Home News Wayne Smith, leading critic of Cuba sanctions, dies at 91

Wayne Smith, leading critic of Cuba sanctions, dies at 91

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Wayne S. Smith, a senior Cuba expert at the State Department who resigned in 1982 in protest of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and spent nearly four decades working to rebuild relations between Washington and Havana, died June 28 at his home in New Orleans. He was 91.

The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter, Melinda Smith Ulloa.

For more than 24 years, since joining the Foreign Service in 1958, Mr. Smith has been America’s emissary in Havana, whether he is in the Cuban capital or handling business from his desk in Washington.

Later, after leaving the State Department, he used his extensive experience to continue opposing the U.S. strategy of isolating Cuba, while leading private and congressional delegations to Cuba in an attempt to establish channels for dialogue.

“He was one of the most important voices in favor of normalizing relations,” William Leogrande, a Cuban affairs expert at American University in Washington, said in an interview.

Mr. Smith is an entertaining and quick writer of numerous reviews, journal articles and books, including the 1987 memoir-history “The Closest Enemy: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban Relations Since 1957.”

He was fond of saying, “Cuba seems to have the same effect on the American government as a full moon does on a werewolf.”

Mr. Smith first arrived in Cuba during the revolution against the government of Fulgencio Batista. After the Cuban government fell on Jan. 1, 1959, he oversaw the evacuation of American citizens from Cuba, including future actress Kathleen Turner, whose father worked at the U.S. Embassy.

He became an outspoken critic of the State Department’s hardline stance toward Cuba and was one of the officials selected by President Jimmy Carter to restore relations between the two countries in 1977. Two years later, President Carter sent him to Havana to run the U.S. Interest Section, which represented the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.

Mr. Smith is no fan of the Cuban regime. But he believes in the power of diplomacy and dialogue, and his own experience has convinced him that a blockade is counterproductive and against the interests of the United States.

Ronald Reagan’s accession to the White House marked a hardening of U.S. policy toward Cuba, in part because Fidel CastroThe island nation’s leaders are sending weapons to leftist guerrillas in Central America.

Mr. Smith sent a series of critical cables to the State Department, which sought to transfer him to a new post in Uganda. Infuriated, Mr. Smith resigned in protest in August 1982.

Weeks later, he published a lengthy article in Foreign Policy magazine accusing the U.S. government of being “shortsighted” on Cuba and continuing what he called long-standing mistakes.

“The administration is hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of the past,” he wrote. “Its approach to Cuba is so hackneyed and unsuccessful that it evokes a strong sense of déjà vu.”

Wayne Sanford Smith was born on August 16, 1932, in Seguin, Texas, east of San Antonio. His mother, Opal Baldwin Smith, ran the household; his father, Paul Smith, was an oilfield engineer, and Wayne’s family moved between Texas and Oklahoma throughout his childhood.

After graduating from high school at age 16, he convinced his father to sign papers allowing him to enlist in the Marines as a minor. He served in the Korean War and then served as an instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, one of the Marines’ main training bases.

He was honorably discharged in 1953 and attended the Mexico City College (now part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico) on a football scholarship.

In 1957, he joined the State Department, where he was responsible for Cuban and Latin American affairs, and in 1958 he passed the Foreign Service exam.

In 1958, he married Roxanna Phillips, also at the State Department, and was posted to Cuba—their journey south by car and boat became their honeymoon. She died in 2014.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his son Sanford and two grandchildren. His marriage to Jacqueline Richard ended in divorce, and he was also preceded in death by his son, Michael Smith.

Mr. Smith has also been posted to Argentina and Brazil. He received a master’s degree in philosophy and international relations from Columbia University in 1962 and a doctorate in political science from George Washington University in 1977.

After retiring from government, he served as a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and in 1992 joined the Center for International Policy, a progressive think tank, as a senior fellow.

Sanctions against Cuba remain in place, and in that sense Mr. Smith did not see his efforts succeed. But in 2015, the United States reset relations with Cuba and reopened its embassy. Mr. Smith watched the flag-raising ceremony in Havana.

“Cuba is my life,” he said. Video Interview with The New York Times in 2015. “I was there when we disbanded, so I wanted to be there again when we raised the Stars and Stripes over the old embassy. It was a great day for all of us, especially me, because I was there when we brought the flag down.”

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