U.S. Embassy in Cuba Reopens After More Than 50 Years

New York Times

By: Azam Ahmed

HAVANA — After more than a half-century defined by mistrust and rancor, the United States officially reopened its six-story embassy in the Cuban capital on Monday, the culmination of many months of negotiations to overcome decades of historical enmity and to restore diplomatic relations between the two nations.

More than two years of effort went into restoring relations between Cuba and the United States, both public and private, yet most observers say they believe it will be many more years before mutual wariness fades.

A litany of questions have yet to be answered, including: Will the American trade embargo that has crippled Cuba’s economy be lifted, and if so, when? Will the Cuban government improve its human rights record and incorporate outsiders into the political spectrum? How much, and how fast, will the lives of ordinary Cubans, who earn $20 a month on average, improve?

But for now, the reopening of the embassy on the Malecón waterfront in Havana, previously used as an interests section, a limited diplomatic outpost, stands as the most concrete symbol yet of the thaw set in motion last year when President Obama ordered the full restoration of diplomatic ties between the countries.

“It is sort of like a wedding,” said James Williams, the president of an advocacy group, Engage Cuba, which has been lobbying for improved relations. “You’ve spent all this time planning your wedding day, and finally you’re getting to see someone walk down the aisle.”

“Now,” he added, “you have the rest of your life together.”

If Cubans are expecting bells and canapés to celebrate the nuptials, they will be sorely disappointed. The official celebration to inaugurate the American Embassy will not take place until later in the summer, when Secretary of State John Kerry plans to visit, to formally raise the flag and install the new signage.

In Washington, however, shouts of “Viva Cuba” rang out on Monday as Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, raised his country’s flag outside the newly reopened Cuban embassy.

In Havana, a line had already formed at 6 a.m. along the side of the American Embassy, a large building. Families clutched sheaths of paper as they awaited interviews and appointments with officials now operating under the auspices of an embassy.

Beyond the edge of the tidy line, hundreds more gathered in a small park awaiting their turn, and dozens more formed a separate line beyond that. For the first time in decades, American Embassy personnel were managing the order of entrants, taking names, calling names, answering questions.

Those waiting were a medley of people. Many had relatives in America they planned to visit or live with. Almost all had made appointments months — some said years — earlier to facilitate their visas, and, they said, just happened to arrive on the building’s first day as an official embassy.

“To be honest I’m a little a nervous,” said Ramon Castillo Perez, 59, who was waiting to visit America for the first time, a trip that would reunite him with his wife. The trip would be a permanent one if all went well — his wife was sponsoring his arrival in the United States.

For now, though, the change, was barely perceptible from the outside, arguably a metaphor for the state of Cuba itself.

Technically, there will be differences. Diplomats will be formally registered, and, for the first time since the embassy was closed, they will be allowed to travel freely in Cuba. They will be invited to functions, too, like members of other diplomatic corps.

The American government is supposed to ease access for Cubans entering the embassy and for the American Foreign Service officers inside, a State Department official said.

Mr. Obama, when announcing an end to the diplomatic freeze, eased travel restrictions, opened the door for more remittances to Cuba, and expanded the amount of goods that visiting Americans could take home, like Cuban cigars and rum. In May, he removed the country from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

President Raúl Castro has spent the past five years, before the thaw began with the Obama administration, trying to jump-start the nation’s economy, ordering that hundreds of thousands of government employees be laid offencouraging Cubansinto self-employment and entrepreneurship, and creating a special economic zone in the coastal city of Mariel to attract foreign investment.

But many of these changes have been confronted with bracing realities. A farm program to encourage crop cultivation struggled because of regulations and a lack of reliable transportation, and the mass public-sector layoffs Mr. Castro promised never really materialized. Real estate overhauls that now allow Cubans to sell their homes have run into a problem that vexes just about every segment of Cuban life: a lack of supplies.

Often, these initiatives have been ensnared by the mentality that has both preserved and ossified Cuban life, one forged through years of anti-American sentiment that has defined the social, political and economic lives of Cubans. Letting go of that is not easy.

Mr. Castro has said that change will be slow, and that it will not come at the cost of stability or values. Again and again, what emerges is this: Cuba will change, yes, but at its own pace and with no apologies.

For many Cubans, that is reason enough for hope.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” said Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban diplomat who is close to Mr. Castro and his brother Fidel, the country’s longtime president. “And once it’s out, you’re not going to be able to put it back in.”

Out of the bottle or not, life continues as usual in Havana. A number of Cubans know about the opening of the American Embassy and have formulated opinions about what it will mean for them.

Some fear that Cuban culture could be lost, devoured by American consumerism. But just as many, if not more, are fine with change if it means that they can earn enough to live on.

“For me, inequality is not a problem,” said Lázaro Borrero, 39, a journeyman worker who does a bit of construction, cooking and tobacco rolling to make ends meet. “If you earn $1 million a year, and I earn $1 a year, good for you.”

Change that will have an effect on the wallets of normal Cubans is, by some estimates, many years away. It will require the lifting of the American embargo as well as what many Cubans refer to as the “internal embargo,” or the state impediments that exist in everyday life, from communications to buying groceries.

It will require change from within the Cuban system and adapting to economic norms that might require letting go of some of their control, experts say.

“Cuba has more of a challenge to change than does the United States,” said Ricardo Pascoe, a former Mexican ambassador to Cuba. “They’re going to have to open up one way or another.”

But it will not be only the Cubans who change. American tourists are expected to come in waves to discover a nation so long forbidden, and there will also be families who can reunite without having to cross political minefields.

Consider Lucía Nuñez, the director of the Civil Rights Department for the government of Madison, Wis. Her parents, born in Cuba, left the country a year before America severed diplomatic ties with it under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1961.

Ms. Nuñez drifted emotionally from Cuba over the years, growing up in the Virgin Islands and eventually moving to New England for high school and college. She was ashamed, she said, of having parents with accents and a cuisine that differed from her friends’.

She raised her children in the United States and has lived in Wisconsin for the past 17 years. Her mother, who has been back to Cuba only once since leaving, missed the deaths of her brothers on the island.

“I spent a lot of years denying I was Cuban,” Ms. Nuñez said from the home of a Cuban entrepreneur who has been licensed to rent to foreign visitors. “But there’s no denying it: I am Cuban. I am as much frijoles negros as I am Bruce Springsteen.”

So this summer, she, her 81-year-old mother and her 19-year-old daughter decided to take a trip to Havana and to the small town near Guantánamo where the family is from. They recently arrived in Cuba and plan to stay for about a month, and Ms. Nuñez’s mother will see her sister for the first time in years.

“I hope the normalcy of the relations — or whatever it is they are calling them — I hope it brings us closer to the family I used to have,” she said.