Cuba sec­tion in Wash­ing­ton rich in his­tory

The China Post - - LIFE - BY ALDO GAM­BOA

It looks like just an­other stately man­sion on the street lead­ing up to the White House. But the Cuban In­ter­ests Sec­tion in the U.S. cap­i­tal is a rich sym­bol of decades of snarled ties.

Its des­tiny is to be­come Cuba's em­bassy, now that the coun­tries have an­nounced they will bury half a cen­tury of Cold War en­mity and re­store full ties.

From the out­side the look is dis­creet — no rev­o­lu­tion­ary flags, no ban­ners, and no po­lice. On the wrought iron fence is a small plaque that says Cuba's of­fi­cial pres­ence in the U.S. falls un­der the pro­tec­tion of the Em­bassy of Switzer­land.

But the ed­i­fice, tucked be­tween the em­bassies of Lithua­nia and Poland, is one of the most enig­matic build­ings in the U.S. cap­i­tal.

The three-story lime­stone struc­ture was erected in 1916 to serve as the "Lega­tion of the Repub­lic of Cuba." It be­gan op­er­at­ing the fol-

low­ing year.

A Drink with Hem­ing­way

On the ground floor are six side doors, each with a coat of arms of one of the six prov­inces into which Cuba was then di­vided: Pi­nar del Rio, La Ha­bana, Matan­zas, Santa Clara, Ca­m­aguey and Ori­ente.

Smack in the mid­dle is a spec­tac­u­lar mar­ble stair­case lead­ing up to the main cer­e­mo­nial hall. And to the side, lo and be­hold, is a small bar, named af­ter Cuba's adopted lit­er­ary son — Bar Hem­ing­way. En­trance is strictly by in­vi­ta­tion only.

In 1923 the build­ing was el­e­vated to the cat­e­gory of em­bassy, and over the years it wel­comed sev­eral vis­it­ing Cuban pres­i­dents.

A pho­to­graph from 1927 shows then-Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge pos­ing with his Cuban coun­ter­part Ger­ardo Machado at the steps of the em­bassy, both in dark suits and im­pec­ca­bly shined shoes.

Fidel Cas­tro vis­ited Wash­ing­ton in April 1959 — though not at the in­vi­ta­tion of the U.S. gov­ern­ment — four months af­ter lead­ing the Cuban Revo­lu­tion. He toured the em­bassy briefly and gave a few in­ter­views.

When the U.S. sev­ered re­la­tions with com­mu­nist Cuba in Jan­uary 1961, the build­ing had al­ready un­der­gone a re­mod­el­ing a few years ear­lier. But from that point on it took on an air of mys­tery.

Timid Re­open­ing

In 1977, the United States and Cuba reached an agree­ment to open in­ter­ests sec­tions in each other's cap­i­tals. Thus, the old em­bassy on 16th Street in down­town Wash­ing­ton re­opened, as did a U.S. diplo­matic of­fice in Ha­vana.

Although the Cuban build­ing was un­der the pro­tec­tion of the Swiss, that did not spare it from the ire of rad­i­cal anti-Cas­tro Cuban groups.

On June 8, 1978 an armed Cuban group known as CORU hurled an ex­plo­sive de­vice at the build­ing. But the worst attack came a year later when an­other group, called Omega 7, det­o­nated a bomb in the back of the struc­ture.

The last ma­jor protest out­side the Cuban in­ter­ests sec­tion came in 2000, when the United States and Cuba en­gaged in a lengthy tus­sle over a Cuban boy named Elian Gon­za­lez, who was in the cus­tody of Cuban rel­a­tives in Miami.

Th­ese days the Cuban In­ter­ests Sec­tion boasts just seven diplo­mats.

"If you count all the em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing driv­ers, sec­re­taries and ac­coun­tants, and their fam­i­lies and chil­dren, there are fewer than 100 of us," said a source at the in­ter­ests sec­tion, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity.

When the United States and Cuba fi­nally re­store diplo­matic re­la­tions — talks have al­ready be­gun since the his­toric an­nounce­ment in De­cem­ber — the man­sion on 16th will once again be­come an em­bassy.

Un­til then, staff move­ment is re­stricted to the Belt­way high­way that en­cir­cles the city and a cor­ri­dor to Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

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