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What You Need to Know About the U.S. and Cuban Embassies Reopening Today

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After a decades-long embargo, the United States and Cuba have begun warming up and re-establishing diplomatic relations. Today's re-opening of the American and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C., marks a new chapter and a key turning point in kickstarting travel and trade, while also bringing two storied structures back into the diplomatic fold. Here's the story of the sometimes tumultuous history of these two buildings, which have played key roles in the relationships between these two countries.


United States Embassy in Havana

In 1952, the United States Director of Foreign Building Operations, Fritz Larkin, picked up a very desirable seaside plot on the Malecon for the future U.S. Embassy, a trendy area in the Cuban capital that was the site of numerous apartment developments. Looking to create a modern consular and ambassador's office, the government commissioned architects Harrison & Abramovitz, who had recently worked on the American Embassy in Brazil. Their sleek, seven-story rectangular building was kept simple and straightforward, due in part to security concerns (it was easier to cordon off sensitive areas and activities on higher floors) and to project the image of a modern superpower. Knoll Associates designed the original interior, a blend of bright blue-green, yellow and persimmon that reflect a Cuban color scheme. Enjoyment of that interior design, however, was often difficult due to the lack of exterior shading, which led to climate control issues.

When relations between the two countries were severed, President Eisenhower "closed" the building, and it was handed over to the Swiss to operate and maintain. After it was officially reopened as a U.S. Interests Section in 1977, it was often the site of political intrigue. The United States was required to hire 80 percent Cuban office workers, who were banned from traveling above the third floor. After the State Department installed a electronic billboard with five-foot-tall letters that broadcast news and human rights messages in 2006, Cuba shot back, renaming the adjacent square Anti-Imperialist Plaza and blocking views of the offending signage with dozens of flagpoles topped in black flags. The flags have been removed, but a thicket of flagpoles still remains.



Cuban Embassy in the United States
Cuban Minister Dr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes y Quesada, who would briefly become his country's president in 1933, commissioned a mansion to represent Cuba in Washington, D.C., in November of 1916, choosing a site at 630 16th Street NW in Meridian Hill. The building's plans called for ornamental stone steps, a spacious ballroom and a residence for the ambassador on the third floor. The mansion also includes a Hemingway Bar, named in honor of the famous writer, as well as a Blue Room on the second floor for official meetings.



Numerous Cuban leaders visited the embassy, including the dictator Batista and a young Fidel Castro, who traveled to D.C. in April 1959. After relations between the two countries ceased, the Cubans gave the building to Czechoslovakia. In 1977, Cuba opened an Interests Section in the building, similar to the American arrangement in Havana. In May of 1979, a bomb was tossed into the backyard of the building that exploded without causing any injuries. Omega 7, a paramilitary group of Cubans bent on removing Castro from power, claimed responsibility. In 2003, the U.S. expelled 14 Cuban diplomats from the Interests Section in Washington and the United Nations, accusing them of espionage and "inappropriate and unacceptable activities."

Come Take a Tour of Havana's Modern Architecture [Curbed]
Constructing America's Image: Modernist Embassies of the Cold War [Curbed]