By George Gedda
Associated Press Writer
Monday, January 1, 2001; 12:05 PM
WASHINGTON -- As President Dwight Eisenhower saw it, Cuban leader Fidel Castro had provoked him once too often.
"There is a limit to what the United States in self-respect can endure. That limit has now been reached," Eisenhower said in breaking diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The date was Jan. 3, 1961,
"Everyone thought that this would be overcome with time," recalls Wayne Smith, then a 28-year old political officer at the embassy.
Smith and a lot of others were wrong. Wednesday is the 40th anniversary of the break, and the two countries are still not close to a resumption of normal relations. Virtually the only item on the official agenda these days is migration. There has not been an exchange of views on political issues in years.
When relations broke off, the United States was going through a presidential transition. Eisenhower was on the way out and John F. Kennedy was in line to replace him in less than three weeks.
Relations with Cuba had been heading downhill for months. Over the summer, Cuba took over, without compensation, American businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In October, the United States imposed stiff economic sanctions against the island. Cuba was cozying up to the Soviet Union.
Triggering the break was a speech by Castro, who contended that the U.S. embassy was a nest of spies and demanded that the staff be reduced from 87 to 11. Eisenhower decided to sever relations the following morning.
Castro biographer Robert E. Quirk wrote that as news of the break spread through Havana, "hundreds of Cubans gathered around entrances to the embassy, still hoping for visas. Some, waving their passports and appointment slips, pounded frantically on the glass doors. It was too late."
Any hopes for an early accommodation were dashed just over 100 days later when the U.S.-backed effort to topple Castro with an invasion at the Bay of Pigs ended in disaster.
Smith, now 68, said tensions were so high during the months preceding the break in relations that family members of U.S. diplomats had long since been evacuated.
"All the furniture had been shipped back to the states. Everyone in the embassy was down to two suitcases," Smith recalled.
On Jan. 4, a car ferry with the American team on board set sail for south Florida. As the vessel began the crossing, Smith looked back and saw the embassy lights blinking. He assumed that this was a good-bye signal from a Cuban attendant at the embassy.
Smith, who always has felt a strong kinship with Cubans, said that when political conditions permitted a resumption of U.S.-Cuban contacts, he wanted to be part of the first group back in. He got his wish in April 1977 when the Carter administration sent a delegation of diplomats to Cuba for talks. Smith confirmed with the attendants that the blinking lights were indeed meant to say "adios."
The embassy, located a few yards from a seaside roadway, reopened for business on September 1, 1977, not as an embassy per se but as an "interests section," a status which implies that diplomatic ties are not fully established.
Simultaneously, Cubans diplomats regained possession of their embassy on 16th St., in Washington, about two miles north of the White House. Smith served as chief of the U.S. mission in Havana from 1979-82.
Little has changed since the interests sections opened.
Smith, who favors normal ties with Cuba and is a frequent visitor to the island, says Castro in the early days of the revolution "wanted to free Cuba of U.S. economic domination. He wanted to be a new Jose Marti and a new Simon Bolivar rolled into one.
"In carrying out those objectives, he was inevitably going to clash with the U.S. Neither government was really interested in an accommodation or of finding a middle way."
Smith said Philip Bonsal, the last U.S. ambassador to Cuba, often said early animosity was inevitable. But Bonsal was hopeful that "at some point we can get down to a reasoned dialogue." It still hasn't happened.
Dennis Hays, a former State Department Cuba hand who is now a leader of the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation, opposes an accommodation with Castro.
Castro, he says, "continues to imprison, torture, exile and kill anyone who speaks up for freedom or human dignity ... Our policy should stand."
On the Net:
State Department: http://www.state.gov/www/regions/wha/index.html
Library of Congress country notes: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/csquery.html