FEATURES

OUR MAN IN HAVANA
Michael Eleazar Parmly
Eleazar "Lea," Eleazar "Zar," Eleazar "Ellie," Eleazar, David W., Eleazar, Jehiel, Stephen, Stephen, John, John

Associated Press, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005

New U.S. Envoy Brings
NEW STYLE TO CUBA

By Anita Snow, AP writer

Havana, CUBA -- America's new top diplomat to Havana dislikes comparisons with his predecessor, the tough-talking former U.S. Interests Section chief whom Fidel Castro called a "bully" and who donned a pink robe to mock a Cuban cartoon portraying him as a fairy princess.

But even Castro has mentioned the difference, describing Michael Parmly's diplomatic correspondence as "respectful."

Yet Parmly, who has spent much of his career nurturing human rights and democracy in nations recovering from conflict, says he and predecessor James Cason differ only in style. He said there is no difference at all when it comes to carrying out American policies to promote change in Cuba's communist society. "The U.S. diplomatic corps gives a fair amount of leeway for personal style as long as you're carrying out American policy," Parmly told The Associated Press on Thursday in his first interview with an international news organization since arriving in September.

He and Cason, who was sworn in last week as the new U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, "just have different styles."

U.S. policy toward Cuba includes a 44-year-old trade embargo aimed at forcing a change in Castro's government _ something the Cuban leader says will never happen. American policy also includes a 400-page blueprint for American aid to a post-Castro Cuba, a report communist officials say is a thinly veiled plan for regime change and U.S. occupation of the island.

Parmly, 54, is a career diplomat with 28 years experience in countries that include communist Romania under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu and Bosnia-Herzegovina after the end of a war that killed 260,000 people and drove 1.8 million from their homes. In postwar Afghanistan, he was a key U.S. adviser on presidential elections and oversaw reconstruction in the province of Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold.

Parmly rejected characterizations of his predecessor's style as provocative, saying "what I find provocative is the Cuban regime. On a daily basis it shows contempt for the Cuban people."

During his three years here, Cason undertook a number of bold acts designed to draw attention to Cuba's rights record, including building a replica of a dissident's jail in his backyard. He also riled communist officials a year ago by erecting a Christmas display outside the sea-front American mission that featured the number "75" in lights, referring to the number of activists arrested in a spring 2003 crackdown.

Shortly before the crackdown, Castro blasted Cason's criticisms of his government, calling him a "bully with diplomatic immunity." Before leaving Cuba in September, Cason donned a pink robe to make fun of a Cuban cartoon character, "Cachan," which depicted the American diplomat as a wand-wielding fairy trying to impose a new order on Cubans, who chase him off before he turns into a rat.

Since Parmly's arrival, Castro's only mention of the new envoy was to praise his "respectful" style when the U.S. government offered to send a disaster assessment team after Hurricane Wilma caused massive flooding in Havana in October. The team never came amid disagreement between the two countries over the nature of the proposed trip.

Parmly is decidedly more soft-spoken than his predecessor, and with his silver hair and elegant suits and ties cuts a dapper figure in Cuba's diplomatic corps, where many favor the roomy white cotton dress shirts known as guayaberas. Fluent in Spanish, French and Romanian, and with experience at posts including Paris and Madrid, Parmly moves easily among Havana-based ambassadors during the cocktail parties and dinners that mark diplomatic life here. And quite frequently, Parmly chats with Cubans in his walks and bicycle rides around Havana, at Sunday Mass at the local Roman Catholic church, at concerts and theater performances, at the market.

"I don't like talking points, I like listening points," he said. "We want to reach out to the Cuban people, not so much to carry a message, but to relate to them as human beings."


Update: Michael was awarded the 2008 Thomas Jefferson Award which honors State Department employees who have given exemplary service to American citizens residing abroad.