CubanEmbassy02

The Embassy of Cuba

On December 17th of last year, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the beginning of a process of normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S. Then on April 11th of this year, Presidents Obama and President Castro shook hands at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, marking the first meeting between a U.S. and Cuban head of state since the two countries severed their ties in 1961. And on July 1st, President Obama announced the formal restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries. So in recognition of this renewed relationship, often referred to as “The Cuban Thaw”, I decided on this lunchtime bike ride to ride to the diplomatic mission of Cuba to the United States – the newly reopened Cuban Embassy.

The Republic of Cuba actually had a diplomatic outpost in D.C. even before the country existed as an independent nation. In the 1890s, as Cubans mounted a war for independence from Spain, Gonzalo de Quesada established a legation at the fashionable Raleigh Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. After some rebel successes in this war for Cuba’s independence, U.S. President William McKinley in 1897 offered to buy Cuba for $300 million. It was the rejection of that offer, and an explosion in Havana harbor that sank the American battleship USS Maine, that led to the Spanish–American War. In Cuba the war became known as “the U.S. intervention in Cuba’s War of Independence”. On December 10, 1898, Spain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris and, in accordance with the treaty, Spain renounced all rights to Cuba. The treaty put an end to the Spanish Empire in the Americas, and setting the stage for the birth of the independent Republic of Cuba.

Two decades later, in 1917, Cuba constructed an embassy in the United States, located just two miles north of the White House at 2630 16th Street (MAP) in the northwest D.C.’s Meridian Hill neighborhood. At that time Meridian Hill was home to many of the city’s finest embassies. Close by are the former Italian, Mexican, and Spanish embassies as well as the current embassies of Poland and Lithuania. The Cuban Embassy served in that capacity for the next 43 years, until newly-elected President John F. Kennedy severed diplomatic relations with Cuba following the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and that country’s subsequent decision to closely ally itself with the Soviet Union.

Later, beginning in the 1970s, the embassy building housed the Cuban Interests Section in the United States. The Cuban Interests Section and its counterpart, the United States Interests Section in Havana, were sections of the respective embassies of Switzerland, which acted as protecting power. However, they operated as embassies independently of the Swiss in virtually all but protocol respects.

The United States will be opening an embassy in Havana on Friday at a similar ceremony to be presided over by Secretary of State John Kerry.  I won’t be riding my bike there to see it, though, at least any time soon.

A number of differences and disputes between our two countries remain. These include Cuba’s request that the U.S. return its Naval base in Guantanamo Bay and lift the economic embargo, which Congress has shown little inclination to do anytime soon, as well as the U.S.’s concerns in regard to human rights abuses by the island nation. Whether the reopening of the embassies lead to resolution of these matters remains to be seen, but perhaps it may be a first step in that direction.

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