SX2A9103-1000px-US-Interests-Section-Havana-Cuba-copyright-Christopher-P-BakerHAVANA, July 17  (EFE) Havana on July 20 will reopen its U.S. embassy with a formal and “very solemn” ceremony to be attended by about 500 people, headed by the island’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who will be received in Washington later that same day by Secretary of State John Kerry.

After more than 50 years of enmity, Cuba and the United States will officially reestablish diplomatic relations on Monday, the day their respective “interests sections” in Washington and Havana will be transformed into embassies.

On that same day, Cuba will officially reopen its embassy in the U.S. capital, while the date of the similar U.S. ceremony in Havana is still to be announced with Kerry to be on hand on the island for the event.

In a meeting with reporters on Thursday in Havana, the assistant director for North America at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Gustavo Machin, said that Rodriguez will visit Washington at the head of a delegation comprised of about 30 officials, former diplomats and representatives of sectors such as culture, education, healthcare and science, along with other organizations and the Cuban Council of Churches.

Also attending the ceremony will be members of the U.S. Congress, non-governmental organizations, businessmen, representatives of activist groups with an interest in the island and members of various U.S. churches.

Machin said that the ceremony will begin at 10:30 a.m. and Rodriguez – the first Cuban foreign minister to visit the United States in more than half a century – will deliver the main speech.

With the reestablishment of diplomatic ties, the current heads of the Cuban and U.S. Interests Sections, Jose Ramon Cabañas and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, respectively, will become charges d’affaires until the two countries name their ambassadors.

2014 file photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Since the U.S. eased travel restrictions in 2015, several colleges have struck agreements with Cuban schools to create exchange programs for students and faculty. More American colleges are planning study trips to Cuba. Both sides are exploring research collaborations. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes, File)

2014 file photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Since the U.S. eased travel restrictions in 2015, several colleges have struck agreements with Cuban schools to create exchange programs for students and faculty. More American colleges are planning study trips to Cuba. Both sides are exploring research collaborations. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes, File)

HAVANA, July 11   (AP)  As the U.S. and Cuba mend ties, colleges in both countries are forming partnerships that once were heavily restricted.

Only months after the U.S. eased travel restrictions, several colleges have struck agreements with Cuban schools to create exchange programs for students and faculty. More American colleges are planning study trips to Cuba, and both sides are exploring research projects.

“I think there’s going to be an explosion in all of those kinds of collaborations,” said Mauro Guillen, director of the Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

At Auburn University in Alabama, the college of agriculture agreed to partner with the Agrarian University of Havana under a new five-year exchange agreement. The University of the District of Columbia and the University of California at Fullerton also signed deals with Cuban schools.

Leaders at Florida International University are making long-term plans to open at least one campus in Cuba.
Under previous travel rules, some colleges had gained permission to launch academic trips to Cuba, but college officials said the process was riddled with bureaucratic barriers. Even those who went through the lengthy application process often were denied.

But the U.S. eased those rules this year. Tourism is still forbidden, but the new rules make it easier to travel for educational purposes.

Those changes have stirred a “gold rush mentality” to form new academic ties, said Bruce Magid, dean of the Brandeis International Business School in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“I think it’s going to be significantly easier to plan trips,” said Magid, who has led several visits to Cuba in recent years.

The wave of academic interest in Cuba covers a wide range of fields, from architecture to agriculture. But business schools in particular have been quick to build ties with the island, both to study its evolving economy and to explore it as a potential business frontier if the U.S. lifts its trade embargo.

“A lot of my students, they want to go to Cuba not just because they can learn about this fascinating place, but they also see themselves potentially in the very near future doing business over there,” said Guillen, who has led student trips to Cuba.

For many U.S. colleges, Cuba also represents a largely untapped pool of future students.

There are still obstacles in the way, but admissions offices already are drafting plans to recruit students from Cuba, just like they do from Europe or South America.

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the graduate record exam in the U.S., recently announced that it will begin testing in Cuba.

