See all Insights

U.S.-Cuba Diplomacy Comes Out of the Shadows

By William M. LeoGrande

Originally published in Foreign Policy

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Havana to raise the Stars and Stripes over the U.S. Embassy, which reopened on July 20 for the first time since it was closed in 1961. The ceremony featured a Marine Corps color guard and a poetry reading; the three U.S. Marines who took down the U.S. flag in 1961 had the honor of helping raise a new one, more than 54 years later. The moment is being celebrated as a rebirth for Cuba and the United States. Indeed, in some ways it is. Yet, Cuba and the United States are not embarking on an entirely new relationship, they are resuming a ruptured one — a renewal Kerry called “long overdue.” The U.S. Embassy in Havana will play a pivotal role in diplomacy between the two countries, but it has a predecessor.

The U.S. Interests Section (formally the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana) opened in 1977, as part of then-President Jimmy Carter’s effort to improve relations with Cuba by posting U.S. diplomats in Havana under the protection of the Swiss Embassy. Since then, it was both a flash point in the volatile relationship and a vital communications channel in moments of crisis. The new embassy will continue and improve on this.

The U.S. Interests Section’s first test came in 1980 during the Mariel migration crisis, when over 100,000 Cubans came to the United States illegally, transported on a “freedom flotilla” of small boats from southern Florida. On May 2, 1980, a crowd of about 800 ex-political prisoners gathered in front of the U.S. Interests Section on Havana’s seaside boulevard, the Malecón, waiting for visas so they could migrate legally to the United States. Amidst the tensions caused by the migration crisis, a mob of government supporters attacked the ex-prisoners, and, during the ensuing riot, some 400 Cubans took refuge inside the Interests Section and refused to leave. There they remained, sleeping wherever they could find space on the floor, until September when negotiations ended the migration crisis and President Fidel Castro gave his personal assurance that the 80 people hiding in the embassy would be allowed to leave the country.

Two months after the riot outside the Interests Section, the migration crisis nearly escalated to military confrontation when Cuba began loading refugees on a large freighter named the Blue Fire to send them to the United States — a major escalation of the migration crisis then underway. “We almost went to war over the Blue Fire,” recalled Robert Pastor, Carter’s director for Latin America at the National Security Council. But conflict was averted when Wayne Smith, chief of the U.S. mission in Havana, opened a dialogue with Cuban Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, offering broader negotiations on U.S.-Cuban relations if the Blue Fire stayed in port. Cuba agreed.

During the Reagan years, U.S.-Cuban relations were marked by heightened tension over the conflicts in Central America. Faced with Secretary of State Al Haig’s threats of military action against the island in 1981, the Cubans erected a billboard outside the Interests Section depicting a growling Uncle Sam and a Cuban revolutionary declaring, “Mr. Imperialist, we have absolutely no fear of you!” For years, the billboard was positioned so the U.S. chief of mission could see it outside his office window.

Yet even in this climate of hostility, the Interests Section played an important role in avoiding escalation. In 1983, former President Ronald Reagan seized on political turmoil in Grenada as an excuse to invade the tiny island and replace its leftist government. The invasion led to direct combat between U.S. military forces and Cuban advisors and construction workers building an airport — the first time Americans and Cubans had shot at each other since the 1961 revolution (save a few stray bullets at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay). For more than 24 hours, U.S. and Cuban forces exchanged fire until John Ferch, who had replaced Smith as the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, was able to arrange a cease-fire through his contacts with one of Fidel Castro’s top advisors.

The Interests Section has played a role outside of the Western Hemisphere, too. In 1987, Ferch’s successor, John J. “Jay” Taylor, played an essential role convincing Secretary of State George Shultz that Cuban officials were serious when they told Taylor they were willing to negotiate an end to the conflict in southern Africa between Cuban-backed Angolan forces and U.S.-backed South African forces. The Cubans would withdraw their military forces from Angola if South Africa would grant independence to neighboring Namibia. Taylor then took the lead in offering the Cubans a role in the multiparty negotiations, which they joined and helped bring to a successful conclusion in 1988. Taylor played a similar role trying to broker Cuban support for negotiations to end the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador, albeit with less success.

