For the next four months, dozens of Cubans stayed and others were monitored by Smith and his staff after going home to await permission to leave. By September, nearly all had been admitted to the United States.

"I felt a certain pride in myself and all of us that afternoon," Smith says. "Everything was in shambles, and we thought, `What in God's name are we going to do with all these people?' By September, they had all been processed and had gotten into the United States. If I didn't accomplish anything else in Cuba, I did that."

Joanne P. Cavanaugh is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine. She can be reached via e-mail at: