Today I went to one of the places most shrouded in mystery back north: the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Not only are we talking about Havana—a place that people either think is a 1950s paradise or a modern-day example of inefficiency and dictatorship—we’re talking about the building that represents the interests of a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba. My trip was for routine business, but the experience was far from ordinary.
You don’t need the address of the Interests Section to find out where it is in Vedado. Just head towards Malecón and look for hundreds of flags. Normally they’re black flags to represent people who the Cuban government claims have died either trying to reach the U.S. or at the hands of people who had the support of the U.S. Every once in a while they’re Cuban flags, usually on days of national importance such as when Raúl was elected president. Today there were no flags; I think they were repairing the poles. Looking past the hundreds of flag-less flag poles, you’ll notice a huge stage complete with revolutionary slogans and messages about the Cuban Five.
Now that I could see the multi-story, fortress-like complex, I had to pass through Cuban police to gain access to the sidewalk where the entrance to the Interests Section is. Normally I cross the street wherever I need to, but as soon as I did that the police whistled at me and instructed me to cross at the corner. After crossing the street, I went through my first checkpoint, presenting my U.S. Passport. I waited in line for a few moments until word got out that I was norteamericano and the police let me go ahead to the front of the line to wait to go through security. Again, once they found out I was from the U.S., I was moved to the front of the line at security and ushered in through an unmarked door to go through security once again. Now inside the building, I made it past a waiting area for Cubans seeking visas to come to the U.S. and finally through a locked door marked “U.S. Citizen Services.” Along the way, I stopped to look at the items deemed worthy to be hanging on the wall: a letter from Fidel to FDR and pictures of what seemed like hundreds of Cuban political prisoners and the locations of their jails.
Anyway, I was hardly surprised to find out that I was the only U.S. citizen in the Interests Section so I got my questions answered right away. To my surprise though, the staff (members of the Foreign Service) were incredibly open and hardly suspicious of my presence in Cuba. They were familiar with my program and after I got everything sorted out, we even traded information about where the best burgers could be found in Havana.
Aside from my visit to the Interests Section, the past week had been low-key. Classes were cancelled yesterday afternoon for the Cultural Festival sponsored by the FEU (which was sweet) and next week I’ve got my first round of seminarios—class-wide debates where participation counts for a grade. This weekend I’m planning on going to the beach again and with any luck I’ll finally get my carné tomorrow.