Years before the U.S. and Cuba reopened embassies in Washington, D.C. and Havana, both countries maintained communication channels through interests sections. Vicki Huddleston, a former ambassador to Madagascar and Mali, served as the head of the U.S. Interests Section from 2000 to 2002. Currently, she is writing a book titled “Our Woman in Havana” describing her time on the island. Here are excerpts from a June interview with Huddleston.
How did Cuba and the Cuban government receive you while you were the head of the U.S. interests section?
When I arrived in Cuba, I thought the Cuban government would be pleased I had the title of ambassador. I was also a woman. Fidel Castro is known to like to deal with women. And Bill Clinton was in the process of attempting for the second time an opening with Cuba. So I thought all these were great signs.
Well it turned out the Cubans didn’t think so. The last head of the interests section for the Cubans in Washington, D.C., didn’t care for me and he reported back to the Cubans that I was really a hardliner.
One of the first things that happened was that Governor [George] Ryan of Illinois decided to bring a delegation to Cuba. He was the first governor of a U.S. state to visit Cuba since the Revolution, so the Cubans were very pleased. They treated him almost as if he were a head of state. I had arranged for him to meet with other ambassadors and to meet with human rights activists. Well, after meeting with the human rights activists he told the waiting press corps that he thought the problem with Cuba was Castro.
Castro was furious. Ryan had to deny that he said it, so that he could still have his dinner with Castro. But Castro was especially annoyed with me. So as soon as Ryan left, Castro went on TV and he proceeded to denounce me. That was the beginning of my relationship with Fidel.
Did your relationship ever change?
It changed quite radically with the advent of little Elián González, the child found floating in the Florida Straits. The Cubans had to deal with us. They appreciated that I was trying to help them obtain the return of the child, and our relationship improved exponentially. [chuckles.] Then I would do something that he disapproved of, and suddenly the relationship would be off again.
For example, I began handing out little AM/FM shortwave portable radios in transparent plastic bags with a little pamphlet with the sayings of José Martí. At first the government didn’t say anything when I handed them out [in Havana]. But then I began to hand them out all over the island. And Fidel was furious. He claimed the radios were tuned to Radio Martí so we could get around the jamming. He held a tribunal abierta across the river in Alamar of about 20,000 people to denounce my activities and those of the interests section. The ‘nest of spies’ he called us.
What was the impact of tough talk on Cuba from Miami on your diplomatic efforts?
It was essentially an enormous fight between Fidel Castro and the diaspora. He hears them, but he scorns them. He was determined to win this battle.
So, he had all these enormous marches. Six in a six-month period. He called them “million man marches,” but they ran to 200 to 300 thousand people marching down the bay past the interests section. He turned the country into a theater, in which the Cuban people were the actors and he was the director. And of course, Miami, led by Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, had their own show and their own marches. It had to have been the most epic clash between Cuba and the United States with perhaps only the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis—which was more between the US and the Soviets—equal to the emotion and vitriol it involved.
What impact does Trump’s approach have on the Obama-era normalization? Can bilateral ties still exist even if there is animosity from the executive branch?
Definitely. There will continue to be an embassy. There will continue to be a Charge d’Affaires. We will continue to have diplomatic relations. And we still have the 23-plus bilateral agreements that improve our cooperation with Cuba on issues that are vital to both countries.
What I think is the most disappointing and destructive element of the Trump rollback is that it rolls back the Obama opening. It means there isn’t going to be any further progress in establishing a normal, respectful relationship with Cuba. And that’s very sad, because this country is 90 miles away from us. It’s in our interests for all sorts of reasons, from political to security to militaristic.
Trump said the purpose of his policy is to weaken the Cuban military. Is the U.S. entrenched enough to really make a significant enough impact on weakening the military?
No. That’s ridiculous. I mean, he could have said for human rights, and he did to some degree, but it’s really hard to justify human rights when you just come back from Saudi Arabia and you have lovely things to say about [Filipino President] Duterte and [Egyptian President] Al-Sisi. So, we can hardly say that Cuba’s human rights is the reason for the rollback. The military isn’t going to stop running the tourist sector because we forbid dealing with them. The military took over the agriculture and the tourism sector when Cuba was on its knees during the special period. Their relatively effective management of those sectors allowed Cuba to survive and develop Cuban tourism as we know it today.
There’s a lot of talk about Russia and China moving deeper into Cuba’s economy and military. Does the Trump administration’s move nudge them towards that?
Yeah, I think it nudges them. It was clear they were already very interested. The Russians signed an agreement between the militaries last year. The Chinese are putting in a significant amount of investment. It’s not anything new, but I think it will add a little ‘oomph’ to it.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I keep wondering what can one say that will persuade the Trump administration or conservative Cuban-Americans that it doesn’t help to keep repeating a failed policy. I just can’t see any logic to it. If we want to see change in Cuba, it must be through a different policy that allows communication, transportation, the ability to talk to the country’s leaders, and to work together on issues of mutual interest.