Ex-diplomat in Havana: “I was never really given any marching orders”

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James Cason

An American diplomat “created a puppet company called ABS Gazebo” and used it as “a cover to smuggle in parts for the enormous electronic ticker” that lit up the former U.S. Interests Section in Havana in 2006.
James Cason told people he “had no more stamina to fight Fidel and instead wanted to setup a gazebo so that he could simply put his feet up and smoke cigars.”
Cason knew he was under surveillance, as the story goes, and wanted Cuban agents to think he needed a gazebo for relaxation. Instead, he wanted parts for the electronic ticker, according to Laura Serejo Genes, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who interviewed Cason for her 2018 thesis.
Serejo Genes writes that she is fascinated by Cason and paints a sympathetic portrait of the former diplomat, who was elected mayor of Coral Gables, Florida, after leaving Havana.
Her thesis is entitled, “Art Salvos: Aesthetics of figurative acts of war between the US and Cuba along Havana’s Malecón.” She says Cason told her he did not provide economic aid to Cuban dissidents and she could not find any evidence to the contrary.
Records show the U.S. government spent at least $39.9 million on democracy-promotion projects targeting Cuba from 2002 to 2005.
I couldn’t find ABS Gazebo in spending records. The electronic billboard could easily be hidden among the $4,480,843 that the Interests Section reported spending. See graphic.

Excerpts of Serejo Genes’ paper are below:

As Michael Parmly, Chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana [USINT] at the time, reveals in a 2014 interview with NPR:

You know, we were interested in communicating with the Cuban people in any and every possible way. Some in Washington had the idea of well, you know, let’s try the Times Square billboard approach.

That third Monday in January, as scheduled, was the national federal holiday of Martin Luther King Day, and, while 51 United States Interest Section [USINT] workers in Havana enjoyed a paid holiday out of the office, the electronic billboard spelled out words from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech of 1963.
The letters did not go unnoticed. Parmly continues:

The night we put up the billboard, Fidel came by. And we heard what he was saying down in the parking lot ’cause the guards told us what he was saying down in the parking lot.

The parking lot didn’t stay a parking lot for long. After visiting the electronic ticker the first night it lit up, Fidel Castro began to stage his retaliation. First, he organized a million-man march; Parmly’s people at the U.S. Interest Section at the time estimate it was 1.4 million. Castro had many bones to pick with the United States, so rather than acknowledge the brilliant provocation, he instead organized a march to protest the United States’ refusal to extradite Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile and former CIA agent convicted in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Led by former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the march was the one of the largest of past decade, lasting seven hours.
As the story goes, just as Fidel, 79-years old at the time, positions himself in front of the building to speak to the masses, “American diplomats couldn’t resist taking advantage of a captive audience and lit up the electronic ticker billboard”

TO THOSE OF YOU WHO WANT TO BE HERE, WE RESPECT YOUR PROTEST. TO THOSE WHO DON’T WANT TO BE HERE, EXCUSE THE BOTHER.

The phrase, coined for this exact moment in history, took a direct jab at Fidel and the fact that it had been rumored that people attended his rallies not out of free-will but due to direct force. It is unconfirmed whether this was the first time the words of the USINT electronic ticker were not a quotation. It is also unclear if the quotes of the USINT electronic ticker were always or ever attributed. Regardless, this moment stands out as one in which the USINT electronic ticker debuted its own disembodied voice, ready not only to “communicate news” but to respond to it in real-time.

The construction taking place in the parking lot turned out to be an installation that Castro would call Monte de las Banderas [Mountain of Flags/Forest of Flags]. On Monday, February 6, 2006, just a mere two weeks after the debut of the electronic ticker, Castro inaugurated his retaliatory solution: 138 flag poles of varying heights, up to 100 feet tall, standing just a few feet from one another, in such close succession as to obstruct the view of the electronic ticker on the fifth floor of the embassy building. It was an analog, flickering wall of flags physically censoring the electronic ticker, powered by the same trade winds that brought the first Imperialists to the New World nearly five centuries prior. Each of the 138 poles originally flew a black flag adorned with a single, large, centered white star. The metal plaque at the base of the Monte states:

This forest of flags serves as a response from the people of Cuba to the clumsy arrogance of the U.S. government: 138 Cuban flags will wave with dignity in front of the eyes of the empire, to remind it, starting today, of every year that the Cuban people have struggled, since our founding fathers gave the cry for independence in 1868. Like then, before the shadow of this great mountain of flags, we continue fighting as free men and women.

