The Washington Diplomat / May 1997
By Larry Luxner
Few members of Washington's diplomatic community have a more frustrating job than Fernando Remírez de Estenoz.
Besides the usual duties of running an embassy, like attending cocktail parties, receiving delegations and keeping up with the latest Capitol Hill gossip, this 45-year-old diplomat operates under one especially heavy burden: his country has no formal ties with the United States.
Remírez de Estenoz, addressed by his subordinates as embajador despite his lack of ambassadorial status here, is chief of the Cuban Interests Section -- the Caribbean island's only official presence in Washington.
"It's really a unique situation," he told us during a lengthy interview last month at his country's stately mission on Sixteenth Street. "It is true that because we don't have diplomatic relations, we don't participate fully in official activities of the U.S. government. But we do have relations with other embassies. Cuba, you must remember, has relations with 158 countries, and there are over 90 diplomatic missions in Havana."
In 1961 -- two years after the Marxist revolution that swept Fidel Castro into power -- President John F. Kennedy declared a trade embargo against Castro's government and shuttered the U.S. Embassy in Havana. That utter absence of diplomatic ties continued until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter, in a brief relaxation of hostilities, signed a bilateral accord that established interests sections in each other's countries.
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 Cuban Interests Section in Washington belonged to the Embassy of Czechoslovakia until 1991, the year the Czechs embraced democracy and said they no longer wanted to represent Communist Cuba. The Swiss agreed to take over that function in a delicate arrangement that has continued ever since.
"We have restrictions, but it's not the same as harrassment," Remírez de Estenoz explained. "We have to notify authorities in advance" in order to travel outside the Washington metropolitan area. Twelve people work in the Cuban Interests Section -- whose ornate ceilings, walls and decorations are being restored by two employees -- while another 12 work in the nearby consulate, issuing visas of Cuban exiles curious to return to the land of their birth or visit aging relatives.
"One of our priorities is to increase our links with the Cuban-American commu-nity. We have a new approach towards Cubans living abroad. Last year, we had a record number of [expatriates] who visited Cuba," said the diplomat, though he wouldn't specify just how many -- for fear of provoking Cuban exile groups hostile to the Castro regime.
In fact, Remírez de Estenoz was only seven years old on Jan. 1, 1959, the day Castro's forces toppled the corrupt Gen. Fulgencio Batista and declared Cuba the first socialist state in Latin America. The young boy, who wanted to become a doctor, grew up only a block from Havana's spacious Plaza de la Revolución, where Castro still gives his famous speeches every July 26.
By the time Remírez de Estenoz entered the University of Havana, however, his interests had begun shifting from medicine to Marxism. A year after getting his medical degree in 1975, he became secretary of foreign affairs of Cuba's Federation of University Students. A longtime member of the Young Communist League, Remírez de Estenoz was voted head of the party's international relations department and eventually a member of the party's Central Committee.
In 1986, he got his first overseas posting as Cuba's ambassador in Angola, where Castro's forces were busy fighting a proxy war against South African-backed rebels. After a two-year stint there, the diplomat returned to Cuba and in 1992 was appointed first deputy minister of foreign affairs, a post he kept when appointed in 1994 as Cuba's repre-sentative at the United Nations in New York. In October 1995, Remírez de Estenoz arrived in Washington to begin his current job.
"My mother is very proud of the fact that I'm a doctor, but she's not proud I'm a diplomat," he joked.
Maternal approval aside, Remírez de Estenoz says his job is "very tough, particu-larly at this moment, when relations between our two governments are not the best."
A tangible example of this is the political graffiti that stains the sidewalk in front of Cuba's 80-year-old mission. Despite attempts to erase them, it's hard not to notice the spray-painted "Fidel Asesino!" and "Viva Cuba Libre!" appeals of various anti-Castro exile groups, who also used the Interests Section as a staging ground for protests against last year's shoot-down of unarmed planes flown by Cuban-American pilots trying to provoke Castro by skirting Cuban airspace.
