A history of Cold War drama between US and Cuba embassies

  • AFP, Washington
  • Updated: Jul 02, 2015 11:48 IST

The buildings that will house US and Cuban embassies in their neighbour's respective capitals on July 20 have seen over five decades of Cold War protests, provocations and strains.

Now, with the longtime enemies finally putting aside all that enmity, presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro have exchanged letters agreeing to restore full diplomatic ties.

Legally, both countries are currently represented by an "interests section" within the embassies of Switzerland.

But the facilities in question in Havana and Washington are full of Cuban and US diplomats, not Swiss -- and the areas around the buildings housing their downgraded diplomatic legations over the years have been the scenes of decades of demonstrations.

Cuban stealth, US heft

Not far from the White House in the US capital, a three-story limestone structure was erected in 1916 to serve as the "Legation of the Republic of Cuba." It began operating the following year.

It looks like just another stately mansion on the street. From the outside, the building is discreet -- no revolutionary flags, no banners, and no police.

On the wrought iron fence around the three-story manse is a small plaque that says Cuba's official presence in the US falls under the protection of the Embassy of Switzerland.

It employs about seven diplomats and a handful of additional workers.

That low profile comes in sharp contrast to the in-your-face style of the US Interests Section in Havana. Unlike its equivalent in Washington, the building certainly isn't tucked away quietly in a diplomatic quarter of the capital.

Instead, it sits over the landmark Malecon seafront wall in Havana, a storied and popular gathering site for generations of Cubans.

The six-story building -- a fairly non-descript edifice of concrete and glass -- towers over the Havana marker, as Cuban authorities stand guard below.

Communist Cuba for decades has called the US facility the headquarters of counter-revolutionary activity.

With 360 employees, the US Interests Section in Havana has been something of a living monument to Cold War diplo-clashes since 1977 when American staff first started moving in.

Not to be out-confronted or out-rallied, Cuba built a protest staging area -- the Anti-Imperialist Plaza -- directly beside the US Interests Section.

Read: US, Cuba to reopen embassies, fully resume ties after 5 decades

Fidel Castro was here

The somber Cuban facility in Washington was among the more enigmatic buildings in the city for decades during the Cold War. It was not known to many or reputed for hosting flashy parties or big events.

On the ground floor are six side doors, each with a coat of arms of one of the six provinces into which Cuba used to be 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 is a small bar, named after Cuba's adopted literary son -- Bar Hemingway.

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 US 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 US government -- four months after leading the Cuban Revolution. He toured the embassy briefly and gave a few interviews.

When the United States severed diplomatic 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.

Fidel Castro, who stepped aside during a health crisis and was replaced by his brother Raul, 84, turns 89 in August.

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