Old U.S. Embassy In Havana Becomes The New One As Relations Are Restored
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's been called many things over the decades, sitting in its prime location on Havana's famed Seaside Boulevard. Communist revolutionaries called it a nest of spies. U.S. diplomats refer to it as a critical listening post. Today, it will officially be called the Embassy. Cuba and the U.S. formally restored diplomatic ties today, reopening embassies in each other's capitals after more than half a century of Cold War mistrust. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Havana.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: In the shadow of the stark six-story tall building known as the U.S. Interests Section, families and couples fill a small park. As kids fly kites made of plastic bags and sticks, adults drink sodas and beers under the scorching summer sun. Everyone knows the building down the street is getting a name change, and housewife Mariela Torres says she hopes it's a sign of good things to come.
MARIELA TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Establishing relations between Cuba and the U.S.," she says, "will help things get better. At least we have faith that change is coming." Today, change will be in name only. There are no planned ceremonies in Havana. Cubans raised their flag at the renamed Embassy in Washington, D.C., but it will be a few more weeks before Secretary of State John Kerry presides over an official flag raising ceremony here.
It was back in 1961 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the flag removed and the door shut to the embassy. All ties were severed with Cuba and its leader, Fidel Castro, who declared the island a communist nation just one year after overthrowing the country's brutal dictator. The building reopened in 1977 as an Interests Section, processing visas and other consular duties but barred from diplomatic endeavors. Instead, for decades, the bare concrete building has been the focal point of U.S.-Cuban hostilities, nationalistic demonstrations and fodder for Cold War tactics that seem to have been ripped from spy novels. Gary Maybarduk, a political and economic officer at the Interests Section in the late 1990s, says on his first day, the U.S.'s security chief called him in to give him a warning.
GARY MAYBARDUK: You have to understand that every room in your house is likely to be bugged. You may even have cameras in the bedroom. And if you want to have a fight with your wife, you should come down to the Interests Section and do it there.
KAHN: Household staff for U.S. diplomats played a starring role in the tit-for-tat spying that went on between the U.S. and Cuba, says Jim Cason, who was head of the Interests Section from 2002 to 2005.
MAYOR JIM CASON: My driver would say, I have to go inform on you today. And I'd say fine, tell them I'm out subverting the revolution. And they would laugh, and he would tell him I'm doing the same stuff as he always does.
KAHN: That was a particularly tense time between the two countries. The U.S. expelled 14 Cuban diplomats from its Interests Section in Washington, accusing them of being spies, and Cuba imprisoned 75 dissidents. Cason, who is now the mayor of Coral Gables, Fla., relished provoking the Cubans back then in highlighting the plight of the 75. One Christmas, he decorated the grounds around the building with 6-feet tall candy canes, a mammoth Santa complete with reindeer scaling the walls, and illuminated a huge number 75.
CASON: So the Cubans decided to block all the streets and try to keep people from seeing the Christmas decorations. But what they really didn't want them to see was the 75.
KAHN: He said he was told to take down the offending decoration, so he released a statement that Cuba was anti-Santa Claus.
Later in the Bush administration, a digital ticker, fashioned after the one in Times Square, went up on the building's facade, flashing the day's top news. Across the street, Fidel Castro then erected 138 poles with large, black flags to block the view. Cason says he doesn't believe the new warmer relations will improve conditions on the island. He says that will only happen when both Castro brothers are gone.
But other past diplomats applaud the reopening of embassies. Vicki Huddleston headed up the mission from 1999 to 2002 and drew the personal scorn of Fidel Castro when she openly handed out hundreds of shortwave radios on the island. She says as an embassy, U.S. diplomats will have more access.
VICKI HUDDLESTON: Having more communications, more contact, with Cuba makes it much more likely that the forces of change will begin to change the society and the government.
KAHN: While the American employees at the new embassy will have to wait to see the U.S. flag fly on their building, at least at midnight they got their diplomatic status restored. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.