During former President Bill Clinton’s administration, Cuba and the United States signed an agreement to cooperate on interdicting narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean. As part of that agreement, the U.S. Coast Guard stationed a liaison officer at the Interests Section in Havana. The Drug Interdiction Specialist, as the officer was known, soon became a vital channel of communication not only on drug issues, but also on U.S.-Cuba migration and broader matters — a channel through which both sides could exchange ideas informally. In 2010, the Interests Section Chief of Mission Jonathan Farrar cabled Washington that Coast Guard cooperation was “the most effective and closest [area] of U.S.-Cuba engagement.”

During the latter part of former President George W. Bush’s administration, when U.S.-Cuban relations were at a nadir due to Bush’s commitment to undermining the Cuban regime by tightening economic sanctions, the DIS officer was the only functioning channel of diplomatic communication between the two governments. As Washington turned the Interests Section into a base of support for Cuban dissidents, Havana simply stopped communicating with it. Antagonism reached an apogee in December 2004, when Chief of Mission James Cason supplemented the mission’s Christmas decorations of Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus, and candy canes, with a large neon sign reading “75” to commemorate the 2003 arrest of that many Cuban dissidents. In retaliation, the Cubans erected a huge billboard just across the coastal highway, depicting U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.

Cason’s successor, Michael E. Parmly, went further in 2005 by erecting a three-foot-tall electronic news ticker, running the length of the fifth floor of the Interests Section. The screen scrolled messages like excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights meant to inspire Castro’s opponents and annoy Cuban authorities. It certainly annoyed Fidel Castro. He mobilized over a million Cubans to march to the Interests Section in protest and rally at “Anti-Imperialist Plaza,” built next to the building. During Fidel’s speech at the rally, the ticker scrolled, “Only in totalitarian societies do governments talk and talk at their people and never listen.” Afterwards, the Cubans erected 138 black flags outside the U.S. mission to commemorate more than 3,000 Cubans killed by U.S. covert operations — and to obscure the electronic ticker from the street below.

Today, the black flags and provocative billboards are gone. In preparation for the ceremony raising the Stars and Stripes at the mission — now a full-fledged embassy rather than an Interests Section — Cuban workers repaired potholes in the surrounding streets.

The many U.S. diplomats who served at the Interests Section over the past 38 years did a fine job representing U.S. interests in a tough, sometimes hostile environment. But having a normal embassy and full diplomatic relations offers important advantages. U.S. diplomats will no longer have to receive Foreign Ministry permission to travel outside Havana, which will give them a far better sense of life on the island. They will also have easier access to their counterparts across the Cuban government, which will facilitate better cooperation on myriad issues. Ordinary Cubans will have easier access to the U.S. Embassy.

An embassy provides a better channel for crisis communications and a better venue for dialogue on issues of mutual interest. As Kerry said at the flag raising ceremony in Havana, “Having normal relations makes it easier for us to talk — and talk can deepen understanding, even when we know full well that we will not always see eye-to-eye on everything.” In preparation for Kerry’s trip, a senior State Department official specifically mentioned the opportunity to expand cooperation on environmental protection, law enforcement, and counternarcotics operations. The DIS officer in Havana is slated to become an attaché, which will allow closer contact with the Cuban armed services — contact that has been almost nonexistent except for the monthly talks at Guantánamo between the U.S. base commander and the local Cuban military commander aimed at avoiding conflicts between the two military forces facing off against one another at the base.

Tensions will remain. In January 1961, as the CIA organized the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro precipitated the break in relations by demanding that Washington drastically cut the embassy staff because it was “a nest of spies.” Cuban officials worry that U.S. diplomats will use the embassy as a platform to support dissidents seeking regime change — worries reinforced by commitments from President Barack Obama on down the chain of command that the United States will continue to support democracy and human rights activists, both morally and materially.

A half-century of distrust and a long list of tough issues must still be overcome before relations between Cuba and the United States are normal. “We know the road to fully normal relations is long,” Kerry acknowledged while opening the embassy. But the restoration of diplomatic relations marks a new beginning. “The time is now to reach out to one another,” he concluded, “as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors.”