What Will Full Diplomatic Relations With Cuba Look Like?
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The thawing of diplomatic relations means the existing U.S. Interest Section in Havana will become a full-fledged embassy. For more on what that will mean, we called on longtime diplomat Michael Parmly. He was chief of mission in Havana from 2005 to 2008. Back then he put up a big electronic sign outside the mission, a ticker to stream news and quotations about freedom. It did not go over well with the Cuban authorities, to put it mildly.
MICHAEL PARMLY: The Cubans got very upset about that. You know, we were interested in communicating with the Cuban people in any and every possible way. Someone in Washington had the idea of, well, you know, let's try the Times Square billboard approach. And we did get some response from the Cuban population, but eventually I guess it just sort of outlived its usefulness.
BLOCK: When you say the Cuban government got very upset, what did the Cuban government do?
PARMLY: They organized a million-man march.
PARMLY: Led by Fidel Castro.
BLOCK: Toward the mission?
PARMLY: They walked right by. We counted. Our estimate was 1.4 million.
BLOCK: Wow. So it actually was a million-man march.
PARMLY: Uh huh.
BLOCK: And the message of that march was what?
PARMLY: This is an affront. This is an intrusion. You stepped over the line.
BLOCK: Did the Cubans also try to build structures that would block those messages?
PARMLY: Well, they built the flag park. You know, right in front of the intersection is the - what we called the Elian Gonzalez park, a location - when Elian Gonzalez was brought back from the United States, there was a huge reception for him. And they brought him right in front of the intersection. Well, when we put up the billboard, they decided, all right, we're going to block the view of the billboard by putting up a huge flag park. So every sort of two or three meters, you'd have a Cuban flag or something like that.
BLOCK: In your time in Cuba as the head of the U.S. mission, would you have dealings with top-level Cuban officials? Would you have met either of the Castro brothers?
PARMLY: No. The night we put up the billboard, Fidel came by. And we heard what he was saying down in the parking lot 'cause the guards told us what he was saying down in the parking lot. But no, I had no contact with him.
BLOCK: When you first got word that the Obama administration was going to do this - was going to open diplomatic relations with Cuba, what were your first thoughts?
PARMLY: Jealousy, envy - gosh, wouldn't it have been nice? It might have even been a comment my wife made. Wouldn't it have been nice if we had been able to do that?
BLOCK: And apart from that tinge of envy that this is not happening when you were the chief of mission, what else went through your mind?
PARMLY: Gosh, what an opportunity. It's an opportunity to understand the other guy better. It's that simple. What do diplomats want to do? Diplomats want to understand where the other guy's coming from. And then they might try and shape where the other guy is going, but they first want to understand where the other guy is coming from.
BLOCK: You've heard the threats from some Republicans in the Senate. They're warning that they would block the nomination of an ambassador to Cuba, would block funding to convert the mission to an embassy. What do you make of those warnings?
PARMLY: I think they'll try and implement them. I regret that because I think this is a natural evolution, and it follows what has been happening in Cuba, and it makes perfect sense. But if it happens, I'll regret it. The State Department has never been overabundant when it comes to funding. And embassies have learned to get by on a shoestring for a long time. And I suspect they would simply learn to get by on a shoestring.
In the meantime, our colleagues in Washington will be discussing with the Senate and maybe even the House and - to fund the embassy fully again. Congress doesn't usually - you know, they may threaten to do certain things, but they don't want to look like they're cutting off funding for representatives of the American people overseas. So they do certain things to send a message, but at the end of the day they don't want to leave people high and dry.
BLOCK: Well, Mr. Parmly, it's good to talk to you. Thank you so much.
PARMLY: Any time.
BLOCK: That's Michael Parmly. He was chief of mission for the U.S. Interest Section in Havana from 2005 to 2008. He's now retired from the Foreign Service. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.