Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were frozen in time for more than 50 years. After the U.S. formally severed ties on January 3, 1961, the two countries were not technically represented by embassies but rather Interests Sections, both under the diplomatic aegis of the Swiss Embassy. Relations were restored on July 20, 2015. From 2002-2005, James Cason served as the Principal Officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (the de facto U.S. ambassador). Cason saw himself not “at a mission,” but rather, “on a mission” to promote democratic principles and support the people of Cuba. As the key representative of the “Yankee Imperialists,” Cason inevitably faced enormous backlash and pressures from the Cuban government. Cason, now the mayor of Coral Gables, Florida, was able to fight back with toughness and a sense of humor. In these excerpts, he discusses working as a U.S. diplomat in Cuba, how he championed the plight of 75 imprisoned dissidents through an imaginative use of Christmas displays and how he was immortalized in propaganda cartoons as “Corporal Cason.” He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in November 2009.
“Our relations were hostile to say the least”
CASON: [I] had a year to study up on Cuba. I started reading anything I could get my hands on to be prepared. I arrived on September 10th, 2002, and stayed until September 10, 2005. The interesting thing is that I was never really given any marching orders. Otto [Reich, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department] simply said one day over lunch, “You’re not at a mission, you’ll be on a mission. Your mission is to tell the Cubans about the world and support them morally and logistically.” He left it up to me to decide what to do.
It was exciting but I knew it was not going to be a pleasant experience…. First of all, my impression was that this was going to be a very tough job because we don’t have relations with Cuba. Our relations were hostile to say the least. Cuba is one of the few countries where we have a presence but no relations. It was called the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy. We had more employees than any other embassy in Havana. So I knew I was getting into a very difficult environment but the assignment was an important one for the Bush Administration.
I started talking to the Cuba desk and getting everything I could read, all the background materials, books on Cuba, policy papers, studies. I did a lot of research. And I thought I was quite well prepared when I went…..I moved out of my house and packed everything up and the Cubans wouldn’t give me a visa. I waited 50 days and still no word. I was getting very antsy because somebody else had come into replace me in PPC [Office of Policy Planning and Coordination in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs] and I had moved out of my house. What was I going to do if I didn’t get a visa? So I talked with Otto Reich who was the Assistant Secretary at the time. “Look, you know, my Cuban equivalent, the head of their Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy in Washington, is in Havana on consultations.” I said, “Look, why don’t we tell him that he can’t come back to the United States unless I get my visa.” And I got my visa the next day. I learned how to deal with Cubans from that incident. I flew to Miami and got on the charter flight and landed in Havana, where I was met by my Deputy and taken to the Interests Section right away….
Q: What was our Interests Section like there?
Well, by agreement with the Cubans we had a limit of 51 Americans. We had three hundred Cuban employees, all of whom were rented to us by the Cuban Government. The GOC [Government of Cuba] only allowed trusted people to work for us. They had to be ideologically sound and good revolutionaries to get a lucrative job with a foreign government. Foreigners were not allowed to hire anyone except those offered by CUBALSE—Cuba at the Service of Foreigners. Cooks, clerks and drivers were rented to us. All of them had to report to the Cuban government on what we did. The telephone operators, security guards and alarm technicians were Cuban agents. You get the picture. We had no privacy. The GOC and our employees kept constant watch on all we did and said. They tried to recruit us if they found a vulnerability to exploit. They had bugs in all our offices and homes and cars.
We never allowed any Cuban to venture higher than the third floor. The top three floors held our classified facilities. We worked out of a six-story building on the Malecon. Every 10 feet outside our perimeter fence stood a Cuban armed guard to keep people from jumping the fence and to keep an eye on who was coming in and checking everybody’s papers. We were right on the water in front of the revolutionary park.
There were frequent anti-American demonstrations along the Malecon. While I was there we had four or five marches of two to four million people coming by, bused and trucked in by the Cuban government to protest one thing or another. These rallies kept their minds off their own miserable reality. We were limited in the number of TDYs [people on temporary duty] that we could bring in. They wanted to make it as difficult for us to function as possible, but never threatened me, at any rate. They did threaten and harass some of our other employees.
Negotiating the Migration Accords
Well, obviously migration, illegal massive migration like the Mariel exodus. We had negotiated the Migration Accords to handle rafters in a way that satisfied both countries’ interests. We discussed problems every six months. These talks were never particularly fruitful, but we were obligated to hold them while granting at least 20,000 immigrant visas a year of various types. We had to intercept Cubans on the ocean, bring them back, and make sure that they were not harassed or discriminated against for having attempted to leave. In return the GOC agreed not to permit people to leave by sea. I could meet the Coast Guard cutters bringing back intercepted refugees under the Accords, and did so often. Enforcing the Migration Accords was the formal, ostensible reason for our presence there.
