After 50 years of hostility, neglected U.S. consulate in Havana shows
BY TIM JOHNSON
McClatchy Foreign Staff
The oceanfront building that will become the U.S. Embassy in Cuba has
faced a relentless enemy assault for more than 60 years. None of its
assailants was human.
Heat, sun, high winds and salt air have taken their toll. Throw in the
hostility that has marked U.S.-Cuban relations for most of the past five
decades, and even routine maintenance to the building is an ordeal.
The seven-story structure is in a constant state of disrepair. Diplomats
have learned to live with a leaky roof, crowded conditions and fire
hazards. Needed supplies take months to arrive.
An internal State Department report from May 2014 likens the building to
a “ship at sea,” its crew forced to conduct repairs often with whatever
they have at hand.
Perhaps within weeks, the U.S. and Cuban governments will announce
formal re-establishment of the diplomatic relations severed in 1961. The
U.S. flag will replace the Swiss flag that has flown outside what is now
known as the U.S. Interest Section. A new plaque will go up alerting
passersby that the prominent building is the U.S. Embassy once again, as
it was in the 1950s, before Fidel Castro led his successful revolution
on the island.
Yet to be seen, though, is whether – and how much – renewed relations
will ease the conditions that have made the Havana mission one of the
more challenging outposts for American diplomats.
“We’re in a building that was built in 1953, and all the systems were
breaking down, the electrical system, the plumbing system. And it’s not
like you can just run out to Home Depot,” said John Caulfield, who was
chief of mission in Havana until mid-2014 and is now retired in
There are no private stores under Cuba’s socialist system, and the state
controls access to most goods and services.
During his tenure, Caulfield said, it was hard to discern whether
difficulties in making repairs were part of a campaign of harassment or
because of bureaucratic red tape.
“We needed to put a new air conditioning chiller for the roof, and you
needed a crane to put it up there. It took a year,” Caulfield said. “All
cranes are controlled by the state.”
Of course, even if disrepair is a near-permanent state, the U.S.
Interests Section is a far sight less shabby than most of Havana, a city
trapped in time with vintage 1950s cars rolling down the streets,
once-grand homes that are crumbling and a skyline that changes little.
At any given moment, the U.S. government maintains 51 diplomats, U.S.
Marine guards and other direct-hire employees at the mission, or at a
nearby annex, also on the Malecón, or Havana’s oceanfront boulevard.
Also part of the outpost is a stately neoclassical 65-room mansion
opened in 1942 that is home to the chief of mission.
Some 370 Cubans also work for the Interests Section, making it already
the largest diplomatic mission in Havana. Those Cuban nationals all come
from a Cuban diplomatic services branch of the state, and some are
thought to be spies.
Rotating U.S. diplomats in and out of Cuba and keeping the facilities in
working order requires routine arrival of containers and shipments, some
of which arrive by air as so-called “diplomatic pouches” and others by
sea from South Florida, carrying supplies and household goods.
“A lot of these shipments were turned around just for no reason,”
Vehicles belonging to the U.S. mission’s motor fleet suffer.
Last year’s report from the State Department’s Office of the Inspector
General noted that 14 of the motor pool’s 62 vehicles were “either
unserviceable or in poor condition.” Some U.S. diplomats “operate
vehicles that are damaged, unsightly and possibly unsafe. One vehicle is
missing interior door panels and its gear shift knob.”
In recent weeks, U.S. officials say, they have made headway in sprucing
up the building. The Obama administration has asked Congress to allot an
additional $6 million for what the State Department calls the
“conversion” of the “aging facilities” into a full-fledged embassy.
“Quite frankly, there’s no more room at the inn,” John D. Feeley, the
principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western
Hemisphere, told a Senate panel May 5.
Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Cuba once relations
are re-established, but what he will find is not a typical, organized
“Havana’s consular operations are located in a hodgepodge of
disconnected offices and waiting rooms that provide too little space for
operations in some areas,” the inspector general’s report says.
At an annex, which houses some U.S. government offices, “the large
number of file cabinets located on the second floor threatens the
structural integrity,” and “fire hazards” threaten the building.
As U.S. and Cuban diplomats haggle out the final terms of
re-establishing relations, it is not yet clear how the consulate
building would grow to cope with an expanded presence.
Renewed relations would likely mean a U.S. Embassy that included
attaches from the Defense, Agriculture and Commerce departments, perhaps
the Drug Enforcement Administration and maybe the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
Moreover, with a greater arrival of U.S. citizens to the island, the
embassy would need to provide services to them. Roughly 550,000 U.S.
citizens, the majority Cuban-Americans, visited Cuba in 2014.
Even if renewed relations ease some aspects of diplomatic life in
Havana, and offer a symbolically important gesture of rapprochement, one
former mission chief said difficulties will remain, including routine
surveillance as diplomats travel around the island.
“I traveled 7,000 miles around the island, and I was totally
surveilled,” said James Cason, who was mission chief from 2002 to 2005,
a period when U.S. policy toward Cuba was more confrontational than it
Cason, who is now mayor of Coral Gables, Fla., outside Miami, said the
likely renewal of relations marks an incremental change, but perhaps not
a major one.
“The only change will be that we can fly our flag, we’ll change our
letterhead, and we’ll put the plaque up,” he said. “Same building.”
During Cason’s time, his staff put a news ticker on the outside of the
U.S. Interests Section with a crawl of headlines involving human rights
“Since we weren’t allowed to talk to the Cuban people, I figured we’d
talk over their heads,” Cason recalled with a chuckle.
Fidel Castro responded with indignation, installing more than 140
flagpoles in front of the U.S. mission, obscuring the ticker from view.
The flagpoles remain, but as tensions ease only one Cuban flag flies today.
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4
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