The unique flags, which I am led to believe were designed for this specific purpose, are meant to memorialize the 3,478 fallen in terrorist attacks committed by imperial powers against Cuba and to more directly symbolize the 138 years since 1868: 138 years of uninterrupted fighting.
By the time 2005 rolled around, three years into his position in office, Cason had already successfully produced a range of aesthetically powerful, public diplomacy projects of increasing scale and scope. The last one produced under his watch included a 37 foot-tall Statue of Liberty replica in lights to celebrate his last Fourth of July on the Island and in residence in one the most lavish buildings in all of Havana, the 35,000 square foot American ambassador’s residence he called his home. Proving he was capable of thinking big, Cason began a fundraising campaign for an undisclosed project that The Center for a Free Cuba could blindly pitch to its supporters.

I would raise money from the Cuban community. I couldn’t tell them what it was, and they had to send the money to the State Department, no more than $500. I just said, “you’ll like it but I can’t tell you what it is.”

With the help of The Center for a Free Cuba, Cason raised $250,000 in support of his magnum opus, the USINT electronic ticker, and even partnered with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to make it happen.
Michael Parmly, who took over the United States Interest Section in the second half of 2005, was relatively new to Havana when he green-lighted the launch of the electronic ticker on Martin Luther King Day, 2006. He stood behind the initiative saying in a Press Conference held in the American Ambassador’s residence, “the billboard is an effort to dialogue with the Cuban people. Only in totalitarian societies do governments talk and talk at their people and never listen.”
Those exact word uttered by Parmly, and also written in his email to the Miami Herald in the form of a comment (unattributed as a quote), would also eventually scroll across the ticker, joining phrases by Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Frank Zappa and George Orwell. Parmly held his position stoically as a huge construction project took hold of the contested area in front of the United States Interest Section, taking over the entire parking lot in front of the building.
When James Cason, arrived on Cuban soil on September 10, 2002 he was already surrounded by a certain level of controversy. Cason had been preparing for the difficult assignment of Chief of Mission of the United States Interest Section in Cuba for over a year. “Cuba is one of few countries where we have a presence but not relations”, he notes. And with 51 American employees and up to 300 Cuban employees [rented out by the Cuban Government] to oversee, the United States Interest Section, despite not operating as an embassy, had more employees than any other embassy in Havana at the time. The Bush Administration, early in its first term, had a very strong position to put forth, and they saw Cason as the man to do it. Cason was pep-talked to make sure he could broadcast the position and given absolute free reign to do so.

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.

The rocky start began stateside; when Cason’s visa request was held in consideration for 50 days, he decided to begin to play hardball. Per his suggestion, Washington denied entry to his Cuban equivalent, who was in Havana at the time and scheduled to return to work at the Cuban interests section in Washington. “I said, ‘Look, why don’t we tell him that he can’t come back to the United States unless I get my visa.”‘
Cason’s visa arrived the next day. That didn’t ward off rumors; Miami’s Spanish-language talk radios feasted on the gossip that the New Jersey-native would be taking his 24-foot motorboat to Cuba and parking it in the Hemingway Marina. ‘ Before even officially taking office, the State Department officials had to go on record to dispel the rumors orbiting Cason. But Cason fed off the controversy. “Since Cuba made me wait 50 days, I did not call on the Foreign Ministry for 50 days,” he recalls with a sense of satisfaction that he derived from the simple one-to-one retaliation that would come to set the tone for his entire stint. But those 50 days did not go to waste, quite the contrary, from his first day addressing the press from the steps of the USINT, Cason articulated his fervent commitment to supporting Cuban dissidents.

And then I asked our human rights people to invite all the leaders of the Cuban opposition to the residence about a week after I got there. I said “You’re the experts on Cuba, I’m here to learn and I’m here to support you, I can’t give you any money because the Cuban Government would then say you were mercenaries.” They said it any way, but it wasn’t true. I asked them to tell me how best I could support them? I would be willing to help them get information about what was going on in the rest of the world and help them get information out about what they were doing. I would help them communicate. I would give them books. I could give them short way radios and cameras so they could take pictures. “Tell me what it is I can do to help.”

