El Enjambre, is a podcast by El Toque about Cuban reality in the Twitter universe. It recently interviewed US diplomat Vicki Huddleston, who spoke about US-Cuba relations, and other related topics.
Huddleston was the Coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs at the Department of State. She was also Chief of the US Interests Section in Havana from 1999-2002. Before retiring, she was also the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
During her years in service, Huddleston received many awards from the US Department of State. These included the Distinguished Honor Award and a Presidential Meritorious Service Award, which was awarded by the US president.
Camilo Condis is a founder and one of the hosts on El Enjambre. He inquired into some of the difficult moments during her time heading up the US Interest Section in Havana. He also asked her opinion about US sanctions and what she thinks about the relationship between the two countries.
The Ambassador of Radios
“I have very fond memories of Cuba and the Cuban people,” the diplomat began. When in Cuba she became known as the Ambassador of Radios. This nickname made her popular across the island, during a time when officials from the US Interest section were giving out visas and traveling to different provinces; unlike today, when there aren’t that many staff and few activities are organized.
“The radios made me very popular,” Huddleston said. She gave people the opportunity to listen to foreign stations, by handing out shortwave radios, with FM and AM.
“Radios in Cuba aren’t shortwave, on the whole; so, you can’t listen to foreign stations. However, people could listen to radio stations from other countries with my radios. Everybody wanted those radios. One day, I gave two to some young women and they asked for two more for their brothers in jail. I remember a woman who started crying when she saw the radio and I asked her why she was crying. ‘I’ll be able to communicate better with my son now,’ she said, apparently he was living outside Cuba.”
Camilo Condis reminded podcast listeners that Cubans were unable to connect to the Internet at the time. Furthermore, the media was all under state control. Radio was the only alternative to getting information outside of official channels.
When asked about Fidel Castro’s reaction to her handing out these radios, Huddleston said: “he used to say that radios only served one purpose, for the Cuban people to listen to Radio Marti. In reality, these devices allowed you to listen to other stations and not just Radio Marti. Although the Cuban government finally blocked this radio station,” she explained.
The diplomat’s Afghan hound
Condis: “Reading about this time, I learned that you had a fallout with the National Association of Afghan Hounds in Cuba, a hunting breed. I found this all to be very surreal. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?
Ambassador Huddleston: “Yes, it’s interesting because Afghan hounds were popular in the US and in Cuba too, back in the ‘50s. They continue to be popular in Cuba, many people have them. They are very beautiful long-haired dogs, and there are owners’ associations in Cuba. This is quite strange in a communist country, but many Cubans like this breed. I met the father of my dog at Havana airport. The owner of this fine specimen had sold me my own hound, who I called Habana. She loved training dogs, which meant that Habana went on to win many an award.
“One time, I received a letter from somebody with the surname Castro, who wasn’t Fidel, telling me I was being kicked out of the Afghan hound club. It was all very funny. I spoke about what happened on different media platforms such as The Washington Post, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), Univision… I spoke about diplomats not being allowed to join a hunting dog association in Cuba. It was a pretext to show what the Cuban system is really like.
“Something I always talk about in interviews is my residence, where US ambassadors before the Revolution also lived. It was very big and very beautiful; yet Cubans weren’t allowed to step foot in this neighborhood at the time. All of the buildings around my house belonged to State Security. With this Afghan hound business and me being kicked out of the association, I was able to show the media just how restrictive the Cuban system was. Fidel wasn’t very happy with this, but I managed to get Habana back into the Afghan hound club. This was a rare victory for me. Anyway, the Government wasn’t happy with me or my dog trainer… things got very hard for her.”
Meetings with Fidel
Condis asked the Ambassador’s about her encounter with Fidel Castro during her time as the Coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs at the Department of State. Huddleston spoke about her visit to Cuba with a US delegation in the early 1990s. The trip was to celebrate Cuba’s compliance with a diplomatic treaty that involved withdrawing 50,000 troops from Angola.
