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.
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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 briefing.
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 embassy building.
“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 too long.’”
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 afternoon.
“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.”