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James Cason: Washington’s lonely diplomat in Havana
CubaNews / February 2004

By Larry Luxner

He doesn’t get around much lately, but James A. Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, certainly enjoys a sweeping, panoramic view of Havana.

From his spacious 5th-floor office overlooking the Malecón, Washington’s top diplomat here can gaze out as far as the horizon to the Straits of Florida, or as close as the Anti-Imperialist Plaza, where Fidel Castro periodically hosts noisy demonstrations in order to provoke the U.S. officials working next door.

“It’s certainly an interesting place,” Cason told us in a recent interview. “Obviously, we don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba. We’re in a unique position, in terms of the way we’re treated because of the Cubans’ efforts to contain us. In most countries, we’d be able to travel around freely. Here, we have to stay within the fence, so to speak. To my knowledge, we’re the only mission that cannot travel outside Havana — even to go to Varadero.”

The 59-year-old diplomat says he made it clear from his first day on the job that he “wanted to get out and see the country.”

Cason did, in fact, manage to log over 6,000 miles of travel throughout the island before being restricted to a 450-square-mile area of the capital city and its immediate suburbs.

That’s similar to the restrictions placed on the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, whose diplomats may no longer venture beyond the Beltway without explicit permission.

“The only time we can leave Havana is to visit American citizens who are being held in prison,” he said. “We’re also allowed to make repatriation trips so we can meet ships bringing back Cubans who have tried to flee to the United States.”

Jim Cason isn’t the easiest person to interview. Our hour-long meeting came only after a year and a half of e-mails, phone calls, rejections and State Department delays.

The day before our visit, the mission’s public-affairs chief established the ground rules: we could ask Cason anything we wanted, but all quotes would have to be cleared before publication. Furthermore, no cameras or laptop computers were to be brought up to the 5th floor — only a notebook and pen.

Once the interview was underway, we learned another interesting little detail: for security reasons, no Cuban nationals are ever allowed into Cason’s office.

“This is a police state,” said Cason, explaining the stringent rules in force at the Interests Section (known by the State Department as USINT). “The government can do whatever it wants. Control of the population by the security forces is the No. 1 goal of this regime.”

USINT has been operating in Havana since 1977, when Castro and then-President Carter agreed to open low-level missions in each other’s countries, after 17 years of no diplomatic relations at all.

Cason, a New Jersey native and most recently a resident of Virginia, has been at USINT since September 2002. Before that, he worked at the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs as director of policy, planning and coordination.

Cason has served in 14 countries besides Cuba, including Portugal, Italy, Uruguay, Bolivia, Venezuela, Jamaica, Panama, Hondu-ras and El Salvador. A former Fulbright Scholar in Uruguay, he has a bachelor’s degree in international relations, with a major in Latin American studies from Dartmouth College, and a master’s from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Asked what qualifies him to serve in Cuba, Cason replied that he didn’t seek out the position but was asked by the Bush administration to take the job after his predecessor, Vicki Huddleston, was named U.S. ambassador to the Central African nation of Mali.

“I’m a career diplomat, and have been in a lot of tough places — Portugal during the revolution, Panama during Noriega. I’ve been in government for 35 years, and they were looking for a certain management style.”

The Cubans weren’t too happy to receive Cason, who complained that Foreign Ministry bureaucrats made him wait 48 days for a visa, and since then have severely restricted his contacts with government officials.

“They used to have Ricardo Alarcón [president of the National Assembly] deal with us,” he said, “but from the moment I arrived, it was made clear that we’d only be allowed to talk to one or two people in the government, namely Rafael Dausa and anybody he happens to bring along.”

That’s a gripe echoed by other Western diplomats here, including Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, chargé d'affaires of the European Union mission in Havana.

Last month, von Burgsdorff told CubaNews that “we are not invited to any government receptions. We can only communicate in writing with Cuban officials through formal notes, and very often, we don’t even receive a reply.”

Yet Cason doesn’t seem to care.

“Our objective is not necessarily to have good relations with Cuba, but to carry out the president’s policy, to make sure our values and principles are respected,” he said. “I’ve never met Castro, nor would I ever want to.”

The decorations in Cason’s office reflect his disgust with Marxism. Prominently displayed on a coffee table, for instance, are several books including Ben Corbett’s “Cuba: An Outlaw Culture Survives” and “Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag” by Armando Valladares.

