Randal C. Archibold (The New York Times) writes about the United States “interests section” in Havana. Having run across people who worked in the “interests section” on one of my trips to Cuba, I understand why the article keeps referring to it in quotation marks. And, if by the end of the article, you are not quite sure of what it is that the “interests section” actually does, you are not alone. Here are excerpts with a link to the full (and highly entertaining) article below:
Fidel Castro called the building a “nest of spies,” routinely marshaling tens of thousands of people to protest at its doorstep. His government even made a television mini-series with what it called images of American diplomats lurking in a forest nearby, dropping off suspicious bags and marking benches in acts of espionage. [. . .] Now the building, the American government’s main outpost in Cuba, for decades a hulking symbol of the tensions between the two countries, is supposed to become something else: a full-fledged embassy operating in the open for the first time in more than five decades.
Officially, the six-story embassy, in a choice spot along Havana’s seaside highway, was closed after President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ties with Cuba in 1961. Yet it has hardly been dormant. Since 1977, the United States has run it as an “interests section” to process visas, hold cultural events and keep some communication flowing between the two estranged neighbors.
But all the while, it has also served as the staging ground for an on-again, off-again game of tit for tat — and spy versus spy. “We were the closest of enemies,” Wayne S. Smith, who was the first chief of the mission in 1977, once remarked.
The exchanges have included the serious, including the occasional expulsion of diplomatic officers, and the theatrical, especially when Mr. Castro was in power and made the interest section a rallying point to lacerate American policy.
For a generation of Cubans, the secret inner workings of the austere, concrete structure were supposedly revealed in the 1980s through a six-part series on state television called “The C.I.A. in Cuba.” It claimed to catch American officials in the act of spying, displaying briefcases, boxes and even a picnic basket for hiding radios that Cuban intelligence agents said had been given to them by C.I.A. handlers posing as diplomats.
But sometimes, the spycraft came in the form of simple harassment, even pranks, on both sides. On more than one occasion, American diplomats said they came to their homes to find all of the family books rearranged, presumably by state security agents making it abundantly clear that they were watching. One Cuban government visitor to the American outpost spit out a coffee accidentally seasoned with salt instead of sugar, wondering aloud if he was being poisoned.
A former American intelligence officer in Havana recalled a time when reciprocity reached a new low. He once opened his car door and discovered dog feces smeared under the door handle. When he came back to the United States for a regular debriefing with the F.B.I., he said that agents started laughing as he recounted the episode. “We did the same thing to them here” in the United States, the agents told him. (Cuba has its interests section in an old mansion in Washington, which will become an embassy.)
James Cason, who headed the American outpost during a period of high tension from 2002 to 2005, said he relished provoking the Cubans, once donning a costume of a cartoon character after Mr. Castro likened him to one. He also put up Christmas decorations outside the building in the form of the number 75, to draw attention to a roundup of dissidents then. At times, he said, it was just plain awkward to be around each other. “If the Australians were having a party, the Cubans would ask, ‘Are the Americans going to be there?’ And then not come if we were, or we wouldn’t go,” Mr. Cason said in the early 2000s.
The mistrust in recent months has mellowed somewhat, in the new spirit of letting bygones be bygones. [. . .]