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Dagoberto Rodríguez: Havana's man in Washington
CubaNews / August 2002

By Larry Luxner

In May, President Bush — marking the 100th anniversary of Cuban independence in Miami — made clear he would fight any attempt to end Washington’s 40-year-old trade embargo against Cuba until Fidel Castro is dead, overthrown or voted out of office.

To that end, the Bush administration has encouraged U.S. diplomats in Cuba to hand out shortwave radios and give moral and financial support to dissidents. Castro, comparing the Bush administration to “Nazi rule,” reacted angrily in early July by threatening for the first time to end bilateral migration talks and shut the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

If that happens, Bush would likely retaliate by closing the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. But the head of that mission, Dagoberto Rodríguez Barrera, says things probably won’t get that bad.

“We are asking the American side to behave properly,” Rodríguez told us over cups of Cubita coffee last month. “We don’t want to see the U.S. Interests Section in Havana closed. We believe the Interests Section and the immigration accords play an important role, even in this difficult situation, so it’s definitely not something we want to see.”

Besides the usual duties of running an embassy, like attending cocktail parties, receiving delegations and keeping up with the latest Capitol Hill gossip, the 46-year-old Rodríguez operates under one especially heavy burden: his country lacks diplomatic relations with the United States.

In 1961 — two years after the Marxist revolution that swept Castro into power — President Kennedy broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and shut the U.S. Embassy in Havana. That utter absence of ties continued until 1977, when President Carter, in a relaxation of hostilities, signed a bilateral accord establishing interests sections in each other’s capitals.

Theoretically, the U.S. Interests Section — a five-story building occupying a choice piece of real-estate along Havana’s waterfront Malecón — is an annex of the Swiss Embassy.

Likewise, the stately Cuban Interests Section on Sixteenth Street in Washington belonged to the Embassy of Czechoslovakia until 1991, the year the Czechs embraced democracy and said they no longer wanted to represent Cuba. The Swiss agreed to take over that function in a delicate arrangement which has endured ever since.

“As you can imagine, this is not an easy job, considering the state of relations between our two countries,” said Rodríguez.

The envoy, addressed by his subordinates as embajador despite his lack of ambassadorial status in Washington, seems confident in his job, having served for over 20 years in both the European and North American divisions of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; from 1995 to 1999, he was the Cuban Interests Section’s expert on Congressional affairs, forging links with sympathetic lawmakers and various anti-embargo organizations.

Rodríguez returned to Washington as head of the Interests Section last August, just 20 days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“After 9/11, Cuba was one of the first countries to send condolences to the American people and offer aid,” he told CubaNews. “Many times we’ve offered to increase cooperation in the fight against terrorism, as well as in the areas of drug interdiction and immigration. But it’s not easy, because this administration has tried to close any possibility of developing links between the two countries.”

Rodríguez, whose predecessor at the Cuban Interests Section, Fernando Remírez de Estenóz, has since become Cuba’s vice-minister of foreign affairs, says it’s difficult for U.S.-Cuban relations to sink much lower — though there are “two sides to this coin.”

“One is the official relationship, which is even worse now in the sense that this government has no intention of favoring small areas of cooperation, areas where the people of the U.S. could benefit more than the Cubans. But at the same time, there’s a growing interest within U.S. society in debating the Cuba issue, and in changing U.S. policy.”

He adds: “Our mission is to work hard to establish new channels of communication between Cubans and Americans, and to convey to the American people a feeling of friendship and goodwill from the Cuban people.”

Not everybody, however, wants to be Rodríguez’s friend.

One such person is Dennis Hays, executive vice-president of the Cuban American Natio-nal Foundation. The CANF, which in 2001 set up its own “Embassy for a Free Cuba” near Dupont Circle (see CubaNews, July 2002, page 8), regards the presence of the Cuban Interests Section as a “standing moral offense.”

“They’ve been very effective at creating an image of Cuba that has no basis in reality,” said Hays. “Given that they have very little to work with, they’ve done a good job selling this picture of Cuba as a place to do business.”

Hays is particularly upset about the relative freedom granted to Cuban diplomats in the United States, compared to the difficulties he says their counterparts face in Havana.

“The danger is that when Dagoberto travels around this country, he downplays the repression in Cuba and says things that are patently not true, and there’s no one to call him on it,” he charges, adding that the Cuban Interests Section refuses to have anything to do with the CANF. “They have an indefensible position, and that’s why they don’t want to debate us.”

Rodríguez retorts that the CANF is a terrorist organization which has financed dozens of attacks against Cuba from clandestine bases in South Florida.

Furthermore, he says, “we do have restrictions. We can travel outside Washington only if we notify authorities 5 days in advance of our intention to go somewhere, and if we give them all the details about flight plans, where we’ll be staying and what cars we’ll be using.” In the absence of such permission, says Rodríguez, “we’re restricted to staying inside the Beltway” — though he jokes that when driving on the Beltway itself, “we can use the Outer Loop.

The long-running propaganda war between the United States and Cuba is clearly evident in the political graffiti that stains the sidewalk in front of Cuba’s 85-year-old mission. A fading red “Viva Fidel” has long since replaced the “Fidel Asesino!” and “Viva Cuba Libre!” slogans spray-painted years ago by various anti-Castro exile groups, who in 1996 organized a large demonstration to protest Castro’s shootdown of unarmed planes flown by Cuban exile pilots.”

Six years later, emotions still run high on both sides, though some aspects of the embargo have been relaxed. U.S. companies are now permitted to sell food and agricultural commodities to Cuba on a cash-only basis, but the Treasury Department still prohibits U.S. citizens from spending money in Cuba — despite various Congressional efforts to lift the ban — and the Bush administration has made little effort to improve ties with Havana.

