The last American in Cuba

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Wayne Smith, former top U.S. diplomat to Havana during former President Jimmy Carter's administration, is seen May 2, 2002 in Havana, Cuba during a meeting with the media. Smith hopes that Carter's upcoming visit will result in President Fidel Castro's release of some of the more than 240 political prisoners still held in Cuban prisons. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Former US diplomat Wayne Smith speaks during an interview with Agence France-Presse in his office at the Center for International Policy on July 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The sign behind Smith says 'Hands off Cuba' in Cyrillic. As the US diplomats headed out to sea, their embassy in Havana closed but still visible on the horizon, the lights in its windows flickered. One of the travelers that day in 1961 was Wayne Smith, who would later become head of the US interests section in Cuba and is now looking back on half a century of fitful relations. Indeed, Smith has had a front row seat as Cuban-American relations have evolved and now head for restoration, with the opening of embassies as announced last week by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. Now 83, Smith remembers that day of departure: helping close the embassy on January 3, 1961 after the United States severed relations with Fidel Castro's newly communist Cuba, and embarking on a Florida-bound ferry. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US diplomat Wayne Smith speaks during an interview with Agence France-Presse in his office at at the Center for International Policy on July 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. As the US diplomats headed out to sea, their embassy in Havana closed but still visible on the horizon, the lights in its windows flickered. One of the travelers that day in 1961 was Wayne Smith, who would later become head of the US interests section in Cuba and is now looking back on half a century of fitful relations. Indeed, Smith has had a front row seat as Cuban-American relations have evolved and now head for restoration, with the opening of embassies as announced last week by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. Now 83, Smith remembers that day of departure: helping close the embassy on January 3, 1961 after the United States severed relations with Fidel Castro's newly communist Cuba, and embarking on a Florida-bound ferry. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US diplomat Wayne Smith poses with a photograph of himself and Fidel Castro following an interview with Agence France-Presse in his office at at the Center for International Policy on July 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The sign behind Smith says 'Hands off Cuba' in Cyrillic. As the US diplomats headed out to sea, their embassy in Havana closed but still visible on the horizon, the lights in its windows flickered. One of the travelers that day in 1961 was Wayne Smith, who would later become head of the US interests section in Cuba and is now looking back on half a century of fitful relations. Indeed, Smith has had a front row seat as Cuban-American relations have evolved and now head for restoration, with the opening of embassies as announced last week by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. Now 83, Smith remembers that day of departure: helping close the embassy on January 3, 1961 after the United States severed relations with Fidel Castro's newly communist Cuba, and embarking on a Florida-bound ferry. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Wayne Smith speaks to a group of Cuban-Americans that oppose the U.S. embargo against Cuba Sunday, July 17, 2005, in Miami. Smith, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, and the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, is an opponent of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Cuba scholar Wayne Smith, a North American diplomat who had to leave Cuba shortly before the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, believes that there needs to be a reconciliation between Cuba and the United States, Saturday, March 24, 2001, in Matanzas, Cuba. Smith visited the museum of "Playa Giron" together with participants of the battles. (AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera)
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., right, speaks during a news conference at the Central Park Hotel in Havana, Cuba Monday April 22, 2002, a day after she met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. At left is Wayne Smith, former director of the United States Interests office in Cuba. (AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera)
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By: Brooke Kavit

John Kerry travels to Cuba on Friday, the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to the island nation in decades. In honor of the historic occasion, AOL.com is examining the tense relationship between the U.S. and its communist neighbor.

Wayne Smith, 83, was a young diplomat posted to Havana in 1961 when the U.S. closed its embassy and cut off diplomatic ties with Cuba. Although he happened decades ago, today he speaks of the momentous occasion as if it was yesterday.

SEE ALSO: Cuba's human rights still a hurdle ahead of Kerry's visit

"It was a very emotional day," he explains. The embassy staff was loaded onto a bus, and was being 'guarded' by a very unusual group.

"The Cubans had sent a company of women militia to protect us from the angry mob. Really there was no angry mob, there were lots of people there, but they were just hoping to get visas before we left," says Smith.

Watch below to learn more about the current situation in Cuba:
U.S. Embassy to Reopen in Cuba

As the embassy staff climbed aboard the ferry back to the U.S., an interesting sight caught Smith's eye.

Smith would travel back to Cuba under the Carter administration, and have the chance to reconnect with some of his former local colleagues. He told them he had seen the lights flickering in the embassy as he sailed back to Miami.

"One of them almost burst into tears and said 'Oh, you did see it!'" recalls Smith.

Smith remembers chatting with the other members of the embassy staff as they made their way back to the U.S. They never dreamed it would take decades to restore relations with Cuba.

"We all thought it would take maybe four or five years, we never would've dreamed it would be more than 50," Smith says with a chuckle. "It's absurd that it did take that long."

From 1979 to 1982, Smith would serve as the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. An Interests Section is the equivalent to an embassy in a country where no formal diplomatic relations exist.

"President Carter said he wanted a dialogue with Cuba," says Smith. However, many of Carter's advisors warned him against taking on the issue. The Reagan administration would continue the policy of silence.

Smith left the Foreign Service in 1982 and began teaching, eventually joining the Center for International Policy. He would continue to take delegations to Cuba, and continued to push American officials to open up a dialogue with the country.

