When Elián González's father arrived in the United States last week, the press noted that he was staying at the home of Cuba's senior diplomat in the U.S. Many Americans might be surprised to learn that Cuba has any diplomats here, since the two countries broke off formal relations in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro came to power. What are Cuban diplomats doing on American soil? Do we have diplomats there?
While the U.S. and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations, each has an "interest section" in the other's country. An interest section is one nation's informal presence in another; they are often used when two countries have officially broken all formal ties.
Interest sections are usually set up within a third country's diplomatic mission. For instance, in Cuba, the American interest section is officially a part of the embassy of Switzerland. Similarly, the Swiss Embassy in the United States is the official sponsor of the Cuban interest section. (The Swiss have made something of a cottage business out of the practice, hosting interest sections for other countries as well.) The United States has interest sections in a handful of other countries with which it has no diplomatic relationship, including Libya, North Korea, and Iran.
Normally, an interest section has no American diplomats; the employees from the host embassy essentially provide free-lance consular services for Americans in trouble. If you are arrested in Iraq, for example, you will probably be visited in jail by a diplomat from Poland's embassy, which represents the U.S. in that country.
But the U.S.-Cuba relationship is different. In 1977, the two countries agreed to establish interest sections that would host diplomats and perform many diplomatic functions, including visa processing and data collection, that are normally reserved for official relations. In fact, the American interest section operates out of the building that used to be the American Embassy in Havana.
The arrangement allows the two countries to maintain almost routine diplomatic channels without undertaking the politically perilous action of formally reestablishing relations. As is often the case in the world of diplomacy, the greatest substantive difference is one of simple protocol. The head of the U.S. interest section in Cuba is career diplomat Vicki Huddleston, a former ambassador to Madagascar. But Huddleston is not considered the U.S. ambassador to Cuba; she is called the principal officer.