Historic thaw: U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties will be reestablished Monday
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
The last time the United States and Cuba had diplomatic relations,
Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, Elvis Presley’s Are You
Lonesome Tonight? topped the charts and a new dance craze, the Twist,
was sweeping the country.
The past half-century of U.S.-Cuba relations has been a roller coaster
ride of high hopes for improvement at times but then plummets to low
points that included mutual acts of terrorism, separation of Cuban
families, CIA attempts to kill Fidel Castro, the most dangerous days of
the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a U.S.-sponsored invasion,
Cuba’s alignment with the old Soviet bloc, confiscation of U.S.
property, the 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by
Cuban MiGs, and countless human tragedies played out on a smaller scale.
But when the clock ticks past midnight Sunday, the United States and
Cuba will officially reestablish diplomatic relations and their
embassies will reopen Monday for the first time in 54 years.
On Monday morning, the Cuban government will raise its flag over the its
almost 100-year-old limestone building on Washington’s 16th Street
Northwest that has been a Cuban Embassy, a Cuban Interests Section in
the absence of formal diplomatic ties, and now once again an embassy.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, who heads the Cuban delegation to the
event, will become the highest-ranking Cuban diplomat to visit the State
Department in decades when he meets with Secretary of State John Kerry
in the afternoon.
For the United States, it marks the beginning of a new chapter of
engagement with Cuba. Kerry plans to travel to Havana later this summer
to officially inaugurate the U.S. Embassy. The interests section will be
elevated to embassy status Monday, but the stars and stripes won’t fly
until Kerry’s arrival.
The respective mission chiefs in Havana and Washington will become
chargés d’affaires at the new embassies until ambassadors are named, and
new rules for operations at the embassies will take effect.
“When the United States shuttered our embassy in 1961, I don’t think
anyone expected that it would be more than half a century before it
reopened,” said President Barack Obama on July 1 when he announced the
date for restoring diplomatic ties. The old policy of isolation, he
said, “shuts America out of Cuba’s future, and it only makes life worse
for the Cuban people.”
Even as the Cuban flag is hoisted in Washington, a difficult
relationship between the United States and Cuba is expected to remain
just that — difficult — but with the difference that the two sides are
now talking more freely with each other in hopes of working through the
many issues that still separate them.
“That will include America’s enduring support for universal values, like
freedom of speech and assembly, and the ability to access information,”
Obama said on July 1.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta
Jacobson, who was the lead U.S. negotiator in normalization talks, said
there is an “obvious groundswell of support” among Cubans on the island
for the new policy. But during an appearance at the Wilson Center in
June, Jacobson said that Cubans’ very high expectations “must be
managed. Because let’s face it, things aren’t going to change overnight.”
Both sides are proceeding with caution given their tumultuous history
and neither country seems to want to get too far out in front with the
new relationship. “Most things that we do with the Cuban government are
reciprocal in nature,” a State Department official said during a Friday
The United States officially broke ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, but
relations between Washington and Havana had begun to turn sour within
six months of New Year’s Day 1959 when the Cuban Revolution triumphed.
By August 1960, Cuba had expropriated all U.S.-owned industrial and
agricultural holdings as well as nationalized all U.S. banks. That fall,
Eisenhower had begun to phase in the U.S. trade embargo, and in December
he eliminated Cuba’s sugar quota for the next quarter. In the last
months of 1960, as Cuba complained of air raids coming from the United
States and bomb attacks, plans to invade the island were already under
discussion in Washington.
Months before Eisenhower decided to break with Cuba, personnel at the
U.S. Embassy had already been instructed to cut down to two suitcases in
case a hasty departure was necessary, remembers Wayne Smith, then a
junior officer at the embassy and later the chief of mission in 1977
when the United States established an interests section in the old
“Things had been going so badly; it was inevitable,” said Smith. “It was
almost a relief. Relations had been so strained and so bitter and we
knew it was coming. But I remember thinking, ‘Let’s hope it won’t be for
The tipping point came on Jan. 2, when Cuban Foreign Minister Raúl Roa,
speaking before the U.N. Security Council, charged that the United
States was planning to invade, and Fidel Castro gave a speech in which
he denounced the American Embassy as a “nest of spies” and demanded that
the staff be reduced to 11 people, including U.S. diplomats, Marine
guards and local employees.