In an article in the Home and Garden Section of the New York Times, published on July 4th, 2002, Ms. Huddleston is described as a career diplomat who, for the third year in a row, gathered 500 selected guests to celebrate Independence Day in her Ambassador’s mansion, where, the “radios is gift bags will be festooned with red, white and blue ribbons” In response to the fact that the Cuban government berated her the year prior, calling her gift-bag tradition a “violation of Cuban sovereignty”, Ms. Huddleston is quoted saying,

Giving a party for 500 is hard enough without Cuban officials trying to spoil the fun.

Ms. Huddleston played with the idea of “using the art of gentle home entertaining to send a political message” but Cason took that three steps further. At his own crafted 4th of July celebration, Cason, hosting a wide range of dissidents, their family members and other national dignitaries, hosted mock-elections.

We came up with everything from growing our own cigars in our residence to making cigars. On the fourth of July we gave them the chance to participate in elections, saying, “If you were in America, who would you vote for among the candidates?” And they would vote! They would go through the electoral process. We made various anillos for the cigars [branding for cigars]…We’d give them the cigars and say these are Freedom Cigars, grown here and you can take them into the US if you can ever get there, because they are not Cuban cigars.

Huddleston, who had been lauded for her competence during the Elian Gonzalez negotiations, managed to maintain ties with both opposition leaders in Cuba as well as Cuban government officials, much to the pleasure of the Clinton administration that appointed her. Cason, with the support of new Latin American Policy team under Bush and the anti-Castro camp that made up a significant portion of the Republican party’s voter base, was not interested in walking this fine line. Instead he began a high-profile campaign to support pro-democratic movements on the Island. At the same time, in Cuban national politics, the rejection of the Varela Project, a dissident-sponsored and supported reform proposal enraged local opposition leaders and led the government to initiate their own internal war on dissidents that took advantage of Cason’s actions as a means of identifying perpetrators. 
After the defeat of the Varela Project Cuban dissidents began organizing events, private meetings to form their position and open events to publicize their views. One of these such events was held by and outspoken dissident, Economist Marta Beatriz Roque in her Havana apartment. Cason not only attended the meeting but did so brazenly, even speaking openly with the Press. The words he said on the record to a reporter present at the event were later repeated by Castro himself during his lengthy address on March 6th to celebrate his reelection to a sixth term as President of Cuba. Castro was not only listening but willing to prove that he was not above doing so.

This past February 24… a gentlemen named James Cason, head of the United States Interest Section in Cuba, met in an apartment in Havana with a group of counterrevolutionaries paid by the U.S. government… ‘ I am not afraid’ [Cason] answered simply in response to a question from another reporter, as to whether his presence at the opposition’s activities could not be taken as an unfriendly gesture toward the Cuban government, which denounces dissidents as subversive 34 groups.

That fated February night Cason had gone even further than the words Castro chose to recite, never imagining he would hear his exact words uttered back at him and to the entire Cuban population by the newly re-elected Castro.

Sadly, the Cuban government is afraid, afraid of freedom of consciousness, afraid of freedom of expression, afraid of human rights. This group is demonstrating that there Cubans who are not afraid. They know that the transition to democracy is already under way. We want them to know that they are not alone, that the whole world supports them. We as a country support democracy, and people who fight for a better life and for justice.

Cason denied all allegations that the Interest Section paid dissidents and actively dismissed Castro’s use of the word “mercenaries”. Cason was always very upfront about the fact that he could not offer any direct funding and intentionally began an robust program to come up with a variety of forms of in-kind support instead. For a while Cason gave every Cuban who was denied a visa to the United States a short-wave radio. In Cason’s own words,

We would say, ‘Sorry we can’t give you a visa but here’s a shortwave radio’. ‘Oh Great!’ they would say. They would back to where they lived in the countryside where they were now able to listen to the world.

