After more than 50 years, the Cuban and American embassies will fly their flags once again.
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According to diplomatic notes exchanged today, formal diplomatic relations between the two countries will be normalized beginning July 20; following that day embassies in both countries will be opened. ABC News recently got an exclusive tour of the rarely-seen building in Washington, D.C, from the expansive entry hall to the Hemingway bar. Here’s a look:
The Cuban Interest Section will soon become the Cuban Embassy after more than 50 years. Earlier this month the Cubans put a flag pole up in preparation for the reopening. They can’t fly a flag on the property, which is technically run by the Swiss, until they are once again an embassy.
“We never had the flagpole in the place where it is now, because it was on the top of the house,” Ambassador Jose Cabanas told ABC News. “And it's the first time ever, we had the flag pole outside, and the meaning is different. ... We're finally recognizing each other as states, as sovereign countries. And for anyone, any citizen in the world, the use of his own flag is very important and meaningful.”
Walking into the Cuba Interest Section, which was built in 1917, a grand marble staircase greets you. Office space lines the open floor, with ornate shields above the doors for the six original provinces of Cuba.
When relations broke off in 1961, Czechoslovakia came in to care and protect the building.
Above the stairs is a stained-glassed window.
President Fidel Castro visited the building April 1959. “We have a picture of him, by the side of the stair, and at the time, he visited the National Press Club,” Cabanas said. “He had a couple of presentations in Washington, D.C. He paid respect to President Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial."
The formal sitting room, or the “blue room” as they refer to it, on the second floor is often used for meetings with other diplomats, scholars and business people. “A lot of business men these days,” Cabanas said.
The building was built as a house for the family of the head of the mission at the time, so every room includes a fireplace. Many of them still original.
The Cuban Interest Section already has the flag it will fly once it is declared an embassy.
“It's three meters,” Cabanas said. “We have very tough rules on our use the flag. ... In our case, we raise the flag every day and we take it down every day. ... If it's raining or it's snowing, you have to take it down and take care of it and protect it.”
The grand ballroom is often used for parties and functions; Cuban art adorns the walls. The entire room has been recently refurbished, including the wood floors. Cabanas pointed out the renovations began before any changes or movement in restoring diplomatic relations began.
“More than four years ago, and it was part of our normal renovation of our facilities,” he said. “I mean, we own the place, the house and the land, as we do in all places in the world.”
Inside the Embassy they have a bar called the “Hemingway bar” as a tribute to American writer Earnest Hemingway.
“We believe he's part of our cultural history. Here you have original pictures of the Hemingway tournament, the fishing tournament in Cuba. He met our president, our leader Fidel Castro, back in the '60s. They had a true, a very good friendship, I would say,” Cabanas said.