The next day the White House broke off relations with Cuba and asked the
Swiss government to represent it in dealings with the island. That
representation will end on Monday. Since 1977, when the United States
once again sent diplomats to Havana, there hasn’t been much of a role
for the Swiss. But between 1961 and 1977, the Swiss ambassador was the
U.S. man in Havana.
By Jan. 4, 1961, U.S. personnel had packed up and were leaving. As the
ferry carrying Smith and his wife pulled out of the port, the former
diplomat remembers looking back at the embassy building along Havana’s
Malecon. “I saw the lights blinking on and off at the embassy and my
wife and I thought maybe that’s our local staff trying to say goodbye.”
When Smith returned to Havana as part of President Jimmy Carter’s
attempt at an opening toward Cuba, he asked the interests section staff
— some of whom remained from 1961 — if it was them bidding the diplomats
farewell. “Indeed it was. They said, ‘Oh, you did see it,’ ” Smith said.
Because the Swiss were overseeing U.S. interests in Cuba, the old U.S.
embassy building never really closed.
There was only that Swiss representation in Havana four months later
during the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion and during the 1962 Cuban Missile
Crisis, considered the height of the Cold War. Those 13 days in October
would be among the most perilous in the U.S.-Cuban relationship, but for
most of the next five decades U.S.-Cuba relations remained rocky.
That is until Dec. 17 when Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced
an opening — the fruit of 18 months of secret negotiations — that
included reestablishing diplomatic relations and converting the
interests sections into full-fledged embassies.
Smith said he agreed to take the post as chief of mission in 1977
because he thought it would lead to more engagement with Cuba. But
before long, he said, it became clear that Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s
national security adviser, “didn’t want a dialogue, didn’t want to
engage. He torpedoed any chance of that.”
Smith took early retirement from the Foreign Service in August 1982, but
through the years as a political consultant, analyst and professor, he
has continued to push for normalization of relations with Cuba. “Our
policy had become an embarrassment — year after year of doing the same
thing,” he said. “By 2014, the United States was the only country in the
hemisphere that didn’t have full diplomatic relations with Cuba.”
He plans to be in attendance Monday at the Cuban Embassy ceremony. He’ll
be one of a reported 500 invited guests, including Jacobson; Jeffrey
DeLaurentis, who will become the new chargé at the U.S. Embassy; members
of Congress, diplomats, academics, business people and others who
through the years have been supportive of normalizing relations with Cuba.
Rodríguez, who will arrive in Washington Sunday, will lead a 30-person
delegation that includes former National Assembly President Ricardo
Alarcón, National Assembly Vice President Ana María Mari Machado and
Josefina Vidal, Jacobson’s Cuban counterpart in the normalization talks.
Other delegation members will be Havana historian Eusebio Leal, members
of the Council of State, Ramón Sánchez Parodi, the first head of the
Cuban Interests Section; singer Silvio Rodríguez, artist Alexis Leiva
(Kcho) who provides a free public Wi-Fi hotspot at his studio, and other
figures from the Cuban art and literary world.
The Cuban-American Congressional delegation, which has been a strident
critic of the rapprochement, won’t be in attendance, although their
cross-state counterpart, Tampa Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor, will be
there. Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and
Carlos Curbelo plan to hold their own news conference in Miami Monday
“As negotiators go forward, there is no reason to believe that the Obama
administration will not keep capitulating to more of the unreasonable
demands of the tyrannical regime,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
But Castor, who is hoping the Cubans will locate a consulate in Tampa,
said she is looking forward to a new relationship with Cuba: “Formal
diplomatic ties are especially important to Florida families, and state
policymakers should follow suit to boost student, cultural, religious
and business exchanges.”
Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation —
once one of the most vocal advocates of isolation of Cuba but in recent
years in favor of people-to-people contacts, won’t be in Washington,
either. But the Bay of Pigs veteran who was held in Cuban prison for two
years after the invasion, now says, “For the United States, it’s better
to leave all the confrontations and bad blood behind.”
Hernández said he’s not sure the new relationship will resolve many or
any of the Cuban people’s problems, but he added, “The bottom line is
this is a step forward.”
Source: Historic thaw: U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties will be reestablished
Monday | Miami Herald Miami Herald –