Former US diplomat Wayne Smith speaks during an interview in his office at at the Center for International Policy on July 2, 2015 in Washington, DC
Washington (AFP) - 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.
Smith has had a front row seat as Cuban-American relations have evolved and now head for restoration, with the opening of embassies later this month 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.
"As we cleared the headland, we could look and we could see our embassy on the waterfront, and the lights were blinking on and off," Smith told AFP in an interview.
"I thought 'that must be our employees saying farewell'. And it was!"
Smith welcomes the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, and said the US embargo that Washington has enforced against Cuba for more than 50 years -- aimed at forcing the regime's collapse -- backfired, if anything.
"We followed this policy, year after year, God almighty, that didn't isolate Cuba -- it isolated us," Smith said, noting that as of last year, the United States was the only country in the hemisphere that did not have diplomatic relations with Cuba.
"Every year the embargo was condemned at the UN, it was ridiculous," he said. "It was a great relief that Obama began to change the policy."
Smith -- a tall man who fought in the Korean War and now sports an elegant white beard -- says US policy toward Cuba lasted so long because of the "incredible belief" that American power could achieve anything.
"The idea that, by maintaining the embargo and a hostile policy and refusing to negotiate anything, we were going to bring down the Castro government, was absurd," Smith said in his office, crammed with books and papers, at a Washington think tank called the Center for International Policy.
"It was a delusion, if you will, on the part of the US and American leaders. To me it became increasingly embarrassing that leaders could so mislead themselves," he added.
- Missed opportunities -
After the US embassy in Havana closed, the countries had chances to re-engage but they never came to fruition.
"I think that we could have reopened a dialogue and a relationship with Cuba had Kennedy not been assassinated, as early as that. But with Kennedy's assassination, that ended," said Smith, referring to John F. Kennedy's death in 1963.
In 1977, the United States and Cuba established Interests Sections in each other's capital, and Smith returned to Cuba. Two years later, he was named head of mission, a sort of ambassadorship without the title.
Jimmy Carter was president then and wanted dialogue with Cuba, Smith said, adding this was the reason he took the job.
But then-national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wanted nothing of that and "torpedoed any effort to bring one about," he said.
Next came the conservative Ronald Reagan as president -- "and then for sure we would not have any dialogue" -- so Smith left the US diplomatic service in 1982.
Smith said it might take the United States a couple of years to lift the trade embargo and some "astute maneuvering" but is optimistic that "we can achieve it."
- Lights on the horizon -
All these years later, Smith has vivid memories of that day the embassy closed and he and his colleagues left for Florida.
As a diplomat, he said, the closure of the embassy was a huge disappointment -- a failure, even.
In his cluttered office, Smith's photos include one of him and his wife in 1958 in a famed Havana watering hole called the Bodeguita del Medio, and one of him with Fidel Castro when Smith resigned from the Foreign Service.
Now, he is excited about the prospect of embassies re-opening, later this month, and hopes to be at the ceremony in Havana.
Looking back, when he returned to Cuba in 1977 and met one of those old local employees, he asked about the lights in the embassy blinking on and off.
"'Were you saying goodbye to us?' And one of them said 'Yes, you did see it, then.' It was very moving," Smith said.