On one wall is a Stephen Spielberg-autographed movie poster from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” — a clear reference to the current state of affairs in Cuba.

He’s also got two decks of cards: one depicting the 55 most-wanted Iraqi officials under Saddam Hussein, and another one similarly lampooning Castro and his cronies.

But the most curious artifact in Cason’s office is a plaque honoring his participation in the September 2002 U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition in Havana.

At that event, Cason was widely criticized for his angry comments to U.S. exporters about seeing “more bull than beef,” and by warning exporters about doing business with Castro’s “Freddie the freeloader” economy.

But Cason justifies his views more than a year after the event, which lured 750 U.S. executives to Havana at a time of unbridled optimism about the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.

“What I said about their creditworthiness was 100% right,” the diplomat said. “Most businessmen recognize they have the best possible deal with TSRA [the Trade Sanctions and Reform Act], which allows cash sales for anything agricultural. If they pay cash and it’s food, they can buy it.

“But don’t try to get credit because you’re not going to get paid. The Cubans want to get these people to become active in changing U.S. domestic legislation, so they need cash, and the Europeans are lending them money at high short-term interest. It’s not a productive economy and never will be.”

Cason adds: “A large percentage of the food being purchased here is being sold to European and Canadian tourists. They’re trying to get repeat business by improving the food so that people will come back.”

Miguel Alvarez, a top adviser to Alarcón, says Cason is only doing what he’s told and that the Cuban government’s hostility toward him is nothing personal.

“He changed the rules of the game with his attitude toward Cuban domestic affairs. But I think he’s doing his job,” said Alvarez. “Cason is following the instructions of the State Department, so he’s not the problem.”

Former U.S. diplomat Wayne Smith agrees.

“Jim Cason is just following orders. The problem is that the orders he’s following are wrong. My sense is that he agrees with them and is enthusiastic about carrying them out.”

Smith, who headed the U.S. Interests Section under the Carter and Reagan administrations from 1979 to 1982, is now an outspoken opponent of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

“The objective of the Bush administration is to bring an end to the Castro government. What gave the United States the right to decide that the Castro government has to end? I talked to the leading dissidents in December and they all said that that’s up to the Cuban people.”

Yet Smith didn’t meet with Cason this past visit. “I so strongly disagree with what they’re doing that I don’t seek interviews with them any more because it just leads to arguments.”

At the moment, USINT has 51 diplomats, a limit of 120 “temporary duty” officials and over 300 Cuban employees hired directly through state agency Cubalse, which Cason says “is probably more than all the other missions in Havana combined.”

Besides issuing the required 20,000 visas a year as stipulated under the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuban Migration Accords, Cason says “we do market basket studies periodically, and we talk to Cubans all the time. We take the pulse of what’s going on here.”

The mission, technically an annex of the Swiss Embassy, underwent a $20 million renovation in 1996-98 and is now “a very nice facility,” he said, though for awhile its U.S. employees faced constant harrassment by Cuban officials.

Much of that harrassment came in the form of slashed tires, surveillance of personal telephone calls, smashed car windows and feces deposited in the homes of U.S. diplomats. These incidents and more were detailed in a declassified State Department memo to Congress.

“The fact that it appeared in public embarrassed them, and so that seems to have stopped,” said Cason.

What hasn’t stopped is Cason’s insistence on meeting with a variety of dissidents at his official residence, and the practice of inviting them to all official USINT functions. This practice was eventually adopted by the 15-member European Union, despite the fact that some of these dissidents were later discovered to be spies working for state security.

“A lot of the dissidents here know who was embedded, so it wasn’t a great surprise. People who weren’t bona fide came here all the time trying to establish credentials, even asking for money,” he said. “We’ve made clear we were not here to tell them what to do or give out money. The dissidents used my residence as a place to meet. If they were independent journalists, we’d allow them to surf the net.”

Since Castro’s jailing of 75 dissidents, journalists and independent librarians, and his execution of three ferry hijackers nearly a year ago, relations between Cason and other diplomats here — especially those from Europe — seem to have improved considerably.

“We differ on the embargo, but most of them have no romantic illusions about this government,” said Cason, pointing to the fact that his Spanish and Italian counterparts are now taking as much heat for their criticism of human-rights abuses as is the United States.

“Fidel Castro does not care about the well-being of the average Cuban citizen,” concluded Washington’s man in Havana. “If he did, he would just snap his fingers and make things better.”

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