A half-century after Washington severed relations with Cuba, the US’ seven-story mission looms over Havana’s seaside Malecon Boulevard as the largest diplomatic outpost in the country.
Cuban guards stand at close intervals outside, while islanders line up by the thousands each year for a shot at a coveted US visa.
The gleaming US Interests Section is poised to become an even more important presence in Cuba as the two countries negotiate the first phase of their historic detente, transforming the complex into a full embassy that would reflect the US President Barack Obama administration’s hopes of new influence on the communist island.
Assistant US Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson will be the highest known US administration official to visit in decades next month when she is to arrive for annual talks on migration that will now also focus on the details of re-establishing full diplomatic ties. The discussions are expected to cover expanding staffing in the two countries’ interests sections and letting diplomats travel outside their respective capitals without having to ask permission.
Also part of the reopening of the embassy: symbolic measures such as raising the US flag on the Malecon.
“Opening an embassy is a symbolic gesture, but symbols are really important,” John Caulfield, who was Interests Section chief from 2011 to this year, said by telephone from Jacksonville, Florida, where he retired. “This is a pretty powerful symbol by our president that we want to have a more normal relationship with Cuba, despite the fact that we have the obvious differences.”
Cuba’s interests section in the US is a stately manor in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. It, too, stands to become an embassy.
Diplomats say privately that Washington hopes to boost staffing in Havana, currently at about 50 Americans and 300 Cubans, as more US travelers and trade delegates are expected to come to the island under new rules to be set by the White House softening its trade embargo on Cuba.
An agreement could also ease or scrap rules that require US diplomats to channel all requests through the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the diplomats would be able to deal directly with at least some other branches of government.
The US Interests Section has often been a flashpoint for conflict and its decades of hybrid status reflect the dysfunctional relationship between the two deeply intertwined countries.
The building first opened as an embassy in 1953, the same year former Cuban president Fidel Castro launched an ill-fated assault on a barracks that is considered the onset of the Cuban Revolution.
Eight years later, with Castro then in power, the countries broke ties and Switzerland stepped in to safeguard both the embassy and the ambassador’s residence, a sprawling, immaculately groomed estate in Havana’s finest neighborhood.
After the break, the US was without a presence in Cuba until 1977, when the interests sections were opened under then-US president Jimmy Carter. The missions technically operate under the aegis of the “protecting power” Switzerland.
Cuba later built the adjacent “Anti-Imperialist Plaza,” which has hosted nationalist rallies where Castro gave long speeches railing against Washington and concerts demanding the return of the Cuban intelligence agents whom the US freed last week as part of the detente. Huge marches streamed past the Interests Section in 2000 to demand the return of young Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez.
On the wall of a conference room in the mission hangs the bronze head of an eagle that topped the nearby USS Maine monument until it was ripped down in a 1961 anti-Yankee protest following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The wings and body sit in a musty Cuban museum storage room awaiting a possible reunion with the head when Havana and Washington become friends.
In 2006, US diplomats installed an electronic billboard that scrolled messages extolling democracy and human rights to Cubans on the street below. An outraged Cuban government erected dozens of black flags to obscure the signs.
“The consequence of that was, for years, they did not allow us to import lightbulbs,” Caulfield recalled with a chuckle.
The US Interests Section is closely watched by cameras and guards on both sides, a function of both the longtime tensions and general increased security at US diplomatic missions following the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks on the US. Cuban police make pedestrians cross the street to use another sidewalk and no parking is allowed.
Some neighbors say they love living nearby: Nobody ever gets robbed, and the employees and visa-seekers support local private businesses that were allowed to open under Cuban President Raul Castro’s economic reforms of recent years.
“Because the whole area is so well-guarded, it’s very safe,” said Pedro Hernandez, 73, who runs a snack bar out of his home.
US diplomats say low-level harassment was routine for many years, as Cuba restricted their movements and activities and dragged its feet on permission to do standard maintenance. Cuban state media routinely portrayed the building as a den of spies.
Both sides gradually moved toward a remarkably civil relationship in recent years. Once details of the new diplomatic relationship are worked out, turning the mission into an embassy requires little more than changing a few signs and ordering a new letterhead, experts said.
Some who served in the US Interests Section are awaiting the change with a mixture of excitement and wistfulness.
“I would have loved to be there to raise that flag,” Caulfield said.
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