Smith found renewed hope for communication between the two nations when President Barack Obama came to office. He feels that it finally became apparent the U.S.'s policy on Cuba was counterproductive.

"We became the isolated ones, all the other countries in the hemisphere established relations and traded with Cuba. We were the only ones left out," stresses Smith.

Smith hopes that Americans will eventually travel freely to Cuba. He was actually on the island on July 1, 2015, the day the president announced the two nations would reestablish a diplomatic relationship. "I went downstairs that day and the streets were crowded with people celebrating," says Smith.

After 54 long years, Smith will be in Cuba again when the U.S. flag is finally hoisted above the embassy where he once worked. He is encouraged by the great strides the U.S. has taken in its relationship with Cuba, but maintains that the embargo must also be lifted.



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The last American in Cuba
New skyscrapers, multi-million dollar hotels and apartment buildings are rising like magic along Havana's famed Malecon Sea Boulevard bordering the Gulf of Mexico, January 23, 1958. This aerial view shows Hotel Nacional de Cuba, one of first modern hotels erected 27 years ago (left, foreground, whitefaced) the new $6,000,000 Hotel Capri, directly behind the Nacional; a string of new ultra modern apartment buildings, to right of Nacional; the US Embassy (first building at right next to the sea); and new $14,000,000 Hotel Riviera (second building, right, at top of photo.) (AP Photo)
A view of the new U.S. Embassy, in Havana, Cuba, with its garden in the foreground, which has been built on the outskirts of Havana on a hill overlooking the sea, is shown April 24, 1942. The two-story stone mansion, which will be occupied by the new American ambassador to Cuba Spruille Braden when he arrives here, was constructed at a cost of $300,000. It has eight master bedrooms, seven master baths, four dressing rooms, great reception, living and dining rooms, besides three kitchens and service pantries, porches, terraces and servants quarters. (AP Photo/La Prensa)
General view of international Casino in Hotel Nacional De Cuba in Havana, October 1, 1958. This is one of the ten big casinos in Cuba whose operations now are in hands of North American gambling interests. (AP Photo)
Patron's of Havana's gambling rooms are divided about evenly between tourists from the United States and Cubans. Gamblers are shown here tbetting at the Roulette Wheel, February 9, 1956. (AP Photo)
CUBA - JANUARY 01: In the 1960's in Cuba, tractors and agricultural machines harvesting the sugar cane. This modern equipment facilitates the mechanization of Cuban agriculture. In spite of a planned economy installed in 1961, Cuba, number one world exporter of sugar, maintained its agricultural priorities from the previous period. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Fidel Castro is pictured at the front during the Bay of Pigs invasion in this 1961 photo. (AP PHOTO)
Among scores of Cubans trying frantically to obtain a U.S. visa before the American embassy closed was this Cuban-American who brought along a framed World War II certificate with his passport in Havana, Jan. 4, 1961. (AP Photo)
A view from the presidential palace to the entrance to Havana Bay, showing segments of the huge crowd of workers and peasants who heard and cheered Fidel Castro in Havana, Oct. 26, 1959. Crowd estimates ran upward to 400,000 with Cuban radio announcers claiming a million. Statue at top center is that of Maximo Gomez. (AP Photo)
View of 23rd St. in Havana, July 15, 1964. (AP Photo)
An exterior view of the Cran-Casino-Nacional Casino is shown in Havana, Cuba in an undated photo.(AP Photo)
A view of the Hotel National from the Gulf of Mexico side is shown in Havana, Cuba on Sept. 27, 1957.(AP Photo/Harold Valentine)
This aerial view shows downtown Havana, Cuba, Jan. 1958. At left is Central Park, bordering the Prado street and at center, right, is Cuba's Capitol Building. (AP Photo)
View of Malecon Drive as seen from the roof of the Nacional Hotel looking toward the heart of the city, Feb. 15, 1946. (AP Photo/Charles Kenneth Lucas)
Stampeded by Fidel Castro's orders for the U.S. embassy to reduce its staff to 12 officials within 48 hours, scores of Cuban nationals flocked to the American diplomatic mission's headquarters in hopes of obtaining a visa. The visa section was closed as the embassy made preparations to cut its staff in Havana, Jan. 3, 1961. This is but a small portion of the crowd around the embassy. (AP Photo)
Fidel Castro's speech in La Habana. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)
General view of Havana shown in September 1968 with this street scene leading to El Capitolio, now a national museum used as a meeting place for visiting foreign dignitaries to Cuba. (AP Photo)
This is the modernistic, $15 million Hotel Riviera, one of the newest in the string of luxury hotels dotting the Malecon Boulevard skyline in Havana, Cuba, Sept. 24, 1958. This is a view of the front entrance of the hotel, built by U.S. interests. The dome-shaped structure at the right is the Riviera's gold-leafed gambling casino. (AP Photo)
(GERMANY OUT) Cuba : Hemingway, Ernest *21.07.1899-02.07.1961+ Writer, USA Winner of the nobel prize for literature 1954 - Hemingway's former house 'Finca Vigia' in San Francisco de Paula near Havana, Cuba, today a museum; exterior view - 1971 - Photographer: ullstein - Kanus (Photo by Kanus/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
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