“Cuba has probably the highest educational standards in all of Latin America,” Guillen said. “They have a relatively well-educated population and it would be wonderful to attract those students to the United States in big numbers.”
Financial constraints in Cuba would leave most students dependent on financial aid, but there is strong interest in a U.S. education.

“Here we take two years of English, so in terms of the language I think we are well-prepared,” said Omar Concepcion, who is in his last year in physics at the University of Havana, “and on the physics side (Americans) are very advanced, so it would be very advantageous for us.”

Colleges acknowledged that they would have to provide financial aid to Cuban students they recruit.

Despite progress, some experts are reluctant to herald a new era of open academic exchange between the countries. In many ways, there is still a wide void between them, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

The U.S. trade embargo puts a clamp on much activity, Duany said, and could block professors from presenting or selling their scholarly works. He added that in Cuba, the state keeps a tight grip on universities and their scholars.

“U.S. academics are used to speaking their minds on any topic that they can think of, and usually nothing happens,” Duany said. “Cuba’s a different society.”

Other constraints include Cuba’s lagging infrastructure, Guillen said. Internet access, for example, is still relatively rare, he said. But Guillen is confident that new relationships between colleges will play a role in the larger reconciliation between the countries.

“Educational collaboration and exchange is a consequence of the opening,” Guillen said, “but it will also contribute to deepening and accelerating the opening.”

Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana also contributed to this report.

Former US diplomat  in Havana Wayne Smith

Former US diplomat in Havana Wayne Smith

HAVANA,  July 6  (AFP) – As the US diplomats headed out to sea, their embassy in Havana closed but still visible on the horizon, the lights in its windows flickered.

One of the travelers that day in 1961 was Wayne Smith, who would later become head of the US interests section in Cuba.

Smith has had a front row seat as Cuban-American relations have evolved and now head for restoration, with the opening of embassies later this month as announced last week by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro.

Now 83, Smith remembers that day of departure: helping close the embassy on January 3, 1961 after the United States severed relations with Fidel Castro’s newly communist Cuba, and embarking on a Florida-bound ferry.

“As we cleared the headland, we could look and we could see our embassy on the waterfront, and the lights were blinking on and off,” Smith told AFP in an interview.

“I thought ‘that must be our employees saying farewell’. And it was!”

Smith welcomes the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, and said the US embargo that Washington has enforced against Cuba for more than 50 years — aimed at forcing the regime’s collapse — backfired, if anything.

“We followed this policy, year after year, God almighty, that didn’t isolate Cuba — it isolated us,” Smith said, noting that as of last year, the United States was the only country in the hemisphere that did not have diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“Every year the embargo was condemned at the UN, it was ridiculous,” he said. “It was a great relief that Obama began to change the policy.”

Smith — a tall man who fought in the Korean War and now sports an elegant white beard — says US policy toward Cuba lasted so long because of the “incredible belief” that American power could achieve anything.

“The idea that, by maintaining the embargo and a hostile policy and refusing to negotiate anything, we were going to bring down the Castro government, was absurd,” Smith said in his office, crammed with books and papers, at a Washington think tank called the Center for International Policy.

“It was a delusion, if you will, on the part of the US and American leaders. To me it became increasingly embarrassing that leaders could so mislead themselves,” he added.

– Missed opportunities –

After the US embassy in Havana closed, the countries had chances to re-engage but they never came to fruition.

“I think that we could have reopened a dialogue and a relationship with Cuba had Kennedy not been assassinated, as early as that. But with Kennedy’s assassination, that ended,” said Smith, referring to John F. Kennedy’s death in 1963.

In 1977, the United States and Cuba established Interests Sections in each other’s capital, and Smith returned to Cuba. Two years later, he was named head of mission, a sort of ambassadorship without the title.

Jimmy Carter was president then and wanted dialogue with Cuba, Smith said, adding this was the reason he took the job.

But then-national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wanted nothing of that and “torpedoed any effort to bring one about,” he said.

Next came the conservative Ronald Reagan as president — “and then for sure we would not have any dialogue” — so Smith left the US diplomatic service in 1982.