But the other major reason was to work with them on common border issues like third-country illegal immigration, drug trafficking, hurricanes, weather plane over-flights and other related issues. And politically it was to report on what was going on and, most importantly, to work with the dissidents, the opposition who were growing in strength and were all over the island fighting for the future of their country. So that’s basically what we did other than the normal housekeeping operations common to any diplomatic post.
Q: Did the Swiss play any role?
No. They’re our protecting power, just as they are for the Cubans in Washington. While I was friends with the Swiss ambassador, they played no role whatsoever. Under the Accords we were not allowed to fly the American flag or have our symbol on the building, our cars or on our letterhead. That’s why it’s called the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy — a fiction really.
Q: Did we freeze the Cubans back in Washington?
Yes. We had a travel agreement with the Cubans. We could not leave the city of Havana without giving them advance notion, and they couldn’t leave Washington without advance notice. If they didn’t hear from us in three days – or if we didn’t hear from them in three days — we could travel by giving them the route, where we planned to go. I traveled about 7,000 miles in the first three months under these rules. Then just before Christmas 2002 I tried to visit Varadero with my son. We had received no negative reply. But as I approached the city limits a Foreign Ministry official phoned that I could not leave Havana. I turned around and went home. They never let us travel outside Havana again except on consular trips to visit U.S. prisoners. They felt I was too subversive, as I used my trip to visit dissidents and give them books, shortwave radios and humanitarian aid.
The playing field was never level. I couldn’t meet anybody in their legislature or in their courts or talk to professors or their journalists. Yet in Washington they could go up and lobby Congress, visit universities and get their articles published. So it was not a level playing field. They had a much freer range under our democratic system than we did in a totalitarian country….
Washington was too timid in enforcing reciprocity. They didn’t want to bother. We had a system during the Cold War that made the communist diplomats get all their support via the State Department. That had been dismantled and our bureaucrats didn’t want to go to the trouble of reestablishing it. For example, the Cubans had cards that exempted them from taxes. We didn’t. They could choose where to live. CUBALSE showed us only certain homes and told us what we had to pay. The Cubans could get services at will whereas we had a strict limit on how many technicians could come to Havana to fix elevators, copy machines, etc. The Cubans used their offices in DC to issue visas to tourists and make a lot of money for the government, and as a base for their extensive spying networks. They had very large spy networks running out of there and from their UN offices in New York.
They were eager to keep their Interests Section open. I told [Ministry of Foreign Affairs official] Dausa that if they ever crossed the line in harassing us, or if they PNG’ed [declared persona non grata and expelled from the country] any of our officers for their support of dissidents, that they would suffer the consequences in terms of their operation in Washington. That threat gave me a lot of freedom to operate. If their conduct towards us ever got really egregious, we would throw out their spies. And we did that after discovery of the Ana Montes spy operation. She was the head of the Cuba desk at the Defense Intelligence Agency and had been a long time Cuban agent. Right before our invasion of Iraq the FBI arrested her and disrupted her operations. She was trying to get information on what was going to happen in Iraq and elsewhere, our plans for invasion. We booted out quite a few Cuban intelligence agents in reprisal but they didn’t expel any of our officials in retaliation.
Remembering the 75 Dissidents and the War on Christmas
Q: Did you smuggle in a Statue of Liberty for the 4th of July?
Yes. The purpose was to get the international press to report on the atrocious human rights situation and the plight of the 75 arrested dissidents. I had the number 75 placed in neon light in the flame of the Statue, which was 30 feet tall and had some 500 lights on it. There were dozens of newspapers with correspondents in Havana, all waiting for the day when the Castros died so they could be there for the story. They were very restricted on what they could cover. They had to be very careful on what they reported on otherwise they wouldn’t get their visas renewed. I would ask “Well, how come you aren’t reporting on these terrible human rights conditions here and the thousands of people in prison, some of whom are mere skeletons. Why aren’t you guys reporting on this?” And they inevitably replied “because it’s old news. Our editors won’t write anything about it unless there’s something new.” They said, “You need to give us a hook if you want us to report.”
I said, “OK. What I will do is look for audio/visual things that will highlight the risk and the heroism of these dissidents.” And so after the crackdown on the 75 I used the symbol 75 for just about everything. For example, under the Migration Accords we were supposed to produce 20,000 visas a year. That was always difficult, but I always added 75 more visas to the total. I informed the GOC that we had fulfilled the Accords, and had granted 20,075 visas. The extra 75 symbolized that the prisoners should be free too….
