CubaNews / January 2008
By Larry Luxner
It had all the atmosphere of a forbidden party. Mojitos made with banned Ron Caney flowed freely at the Nov. 27 farewell reception for Dagoberto Rodríguez, who by his own calculation served as chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington for “six years, four months and 15 days.”
So did expensive Cohiba cigars, which may not be imported into this country (except, of course, by diplomatic pouch).
Considering the current sorry state of U.S.-Cuban relations, it’s not often the Cuban Interests Section gets to celebrate something. After all, during the latter part of his time here, Rodríguez was banned from traveling outside a 25-mile radius of Washington without special State Department permission.
But that didn’t stop the 400 guests in attendance — carefully screened at the entrance — from celebrating anyway amid shouts of “Viva la revolución!” and blaring salsa music.
“Welcome to our small Cuban territory here in Washington, D.C.,” Rodríguez told his guests above the din, in a not-so-subtle slap at the Bush administration. “Don’t be afraid. It is not illegal to travel to this place.”
The easygoing, 52-year-old Rodríguez — who everyone simply calls Dagoberto — has since gone straight back to Havana with his wife Marisabel. He’s being replaced by Jorge Bolaños, who at 71 is one of Cuba’s most experienced diplomats, having most recently served as Cuba's envoy to Mexico (see CubaNews, December 2007, page 4).
The Castro regime didn’t give any reason for rotating Rodríguez out of Washington after such a long time presiding over its mission, officially an annex of the Swiss Embassy fronting 16th Street.
But one thing is clear: the appointment of Bolaños is being interpreted by veteran Cuba-watchers as sound evidence that Cuba under Raúl Castro hopes to play a more constructive role, in the event a new administration in Washington is willing and ready to engage Havana seriously.
“We are approaching the day when all barriers between our countries will be abolished,” declared Rodríguez, as he reminisced about recent highlights in the long history of U.S.-Cuban tensions.
These include the precedent-setting 1999 exhibition game between Cuba’s national baseball team and the Baltimore Orioles; the 2000 struggle over six-year-old refugee Elián González and the boy’s eventual return to Cuba, and passage of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, under which $2 billion in U.S. food commodities has been shipped to Cuba over the last five years.
But Rodríguez also expressed “disappointment at not seeing an improvement in relations after 40 years of the embargo’s failure,” and the Bush administration’s punishment of average Americans for violating the long-standing ban against travel to Cuba.
“We have no hard feelings towards the Americans. On the contrary, we have many things in common, like baseball,” said the diplomat, noting the presence of “good and dear friends from over 30 states,” ambassadors representing 25 countries and even a few members of Congress.
Notably, not a single Bush administration or State Department official was present at the sendoff — though the presence of Castro sympathizers and outright communists more than made up for that.
The Baltimore-Matanzas Sister City Associ-ation presented Rodríguez and his wife with a framed historic sketch of Baltimore by local artists Carol Higgs and Dennis Livingston. Other gifts included an original Baltimore Orioles jersey from the 1999 playoff and a ball signed by every single player in the game.
Sam Manuel of the Socialist Workers Party gave Rodríguez a book of revolutionary speeches by Thomas Sankara, the assassinated president of Burkina Faso, and Carl Gentile of the U.S. Communist Party had warm words of praise for the outgoing diplomat.
Shirley Pate, who runs the Haiti-Cuba-Ven-ezuela Analysis website, was the last to speak.
“This has got to be the most difficult diplomatic posting in the world, here in Washing-ton, D.C., the belly of the beast,” Pate told the adoring audience in an emotional, strident tribute to Rodríguez. “Yet you never once lost your sense of humor, Dagoberto, and I know you will continue to fight the illegal trade embargo against Cuba.”
Pass the Cohibas, compañeros. Long live the revolution!