Smith said it might take the United States a couple of years to lift the trade embargo and some “astute maneuvering” but is optimistic that “we can achieve it.”

– Lights on the horizon –

All these years later, Smith has vivid memories of that day the embassy closed and he and his colleagues left for Florida.

As a diplomat, he said, the closure of the embassy was a huge disappointment — a failure, even.

In his cluttered office, Smith’s photos include one of him and his wife in 1958 in a famed Havana watering hole called the Bodeguita del Medio, and one of him with Fidel Castro when Smith resigned from the Foreign Service.

Now, he is excited about the prospect of embassies re-opening, later this month, and hopes to be at the ceremony in Havana.

Looking back, when he returned to Cuba in 1977 and met one of those old local employees, he asked about the lights in the embassy blinking on and off.

“‘Were you saying goodbye to us?’ And one of them said ‘Yes, you did see it, then.’ It was very moving,” Smith said.

 havana-live-marine-embassy-gardsHAVANA, July 5  The U.S. has formally announced its intentions to open an embassy in Havana, bringing the Marine Corps a significant step closer to deploying uniformed embassy security guards to the tropical Caribbean island.

The decision to open formal diplomatic facilities was announced by President Obama July 1. While U.S. officials said they have not finalized a specific date, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said embassies in both countries will be up and running on July 20.

When that happens, Marines will guard a formal embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961 when diplomatic ties were severed with Cuba’s communist government just two years after Fidel Castro’s rise to power. It is likely to be a plum assignment, with the island known for its vibrant culture and beautiful vistas. But only a few Marines will go. The Havana detachment will likely be on
the smaller side of a typical six- to 20-Marine team, a Marine official said in June. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the topic pending ongoing State Department negotiations.

More recently, a Marine officials said the call would be the State Department’s, but it is standard for all embassies to have a detachment. State Department officials did not answer specific questions regarding the imminent Marine presence in Havana.

The reason the detachment would be small, according to one Cuba expert, is because Havana will be a low-risk post.

A State Department official said on background following the announcement that they “are confident the embassy in Havana will be able to operate similar to other embassies operating in restrictive environments.”

“Every U.S. embassy faces a different set of constraints, but we believe we’ve made sufficient progress to begin embassy operations,” the official added.

While the U.S. and Cuban governments have had antagonistic relations for more than half a century, Cuban citizens generally like the U.S., said William LeoGrande a professor of government at American University’s School of Public Affairs and a repeat traveler to Cuba.

“We’ve always had a cultural affinity and many Cubans would still like to come to the U.S.,” he said, correctly predicting in early June that an announcement to open an embassy would be made within in a month.

Many, in fact, rely on remittances to augment their income, sent by family that has already made it to the U.S.

So while protesters in hostile nations commonly burn U.S. flags outside embassy compounds, recent Associated Press photos show Cubans celebrating the incremental normalization of relations by sporting American flag-themed apparel or by flying the nation’s flags alongside one another.

That means Marines who go should have a great time when not on duty, LeoGrande said. And the State Department official hinted at the level of free movement U.S. personnel might expect, even in their official capacities.

“On the issue of travel for our diplomats, what I can tell you is that the travel … will be much, much more free and flexible than it is now,” the officials said.

For now, however, U.S. personnel will continue to notify the Cuban government of their travel within the country, even if they are able to travel without approval.

LeoGrande cautioned that like any place, there are low-level risks that include mugging. But the Caribbean island is absent the sort of post-9/11 threats U.S. personnel face in other counties.

 havana-live-DelaurentisHAVANA, July 2  (AP)   From his office high above Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis has a sweeping view of the cerulean Florida Straits and the blood-red letters declaring Cuba’s defiance of the United States.

“Homeland or Death!” reads the sign erected in front of the U.S. Interests Section, a declaration installed 15 years ago when DeLaurentis was a more junior officer working to defuse a standoff over the fate of child rafter Elian Gonzalez.