Christmas was not celebrated in Cuba, it was discouraged. You couldn’t buy anything for Christmas. I bought 5,000 meters of rope lights and turned the whole USINT building into a giant Christmas decoration. A donor provided 30-foot Santa and snowman. I got outside funds for a Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer for the side of our building pulling a sleigh. We filled the grounds with giant candy canes, bells and other Christmas ornaments, and put in a manger and menorah to boot. It was very colorful, bright and beautiful and could be seen for a mile away. People started coming from all over Havana to look at it, whispering to their kids that this was what it was like before the revolution. And in the midst of it all I put a giant 75, which really pissed off the Cuban government.
“Take it down” they demanded. I told Dausa that “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He couldn’t bring himself to specify what the GOC wanted taken down. He never mentioned the 75. Playing with them, I said, “Which of these Christmas decorations don’t you like?” He said, “You know.” And I said, “I don’t.” And I did, obviously….The Foreign Ministry kept calling me back every other day, “You got to take it down or you’ll be sorry.” I retorted “Well, throw me out, but I’m not taking down anything. And in fact, I’m going to keep it up even longer now.” And they would not say “The 75 bothers us.” After several such sessions I said, “I know what it is. You want me to defenestrate Santa Claus” and I’d never take Santa out of Christmas. I called a press conference and said the GOC threatened to throw me out of the country if I didn’t defenestrate Santa Claus, which I was not about to do.…
Next the Cubans put up enormous loud speakers in front of USINT and put up a 100-foot high banner on an adjacent apartment house that depicted me as Santa, on a sleigh pulled by 12 Marines, dropping bombs on Iraqi kids. They played the same song at a thousand decimals, from eight to nine [in the morning], 12 to one, and four to five [in the afternoon]. Our windows shook, but so did those in the populous neighborhood. We did not protest. I told staff to tell their spouses by phone that they loved the music and to go buy the record. After several days, the neighbors protested and the GOC desisted. We won….
Corporal Cason and the Attack Cartoons
The Cubans, as time went on, decided to give me the rank of corporal. Every year the GOC held country-wide exercises where the people and the army prepared for an American invasion. The international press would call and ask for my opinion. I said “This is ridiculous. Our policy is one that calls for a rapid, peaceful change to a more democratic and free Cuba. We don’t advocate or support the overthrow of the regime. We hope it falls, but that depends on the Cuban people, not us. We will never support the revolution or take steps to prolong its life. And we’re not about to invade.”
And then Fidel started attacking me personally; it became an obsession. In a radio address he said General Powell said the U.S. had no plans to invade “for the moment,” therefore how can we believe a “mere corporal” like Cason. So from that moment on I became Corporal Cason. I’m probably the only diplomat in the history of the world where the host government ran attack cartoons on TV against him. The Cuban propagandists produced a series of nine cartoons, animated cartoons, ridiculing me that they aired for almost three years. I think they’re still shown. You can find them on YouTube.
The series is called “Cosas y Casos del Cabo Cason.” It means “Things and Events about Corporal Cason.” The nine cartoons appeared on television every night and on the baseball outfield screens between innings. I’m seen flanked by two Cuban worms (slang for exiles) talking about democracy and human rights. The purpose of the cartoons was to tell Cubans that they should fear change. They should support a transition rather than a succession after Fidel goes otherwise terrible things will happen to them. The American views of democracy, human rights, housing and social security, and so on will make life worse for you. The cartoons deal with housing, education, human rights, elections, etc. I am the evil character in the film. The U.S. tries to impose its will on the Cubans who react, beat me up and then I’m converted into a rat that scurries back into USINT pursued by an enraged Cuban mob.
I adopted the corporal as my symbol. The Cubans can’t stand humor and I refused to be cowed by the cartoons. I told people I liked them, they were funny. I began going to all the national day parties with corporal stripes on my guayabera shirt and put my cartoon persona on a flag which I flew on the front of my car to show that it didn’t bother. I’d turn the cartoons against them. People would wave and give the thumbs up when my car passed. Soon everyone was talking about the Cabo. The Center for a Free Cuba sent me 2000 Cabo Cason dolls. If you pushed my belly button I would say, “Cachan, Cachan, días mejores pronto vendran.” [Cachan, Cachan, better days will come soon] We gave these out to dissidents and they were sent all over the island. I was trying to say nothing you Cubans do or say against USINT personnel is going to stop us from doing what we think is right and that is supportive of a people who don’t have a say in their own future.