After 50 years of hostility, neglected U.S. mission in Havana shows its age

The oceanfront building that will become the U.S. Embassy in Cuba has faced a relentless enemy assault for more than 60 years. None of its assailants was human.

Heat, sun, high winds and salt air have taken their toll. Throw in the hostility that has marked U.S.-Cuban relations for most of the past five decades, and even routine maintenance to the building is an ordeal.

The seven-story structure is in a constant state of disrepair. Diplomats have learned to live with a leaky roof, crowded conditions and fire hazards. Needed supplies take months to arrive.

An internal State Department report from May 2014 likens the building to a “ship at sea,” its crew forced to conduct repairs often with whatever they have at hand.

Perhaps within weeks, the U.S. and Cuban governments will announce formal re-establishment of the diplomatic relations severed in 1961. The U.S. flag will replace the Swiss flag that has flown outside what is now known as the U.S. Interest Section. A new plaque will go up alerting passersby that the prominent building is the U.S. Embassy once again, as it was in the 1950s, before Fidel Castro led his successful revolution on the island.

Yet to be seen, though, is whether – and how much – renewed relations will ease the conditions that have made the Havana mission one of the more challenging outposts for American diplomats.

“We’re in a building that was built in 1953, and all the systems were breaking down, the electrical system, the plumbing system. And it’s not like you can just run out to Home Depot,” said John Caulfield, who was chief of mission in Havana until mid-2014 and is now retired in Jacksonville, Fla.

There are no private stores under Cuba’s socialist system, and the state controls access to most goods and services.

During his tenure, Caulfield said, it was hard to discern whether difficulties in making repairs were part of a campaign of harassment or because of bureaucratic red tape.

“We needed to put a new air conditioning chiller for the roof, and you needed a crane to put it up there. It took a year,” Caulfield said. “All cranes are controlled by the state.”

Of course, even if disrepair is a near-permanent state, the U.S. Interests Section is a far sight less shabby than most of Havana, a city trapped in time with vintage 1950s cars rolling down the streets, once-grand homes that are crumbling and a skyline that changes little.

At any given moment, the U.S. government maintains 51 diplomats, U.S. Marine guards and other direct-hire employees at the mission, or at a nearby annex, also on the Malecón, or Havana’s oceanfront boulevard. Also part of the outpost is a stately neoclassical 65-room mansion opened in 1942 that is home to the chief of mission.

Some 370 Cubans also work for the Interests Section, making it already the largest diplomatic mission in Havana. Those Cuban nationals all come from a Cuban diplomatic services branch of the state, and some are thought to be spies.

Rotating U.S. diplomats in and out of Cuba and keeping the facilities in working order requires routine arrival of containers and shipments, some of which arrive by air as so-called “diplomatic pouches” and others by sea from South Florida, carrying supplies and household goods.

“A lot of these shipments were turned around just for no reason,” Caulfield recalled.

Vehicles belonging to the U.S. mission’s motor fleet suffer.

Last year’s report from the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General noted that 14 of the motor pool’s 62 vehicles were “either unserviceable or in poor condition.” Some U.S. diplomats “operate vehicles that are damaged, unsightly and possibly unsafe. One vehicle is missing interior door panels and its gear shift knob.”

In recent weeks, U.S. officials say, they have made headway in sprucing up the building. The Obama administration has asked Congress to allot an additional $6 million for what the State Department calls the “conversion” of the “aging facilities” into a full-fledged embassy.

“Quite frankly, there’s no more room at the inn,” John D. Feeley, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, told a Senate panel May 5.

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Cuba once relations are re-established, but what he will find is not a typical, organized U.S. Embassy.

“Havana’s consular operations are located in a hodgepodge of disconnected offices and waiting rooms that provide too little space for operations in some areas,” the inspector general’s report says.

At an annex, which houses some U.S. government offices, “the large number of file cabinets located on the second floor threatens the structural integrity,” and “fire hazards” threaten the building.

As U.S. and Cuban diplomats haggle out the final terms of re-establishing relations, it is not yet clear how the consulate building would grow to cope with an expanded presence.

Renewed relations would likely mean a U.S. Embassy that included attaches from the Defense, Agriculture and Commerce departments, perhaps the Drug Enforcement Administration and maybe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Moreover, with a greater arrival of U.S. citizens to the island, the embassy would need to provide services to them. Roughly 550,000 U.S. citizens, the majority Cuban-Americans, visited Cuba in 2014.

Even if renewed relations ease some aspects of diplomatic life in Havana, and offer a symbolically important gesture of rapprochement, one former mission chief said difficulties will remain, including routine surveillance as diplomats travel around the island.

“I traveled 7,000 miles around the island, and I was totally surveilled,” said James Cason, who was mission chief from 2002 to 2005, a period when U.S. policy toward Cuba was more confrontational than it is today.

Cason, who is now mayor of Coral Gables, Fla., outside Miami, said the likely renewal of relations marks an incremental change, but perhaps not a major one.

“The only change will be that we can fly our flag, we’ll change our letterhead, and we’ll put the plaque up,” he said. “Same building.”

During Cason’s time, his staff put a news ticker on the outside of the U.S. Interests Section with a crawl of headlines involving human rights and Cuba.

“Since we weren’t allowed to talk to the Cuban people, I figured we’d talk over their heads,” Cason recalled with a chuckle.

Fidel Castro responded with indignation, installing more than 140 flagpoles in front of the U.S. mission, obscuring the ticker from view.

The flagpoles remain, but as tensions ease only one Cuban flag flies today.