With Hemingway there in spirit, Cuba prepares to open its embassy

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Story highlights

  • Monday morning, the red, white and blue Cuban flag will be raised over what is to once again become the Cuban embassy
  • The building has just finished a major renovation at the hands of Cuban artisans and craftspeople

Washington (CNN)In front of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, a flag pole sits without a flag. The pole was put up months ago, but until the U.S. and Cuba formally restore diplomatic relations next week, protocol dictates the Cubans cannot fly their flag.

Until then, a plaque explains that the Interest Section, the Cuban diplomatic facility, is sponsored by the Swiss embassy.
But Monday morning, the red, white and blue Cuban flag will be raised over what is to once again become the Cuban embassy, ending more than 50 years of animosity between Washington and Havana. The limestone mansion, constructed in 1917, was significant at the time as the first diplomatic building in the Meridian Hill neighborhood and helped establish the area as a diplomatic center of Washington.
Fidel Castro visited the embassy in 1959 after overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista and was warmly welcomed at receptions in his honor, two years before the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Czechoslovakia then maintained the building for several years before it reopened in 1977 as an Interest Section, with Washington opening an Interest Section in Havana. Both posts are presided over by a chief-of-mission.
Although well preserved, the building has just finished a major renovation at the hands of Cuban artisans and craftspeople -- some of whom have restored classic buildings in Havana. The project began in 2010, years before the U.S. and Cuba started talks on normalizing relations.
Office space lines the ground floor. Above the doors, ornate shields represent the six original provinces of Cuba. Up the grand marble staircase is the grand ballroom, where paintings by Cuban artists adorn the walls.
Just off the ballroom is Hemingway's, a bar celebrating the iconic American writer's life and work during his two decades in Cuba. Cubans believe he is part of their cultural history. Mojitos and Cuba Libras (with Havana Club rum) are poured along with Cohiba cigars in the small back room, where black-and-white pictures of Hemingway line walls. Ceiling fans spin overhead, just like they did at the Floridita, one of his favorite bars. A six-foot bronze reproduction of the writer's signature hangs above the bar.
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For Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabañas, who has served as Cuba's chief of mission since 2012, watching his foreign minister raises the flag over the embassy will be an important and meaningful moment
"In those few seconds, we will feel the whole history of our bilateral ties," Cabañas said. "The moments when we had no communication, the moments when we had no communications. The first diplomat here and the many who have followed. The visit of Fidel Castro. For us, it is an opportunity to celebrate."
With the restoration of diplomatic ties and the opening of embassies in their respective capitals, Cabañas feels Cuba and the United States are ready to put the decades of acrimony and division behind them -- and focus on the many links between the two cultures: poetry, science, baseball, jazz, and, of course, Hemingway.
"He will be present in that moment when we raise our flag and build our relations," he said. "He had a contribution to this day."