While the alleged “acoustic attack” on US diplomats in Havana is the latest flap between American and Cuban governments, it is far from the first incident to take place between the former Cold War foes.
Before the 1959 Cuban revolution, the US had backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista who Fidel Castro sought to overthrow.
After Castro took power, the US and Castro said they would seek to coexist peacefully – but the honeymoon didn’t last long.
Many American officials suspected Castro was secretly a communist and the US blasted the Cuban government’s seizure of American property and the summary executions of officials from the Batista regime.
Frayed ties snapped
Already frayed ties between Washington and Havana finally snapped in 1961 when Cuban leader Fidel Castro threatened to expel American diplomats for meddling in Cuban affairs.
“There is a limit to what the United States in self-respect can endure. That limit has now been reached,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, announcing the rupture.
US Marines lowered the US flag at the embassy and the American staff left the island aboard a ferry. Looking back as they crossed the straits of Florida, diplomats said they could see the embassy’s Cuban employees flashing the lights at the seafront building on and off to say farewell.
Swiss diplomats took over the maintenance of the former US Embassy and the sprawling ambassador’s residence in Havana.
The failed US-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro’s declaration that his revolution was socialist, repeated CIA plots to assassinate Castro, and the Cuban Missile crisis further poisoned affairs for the decades that followed.
But in 1977, during a brief period of improved relations under the Carter administration, Cuba and the United States opened Interests Sections in their former embassies.
Diplomatic dealings, not official relations
A step below embassies, Interests Sections allowed the Cold War foes to have diplomatic dealings without officially restoring relations.
Diplomats returning to the old US Embassy in Havana found years of dust accumulated on the furniture and calendars from 1961 still on the walls.
Since the United States couldn’t fly the American flag or name an ambassador to Havana, there were no obvious signs of a large US diplomatic presence in Communist-run Cuba.
Like their Cuban counterparts working in the US, American diplomats in Havana faced restrictions on where they could travel and were closely monitored.
“Most Americans who visited Cuba seem to think there’s no relationship, there’s just a tiny room in the Swiss Embassy. And every day they are driving past the old embassy, but they don’t know there’s an embassy because there was no flag,” said Vicki Huddleston, who was chief of the Interests Section from 1999 to 2002.
With 51 Americans and 300 Cuban employees, the US Interests Section was one of the largest diplomatic missions any country maintained in Cuba.
US presence became lightning rod
But instead of improving relations with Cuba, the Interests Section often served as a lightning rod for confrontation.
The Cuban government plastered propaganda around the building, including one iconic sign that showed a fatigue-clad revolutionary telling a hissing caricature of Uncle Sam, “Mister imperialists, we are not the least bit afraid of you!”
Fidel Castro called the section “a nest of spies” and led frequent marches with hundreds of thousands of supporters in tow to protest US policies. US diplomats were often secretly recorded and video of their activities in Cuba would air on the evening newscasts.
Cuban intelligence kept a close eye on American diplomats’ comings and goings.
“They had 3,000 to 4000 people that were focused on our personnel, trying to recruit them or harass us,” said James Cason, the chief of the Interests Section from 2002 to 2005.
“They would break into your house and do things to show they had control of your existence. In my days, if they knew you didn’t like spiders, you would find a tarantula wandering around your room.”
Diplomatic dog day
Cuban diplomats serving in the United States complained of similar harassment at the hands of American minders and were often expelled for allegedly spying on the US under diplomatic cover.
Sometimes the intimidation backfired, as when Huddleston was informed that her Afghan hound, Havana, could no longer take part in local dog shows.
“You have been thrown out of the dog club because of your country’s policies and your actions,” Huddleston said the letter of expulsion read.
But negative publicity over the incident led Cuban officials to declare it all had been a mistake, since the dog really belonged to Huddleston’s husband.
“The Cubans were really embarrassed,” Huddleston said. “Fidel said he would give my husband’s dog a pardon. “
Sometimes it was the United States that sparked diplomatic incidents, such as in 2006 when diplomats installed an electronic ticker across the top floor of the Interests Section to display information the Cuban government didn’t want reported.
Hopes rekindled in 2015
“We decided we would talk over the heads of the regime by putting the moving billboard in the top floor of our windows,” Cason said. “And one day, to the surprise of the regime, we started off with, ‘People of Cuba, how come we can go to your hotels and you can’t?’”
The Cuban government responded by erecting a “forest” of 138 flagpoles to block out the offending American messages. Eventually both the ticker and the flags came down.
The reestablishment of full diplomatic relations in 2015 led many to hope that the two countries could move past the decades of dirty tricks and skullduggery.
“As an Interests Section, we were kind of radioactive for Cubans,” said John Caufield who was chief of the Interests Section from 2011 to 2014.
“This is a signal to Cuba and all Cubans that even if we don’t have a normal relationship, we have a formal relationship.”