Without a doubt, Cuban diplomats in Washington have more than their share of enemies.
"We regard their presence here as a standing moral offense," says José Cárdenas, local director of the 50,000-member Cuban American Foundation, an exile group that bitterly opposes the Castro regime. "These individuals are allowed to move about, not only Washington but across the United States virtually unrestricted, while our own U.S. diplo-mats in Havana are subjected to ongoing harrassment and exclusion from communicating with Cubans not associated with the government."
A State Department spokesman refuted that, saying restrictions on Cuban diplomats in Washington have increased since last year's tightening of the trade embargo against Havana, though further details were unavailable.
While Remírez de Estenoz concedes that the mission has received occasional threats of an unspecified nature, he claims "we have good relations with the federal agencies that take care of security here, and with District of Columbia authorities." He also says staffers aren't required to be members of the Communist Party, though he's quick to add that 650,000 Cubans are -- and that party membership has grown by 40,000 since 1992.
The diplomat's two children attend public school, and his wife, Patricia, is the mission's cultural affairs attaché. Last year, she helped bring the original stars of Fresas y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate) -- an award-winning comedy about life in contemporary Cuba -- to Washington, where the play was performed at the Gala Hispanic Theatre.
Yet even that had political overtones, since travel by Cuban artists to the United States is restricted by the State Department, as is travel by ordinary U.S. citizens to Cuba.
Last year, after the plane-shooting incident, President Clinton signed what Cuban exiles call the "Libertad Law" and what the rest of the world knows as Helms-Burton. That legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), calls for stiff penalties against foreign firms that invest in Cuba, and theoretically allows the U.S. government to prosecute any company, anywhere, for "trafficking" in expropriated Cuban goods. Several Mexican and Canadian executives have already been denied U.S. entry visas because of their Cuban connections.
"The purpose of Helms-Burton is to create more difficulties, more shortages for theCuban people. They want to break the Cuban economy," says Remírez de Estenoz. "Of course, there's been a negative impact, because some companies are thinking twice before making investments in Cuba. But up until now, the legislation hasn't achieved its goals."
Remírez de Estenoz adds that despite the threat of Helms-Burton, "many investors are looking for information. They come here, and they go to Cuba," though he declined to name any specific companies.
"Last year, we approved 40 new foreign investments in Cuba, bringing the total to 260 over the past five years. Also, we had a growth of 7.8% in our Gross Domestic Product. Tourism surpassed sugar not only for the first time since the revolution, but for the first time in Cuban history."
Of course, the 7.8% GDP growth follows on the heels of a 35% plunge between 1989 and 1993, when Cuba lost crucial economic support in the wake of the Soviet Union's disintegration. "In 1994, the economy grew 0.7%, and in 1995, we had a growth of 2.5%. Now, we're trying to restrain growth to 4% and have a balanced budget, because we don't want inflation."
Asked if his country is gradually becoming capitalist, Remírez de Estenoz had this to say:
"First, we want to preserve the achievements of the Cuban revolution. We are not giving up any of this. Secondly, the world has changed, and we must adapt Cuba to this world. We must have a productive economy and competition with other international markets. We should perfect our economy, our society in many different senses: foreign investment, taxes, fiscal policy. But the priorities are to preserve all the achievements we've had in health care," he said, such as an infant mortality rate of only 7.9 per 1,000 -- among the lowest in the developing world -- and an average life expectancy of 75.4 years.
As for Havana's relations with the estimated 1.5 million Cubans living in the United States, Remírez de Estenoz says the community is becoming "more flexible," and that a growing number of Cuban-Americans -- even in Miami -- support dialogue and ultimate reconciliation with the government they once despised.
"We are Cubans, therefore we're optimistic," says the diplomat. "We hope someday to have normal relations with the United States, because we are neighbors. Nobody can change that."