Bryan Bender, Boston Globe, email@example.com
HAVANA — The imposing, seven-story structure with darkened windows sits just across from the Malecon, or sea wall, central Havana’s communal hangout. It is unadorned, flying no flags, offering few signs that germinating inside are seeds of a better relationship between official enemies.
The United States cut off relations and imposed a trade embargo with communist Cuba more than half a century ago. But at the so-called US Interests Section in Havana, 50 US diplomats and 300 locally hired Cubans are quietly working on a range of common challenges.
The two governments are cooperating to combat human trafficking, improve airline security, and conduct search and rescue operations. They are working on joint efforts to improve public health and guard against environmental degradation. And “working-level” discussions are under way to do more, officials say.
The Drug Enforcement Agency could soon be sending agents to work with Cuban counterparts to track South American cartels, and the United States has proposed reestablishing direct mail delivery between the countries.
The behind-the-scenes work continues despite the recent controversy over a covert US effort to provide Cubans access to a Twitter-like social network.
Another thorny disagreement is over the fate of Alan Gross, a US State Department contractor who has been jailed in Cuba for four years, accused of being a spy. Cuban officials insist they want something in return; namely, three Cubans convicted in the United States on charges that they were intelligence agents.
“There is a big over-arching political cleft. But we are doing a number of things that have been politically blessed by both sides,” said a senior US diplomat who works at the diplomatic post.
The diplomat — who requested anonymity to speak, in compliance with State Department rules — expressed frustration that interaction between the two governments at higher levels is still officially prohibited.
The Obama administration, under pressure from politically powerful Cuban-Americans in South Florida and their supporters in Congress, insists that relations can be restored only when Cubans win “fundamental human rights and the ability to freely determine their own political future.”
Cuba’s leaders, meanwhile, decry continuing US efforts to destabilize their one-party system.
But a recent visit to this island just 90 miles from Florida, and interviews with Cuban and American officials, revealed a slow but unmistakable thaw on both sides of the Florida Straits. They are realistic about the snail’s pace of change, while describing pent-up demand for better economic opportunities.
Nowhere is that more evident than at the US Interests Section, housed in the former US Embassy that was completed just before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro, along with his brother Raul, took power.
Read more here: Cuba, US Are Warily, Slowly Improving Relations