News WrapGet Handpicked Stories from our editors directly to your mailbox

US in Cuba: `Imperialist` mission to become embassy

The high-fenced US Interests Section on Havana`s postcard-pretty seafront was a symbol of the Cold War friction that is now finally dissipating as it prepares to become an embassy.

Washington: The high-fenced US Interests Section on Havana`s postcard-pretty seafront was a symbol of the Cold War friction that is now finally dissipating as it prepares to become an embassy.

Transforming the concrete and glass mission into an embassy will be a central part of historic negotiations between US and Cuban officials this week aimed at restoring diplomatic relations.

Guarded by stone-faced Cuban police officers, the building that was built in 1953 lies along the famous Malecon seawall, a favorite meeting spot for locals and tourists alike.

Cars are forbidden to park in front of it and police chide pedestrians who want to walk along the facility.

The United States closed its embassy in 1961, when diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro`s revolutionary government broke off, and reopened it as an interests section in 1977 under then US president Jimmy Carter.

Since then, the mission and its 360 staff members -- most of them Cuban nationals -- officially mostly handle consular operations and work to promote human rights.

Now the United States wants to turn the building back into an embassy with an ambassador, with more freedom of movement within Cuba for its American staff.

This will be negotiated on Thursday between senior US State Department official Roberta Jacobson and Cuban foreign ministry official Josefina Vidal. 

The two sides will discuss immigration issues on Wednesday.For years, the Castro regime has denounced the mission as the tip of the spear of US conspiracies against Cuba.

In 1980, the mission angered the government by offering protection to around 400 asylum seekers during the Mariel boatpeople crisis, during which 125,000 Cubans fled to the United States.

Huge anti-American demonstrations were held with as many as five million, half the island`s population, taking part.

But it was in the new millennium that tensions around the interests section reached a fever pitch.

Across the main entrance, the Cuban government built a vast esplanade with an "anti-imperialist platform" for anti-US rallies.

Fidel Castro`s famous slogan "Fatherland or death, we will win!" is painted on a wall.

The venue was built in 2000 during the Elian Gonzalez custody saga -- after a young boy was plucked from an inner tube by the US Coast Guard after his mother died while crossing the Florida Strait, and his Cuban father demanded his return.

At the end of the esplanade, Cubans erected a statue of 19th century independence hero Jose Marti pointing toward the interests section while holding a child who resembles young Elian.

The boy`s father brought Elian back to Cuba in June 2000 but the site remained as a "protestdome" against the United States in the past decade.The United States has used its prime location to stage its own protests, placing a sparkling "75" -- in reference to the 75 Cuban dissidents arrested the year before -- at the center of its Christmas decorations in 2004.

The Cubans responded by installing an enormous poster out front with pictures of the abuses committed by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, with the slogan "Fascists Made in the USA."

In 2006, the US mission put up a giant display screen with political messages directed at the Cuban population. 

A furious Fidel responded by hoisting 138 black flags in front of the building to hide the messages.

The display was finally turned off in 2009, a few months after US President Barack Obama started his first term.

For the heads of mission, representing US interests in Havana has been a challenge.

Vicki Huddleston, who held the job between 1999-2002, saw her beloved Afghan hound excluded from a dog show in 2001.

Her successor, former CIA official James Cason, was derided in a Cuban cartoon character in 2005.

But the face offs have become rare in recent years, highlighting the detente that was announced by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on December 17.