Now, on this third assignment in communist Cuba, DeLaurentis is the top U.S. diplomat on the island, working to bring an end to more than a half-century of hostilities between the two countries. Known for his low-key style and public discretion, the 61-year-old diplomat also is on a short list for U.S. ambassador to Cuba, if there is to be one.

On Wednesday, DeLaurentis hand-delivered a letter from the White House to the Cuban Foreign Ministry about converting missions known as interest sections in the countries’ respective capitals into full embassies.

Cuba said ceremonies to do that will be held July 20, though the U.S State Department said it does not yet have a date.

Several Republicans in Congress have vowed to block the appointment of an ambassador to Havana and hold up funding for the embassy.

“There aren’t many diplomats who could represent the United States in Havana during this sensitive, but promising chapter,” former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray said. “Jeff is one of them.”

DeLaurentis was a consular officer in Cuba in 1991-93, when the island was plunged into economic crisis with the Soviet Union’s collapse. As head of the U.S. Interests Section’s economic and political section in 1999-2002, DeLaurentis was a key negotiator in the fight over Elian Gonzalez’s custody.

Vicki Huddleston, who headed the mission then, said DeLaurentis’ quiet diplomacy helped dial down tensions when Cuban officials threatened a mass migration of rafters if the young castaway wasn’t returned to his homeland. President Bill Clinton’s administration ultimately backed the parental rights of Elian’s father in Cuba and returned the boy.

DeLaurentis also was “instrumental” in discussions with Cuban officials over the decision by U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration to use the Guantanamo naval base in eastern Cuba to house prisoners held on terrorism charges following the Sept. 11 attacks.

“He always sort of quietly pushed the envelope with Cuban officials, but they always gave him a lot of credit,” Huddleston said. “He was always spot-on in interpreting Cuban motives and actions.”

Huddleston recalled that she and DeLaurentis attended Mass at a local Roman Catholic church and he worked to get computers to the parish at a time that such technology in the hands of a non-governmental entity was viewed suspiciously.

Huddleston was succeeded as head of mission by James Cason, who enraged Fidel Castro by meeting with government opponents at a dissident’s home in 2003. Seventy-five dissidents were arrested several weeks later.

Negotiations to free USAID contractor Alan Gross were under way for months before DeLaurentis returned to Havana as head of mission last August. Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro of Cuba announced a deal on Dec. 17 to free Gross and three Cuban prisoners in the United States and to work toward renewing diplomatic relations.

The tall, lanky DeLaurentis is a distinctive figure around Havana, dressed in a long-sleeve shirt and tie for meetings with other foreign diplomats, business people and Cubans he has known for years.

As in his earlier stints, DeLaurentis “gets out of the building and talks with people,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst who travels to the island regularly. “He knows the country very, very well.”

True to form, DeLaurentis declined to speak on the record because of the U.S.-Cuba negotiations. He has spoken very little with major media since Dec. 17. He told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that a new U.S. exception to the trade embargo would allow exchange of Internet technology that could be a “game changer down the line” by connecting Cuba to the world and “lighting up the island.”

DeLaurentis is a graduate of the Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Columbia University’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs. He was a senior official at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York before joining the U.S. State Department and has worked at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Geneva, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, and in Washington, including as deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Most recently, DeLaurentis was a deputy to U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power at the United Nations, where a former colleague said he was known as “the person who turned on the lights in the morning and was the last to leave at night.”

DeLaurentis’ online presence is minimal, mostly written texts of addresses to the U.N. Security Council. In one rare speech carried by YouTube, the graying diplomat with dark-rimmed glasses told students at a 2013 International Model U.N. Conference that international diplomacy “can be frustrating, even maddening.”

He didn’t elaborate on the challenges of being a diplomat in Cuba, which has not had formal diplomatic relations with the U.S. since 1961.

“He’s trying to rebuild a relationship that has been in shambles for 55 years,” Dutch Ambassador Norbert Braakhuis said.

The United States needs “someone who is very cautious – but also very knowledgeable and with sharp insights,” Braakhuis said. DeLaurentis, he added, is “clearly the right person at the right time and place.”