To committed independent journalists and writers he would give out digital cameras and fax machines. He even orchestrated an Argentinian journalism professor to conduct courses over the telephone-lines on topics like, “what is evidence?” and the ethics of journalism.
Cason’s bold behavior was strengthened because he was confident that all of Castro’s threats to close the United States Interest Section were empty. The United States had made it very clear than any such demand to shut down the interest section would result in an immediate retaliation by the Americans, with the immediate expulsion all Cuban officials from Washington. Cuba could not risk losing their presence in Washington and Cason initially found solace in this apparent stalemate. While this consoled Cason, what the Castro resorted to instead was far more transgressive and ultimately more disruptive to Cason’s plan than shutting down the Interest Section would be.
March 18, 2003, less than two weeks after Castro’s recitation of Cason’s in his election victory speech, the Cuban government began a sweep of arrests. More than 80 dissidents; independent journalists, economists, librarians, writers, and doctors were arrested and awaited sentencing “for acting against and threatening national security,” said the spokesman, Juan Hernandez Acen.
An official statement released by the Cuban government accused the arrested of conspiring with Cason. Denouncing the “shameful and repeated attitude by the chief of Washington’s diplomatic mission in Havana, James Cason, to foment the internal counterrevolution.” As beautifully recounted by Daniel P. Erikson in his comprehensive book, The Cuba Wars, “Fidel Castro had orchestrated his latest wave of repression with a masterful sense of timing: News from Iraq simply dominated everything else that was happening around the globe. By the time the video of the euphoric Iraqis pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein swept across the world several weeks later, 75 Cubans had been sentenced to prison terms ranging from fifteen to twenty-five years-collectively totaling more than 1400 years in prison.” This 2003 crackdown would come to be known as “Primavera Negra [Black Spring]” and would force Cason to create an entirely new style of “diplomacy” to support dissidents that were now all in the custody of the Cuban government.
Research reveals this very clear link between James Cason and the arrest of the 75 dissidents during the Black Spring of 2003. Conspiring with Cason was clearly listed in the official statement by the Cuban Government as one of the central and common offenses incriminating the dissidents rounded up in the sweep. This statement was even read aloud on state television’s regular evening news program. Although I have found no evidence that Cason did anything more illicit than providing in-kind support for what the Cuban government deemed, “anti-revolutionary activities”, clearly, for Cubans, associating with Cason could be deemed criminal.
I first met James C. Cason at the Liberty Cafe in Coral Gables, the affluent city outside Miami, where he lives and recently served a term as mayor. He picked the spot, citing its convenience, just down the road from his house. In spite of, or thanks to, my nerves, I arrived a few minutes early, only to find Cason taking his first bite out of a bagel stuffed with lox and cream cheese. He wore a polo with an embroidered golfer on the placket, his skin healthily sun kissed. Cason had very casually accepted my request for an interview and had not inquired about why a graduate student in the field of art would have any interest in his foreign service work.
Cason’s predecessor, Huddleston dabbled in “the art of home entertaining” as a means of transmitting her political goals but Cason literally brought the political art home. The same year that the United States Embassy Building in Havana was inaugurated, the MoMA launched an initiative to display contemporary art from its collection in U.S. Embassy residences. Ten years later, JFK officially launched Art in Embassies as its own office within the U.S. State Department. Cason recalls his personal choice of paintings,

I picked five or six, and I have photos of these somewhere, art about people in prison trying to escape. I had a picture of a bird in cage with a string around its leg trying to get out and even if it did it would be pulled back in. Another one had sharks circling a person in the water.

He explained that he wanted works that resonated with the human rights issues that pertain to Cuba.

People really liked it because it recognized that it went along with our theme of supporting dissidents, recognizing that they were prisoners with little chance of escape, so we kept those up.

But the Cason’s curation wasn’t to be limited to the interior walls of the residence. Only two months after the round up the “75” Cason inaugurated his “Monument to the Dissidents of Cuba”. Cason conceived of the project and decided to place it in the garden of residence. He sent his workers out to look for a big monumental stone and personally prepared a statement in Spanish to emblazon on a plaque which he ordered from a fabricator in the states and delivered through the diplomatic pouch. But his authorship didn’t end there.

I put a time-capsule underneath and invited all the dissidents come with a letter to the people of Cuba to be opened on the eve of their free elections, to put something symbolic in it.

In a ceremony orchestrated by Cason: the oldest political prisoner, recently released, blew out a candle, the capsule was filled with dry argon gas argon to ensure its preservation and buried beneath the chosen stone. The plaque states:

Dedicated to all the Cubans who illuminated the darkest nights, fighting and suffering for the restitutions of liberty and democracy in Cuba.

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