“It was very special and the US government was very satisfied. Fidel Castro invited us and other delegations to a party at Revolution Palace. During the celebration, Fidel saw me, came up to me and asked: “Who are you?” I got really annoyed because it was clear he recognized me, I told him: “I’m the director of Cuban Affairs.” Over 200 delegations were present and listening. He responded: “Oh, I thought I was the director of Cuban Affairs” (laughter).
“We then had quite a long conversation and he was very concerned about the Cuban economy. The Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing and, in addition to this, some US congresspeople and conservative Cuban-Americans wanted to push a new law with further sanctions. I told him: ‘If Cuba holds free elections and shows greater respect for human rights, we could change US policy.’
“However, it really was quite a big blunder on the US’ part. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was no longer a threat to the US. It would have been a good time for the US to change its policy. There wasn’t any reason to carry on with hostile policies or sanctions against Cuba.
“Instead of beginning to open up to Cuba, the US and Cuban-Americans imposed new sanctions again, such as the Cuban Democracy Act, then the Torricelli’s Law, Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, the Helms-Burton… More and more sanctions and Cuba wasn’t a threat.”
Enter Elian Gonzalez
“What were the biggest challenges you faced as a diplomat in Cuba and how did you tackle them?” Condis asked.
Ambassador Huddleston: “The toughest thing was the case of Elian Gonzalez because Fidel Castro and Cuban-Americans turned this into a battle. One which Fidel Castro ultimately won. It was very sad, Elian finally returned because the Law states that a child needs to be with his father. The US government wanted Elian to go back and so did Fidel Castro. Even though it made the US government and people look bad. Even so, Elian didn’t go back until after six months, and there was no way of improving relations after that.
“We had an opening with Clinton, not as great as we did under Obama. However, the Clinton administration didn’t want to do anything more after the whole Elian affair. So, any chance to improve US-Cuba relations disappeared.
The tightened embargo and sanctions
Condis: “You have vast experience when it comes to US-Cuba relations. You have published two books based on your work in Cuba. The first one was published in 2010, with the title “Learning to Salsa: New Steps in U.S.-Cuba Relations.” The second one in 2018, was “Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba”. What do you think about the US embargo and other sanctions against Cuba, which increased under the current administration?”
Ambassador Huddleston: “The book ‘Our Woman in Havana…’ was a labor of love because I love Cuba and its’ people very much. This whole sanction and embargo business is a tragedy because it has failed for 60 years. Sanctions have prevented normal relations with the Cuban people, and the Cuban people are much poorer because of these sanctions.
“If the embargo hadn’t existed, Cuba might have actually changed a lot. The embargo gave the Cuban government the opportunity to say that it has an enemy, the US. US policy towards Cuba isn’t good and it’s more of a domestic policy than a foreign one. It’s because presidential candidates seek out Cuban American votes and the most conservative in society. That’s why they are saying that they will maintain this hostile policy of sanctions against Cuba. It hasn’t brought about the change it was designed to, and it has prevented any chance for reconciliation.”
How to help the Cuban people
Finally, Condis asked the ambassador about possible actions and strategies that the US government could adopt to help regular Cubans.
Ambassador Huddleston: The diplomat believes the US should first return to Obama’s policy. She noted that Cubans were better off financially and had greater opportunities then to open up their own businesses.
“The private sector began to flourish in Cuba and this was very important because it presented new opportunities. People had a greater voice and told the Cuban government what they wanted. Cuba will never be what conservative Cuban Americans want it to be. It will never be a country like the US, with a capitalist system. Cuba will have a mixed system, I imagine, somewhere between capitalism and socialism. However, it should be a system where Cubans determine what they want. Not a system where the highest Cuban authorities or Cuban Americans decide, but instead a system built by every Cuban.
“We should end US sanctions and lift some of the tension between Cuba and the US and promote reconciliation. US sanctions are why there is no future in Cuba, why young people don’t see their future on the island. I believe that it isn’t right or acceptable, which is why we need to change it.”