“We cannot meet any official of the U.S. Treasury Department,” Rodríguez complains. “We have to request permission. And in the past when we have requested it, the answer has always been no.”

On the other hand, he says, “we travel around the United States a lot, and every place we visit, we find people eager to know about Cuba [despite] the misinformation.”

Rodríguez, who studied journalism at the University of Havana, complains that “the American press views Cuba as an enemy of the U.S., and describes socialism as something terrible and dangerous for the United States. The truth is precisely the opposite.” Rodríguez said he flies to Miami about once a month to meet Cuban exiles who favor dialogue with his government. Sadly, he said, such Cubans are up against the anti-Castro lobby, which used its considerable political muscle to help elect Bush president in 2000.

“For many years, the extreme right-wing minority has dominated that community,” he said. “They are the most powerful economically, and have been in the anti-Cuba industry for many years. They’re very skillful lobbyists, giving money to different political campaigns. They pretend to represent that silent majority, but we believe that most Cuban-Americans favor an improvement in relations between the United States and Cuba.”

Even so, he says, “the environment in Miami is really oppressive. There have been many cases of bombings, threats and other violent incidents. Cuban-Americans [who visit Cuba] are accused of being Castro agents, but they are only helping their families. And even if they were helping the Cuban government, they are helping a government that the vast majority of Cubans want to have.”

That, of course, is debatable.

Since taking power in 1959, the Castro government has never permitted open criticism of the system or the existence of political parties other than the Communist Party of Cuba.

Last month, following the signing of a counter-petition by over 8 million of Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants, Cuba’s National Assembly voted unanimously to enshrine socialism in the constitution. No one knows how many Cubans who supported the petition did so out of conviction, and how many did so because they feared the consequences of not signing.

Either way, the mass effort came only after publicity over the Varela Project, a petition signed by 11,000 Cubans demanding greater political and economic freedom for all Cuban ciizens. Most Cubans first heard about the Varela Project from Jimmy Carter, who visited the island in May and in a televised address urged Castro to enact political reforms. Rodríguez isn’t impressed.

“From the very beginning, I have referred to this not as the Varela Project but as the Vicki Huddleston project,” he said, “because for years, it’s been the desire of the U.S. government to fabricate opposition in Cuba.”

Huddleston, who’s stepping down this month after three years as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, has been widely criticized by Cuban officials for distributing thousands of shortwave radios that can pick up Radio Martí, a U.S.-funded propaganda station whose regular AM broadcasts are often jammed by the Castro government.”

Under Huddleston, the Interests Section — employing 50 diplomats and several hundred Cuban staffers — has also boosted its financing of independent libraries and anti-government dissident groups, leading Castro to his recent threat to close the mission altogether.”

“We are talking about a government that is threatening Cuba, a government that is using diplomatic channels for doing things that are far from what a diplomat is supposed to do,” said Rodríguez. “Under the Vienna Conven-tion, the purpose of a diplomatic mission is to improve communications and relations between countries and peoples. It doesn’t say the purpose is to overthrow a government.”

Rodríguez added that the Bush administration’s refusal to remove Cuba from the list of terrorist states is unfair — especially considering Castro’s tacit acceptance of the presence of over 400 prisoners being held at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo.

“The vast majority of Americans know that this [charge of state-supported terrorism] is a joke, a very dangerous joke,” he said. “At no moment in history has Cuba ever taken terrorist actions against the United States. On the contrary, more than 3,500 Cubans have died and 2,400 Cubans are handicapped as a result of terrorist actions from South Florida.”

As bad as U.S.-Cuban relations seem, the bilateral migration accords probably won’t be affected. Rodríguez, commenting on rumors of another impending exodus of rafters — similar to the 1980 Mariel boatlift which brought 125,000 Cubans to Florida’s shores — promised that “even if at some point the U.S. Interests Section has to be closed as a result of offensive behavior, we will continue to prevent illegal immigration.”

That immigration is being fueled by Cuba’s worsening economy. Last month, the government announced that it was shutting 71 of the island’s 156 sugar mills, as a result of declining productivity and disastrous world sugar prices that have decimated the industry. Post-9/11 tourist arrivals have also fallen, an unexpected development that has deprived the Castro government of badly needed dollars just as oil prices are rising.

“The situation is difficult,” Rodríguez conceded. “We face what most developing countries are facing, and Cuba is no exception. It’s true that the sugar harvest was not as good as we wanted, but the main problem is prices.”

At the same time, the Castro government is stepping up promotional efforts to bring Canadian and European tourists to Cuba; to that end, authorities recently legalized use of the euro alongside the dollar in Varadero and other selected beachfront resorts.

Americans are also welcome. In 2001, said Rodríguez, around 200,000 U.S. citizens came to Cuba. Of that number, 120,000 were Cuban-Americans visiting their families, and another 40,000 were U.S. citizens going legally as journalists, researchers or members of the clergy.

The remaining 40,000 were tourists flying to Cuba via third countries like Mexico, the Bahamas and Jamaica — circumventing an embargo that Rodríguez says is based on lies. How much longer this stranglehold on the Cuban economy will last is anyone’s guess, though Rodríguez emphatically denies that it is in Castro’s interests to keep the embargo in place as an excuse to hang onto power, as some Cuba-watchers have suggested.

“Our priority is lifting the embargo. We are not afraid of having normal relations with the United States,” the diplomat insists. “We are convinced that the day we have normal dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba, the day Americans can go to Cuba legally, the foundation for the embargo will disappear.”

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