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Former Cuba Diplomat Feels Joy, Relief As Havana Embassy Reopens

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JAMES HAGERTY: There is a limit to what the United States, in self-respect, can endure. That limit has now been reached. Our friendship for the Cuban people is not affected. It is my hope and my conviction that in the not-too-distant future, it will be possible for the historic friendship between us once again to find reflection in normal relations of every sort.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty. He was announcing America's decision to sever diplomatic ties with Cuba. Tomorrow, after a half-century of contentious relations, Cuba and the United States will reopen embassies in their respective capital cities. We're now going to hear from a man who has had a front-seat view on U.S.-Cuban relations. Wayne Smith was a junior diplomat with the State Department in Cuba when the American Embassy was shut in 1961. He later returned as the chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. I asked him, when the embassy was first closed, did he think the standoff would endure for decades?

WAYNE SMITH: I thought - and I think most of us thought - that it would only last a couple of years, and then we'd be back. Well, (laughter) we're certainly wrong on that. Fifty-four years, good heavens. The thing was, we thought - not that I did - but the United States, I think, thought that Castro would fall very quickly. I mean, how could he stand up against the might (laughter) and the determination of the United States? But he did. Now, on the other hand, as Castro came in, his idea was to turn the Andes into the Sierra Maestra of Latin America. In other words, that the other countries of Latin America would follow his example. Well, that didn't work either. So (laughter) neither their plan nor ours worked.

MARTIN: As someone who's been watching this relationship for such a long time, as someone who has been hoping that ties would strengthen, what was your reaction when President Obama announced that the U.S. Embassy would reopen in Havana?

SMITH: Great happiness and relief. I say relief because, look; I had watched us do the same thing, year after year after year - a policy that gained us absolutely nothing. On the contrary, it was counterproductive. And we were criticized every year in the U.N. General Assembly for our embargo against Cuba, so it became an embarrassment.

MARTIN: There are, as you know, plenty of critics in this country who say that if you lift the embargo, if you normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, then the United States is relinquishing its leverage over the Castro regime when it comes to pushing the government to improve its human rights record, to open up the country to democratic reforms.

SMITH: Well, (laughter) we aren't going to lift the embargo. That's simply answered. The president cannot lift the embargo simply with a stroke of his pen. And that...

MARTIN: And you think that's unlikely to happen?

SMITH: No, he can't lift the embargo. That's up to the Congress.

MARTIN: But do you think...

SMITH: And I can't - I...

MARTIN: Congress is unlikely to lift the...

SMITH: No, of course not. I look at the Congress; I can't imagine that they would - not at this point. However, let me say this. While we're not going to lift the embargo and we're not going to give back - certainly not immediately - the Guantanamo Naval Base and several other steps that would be required before we could have really normal relations, it's much better to be talking to one another and to indicate your willingness to move forward.

MARTIN: How do you think back on your time in Cuba?

SMITH: I think back on it, now that we're moving in the right direction, with some satisfaction because I did keep at it all those years. I thought the old policy was absolutely wrong, and it was. We needed to change, and now we have. And we're now moving in the right direction, although there's a long way to go. And we can't simply lift the embargo. We have to see more movement on the part of the Cubans before we do that. And Congress has to agree to it - (laughter) that's another hindrance.

MARTIN: Wayne Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He was chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982. Mr. Smith, thank you so much for talking with us.

SMITH: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.