The last American in Cuba

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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)
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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.



See vintage photos of Cuba:
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The last American in Cuba
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's speech in La Habana. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)
(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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