The American flag was raised over the newly inaugurated U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first in more than half a century Friday, as relations between the Cold War-foes continue to thaw.
As the banner was run up the flagpole by U.S. Marines, the crowd on the embassy grounds let out a cheer.
“We are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors,” Secretary of State John Kerry said shortly before the flag-raising, “time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”
The three Marines who last lowered the flag 54 years ago – Larry Morris, Jim Tracey and Mike East – were present at the event.
The event kicks off a busy trip for Kerry on the island, which will last less than 12 hours. Throughout the day, he is expected to meet with his Cuban and Swiss counterparts, hold two media roundtables, and have conversations with members of Cuban civil society, dissidents and human rights activists.
Even though the United States and Cuba renewed diplomatic relations on July 20 and opened their embassies for business, Friday’s ceremony marks the official opening of the embassy.
Presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco, who was born in Madrid two months after his parents left Cuba and spent his childhood in Miami, read a new poem, “Matters of the Sea (Cosas del Mar),” at the embassy. He said it’s a plea for healing, “getting back to our own humanity, the shared humanity beyond politics” and it’s addressed to people on both sides of the Florida Straits.
“The sea doesn’t matter,” he recited before the flag-raising, “what matter is this: we all belong to the sea between us, all of us.”
Demand for invitations to the history-making event was so brisk that there will also be an afternoon flag-raising and reception at the residence of U.S. Chief of Mission Jeffrey DeLaurentis where Kerry is expected to meet with members of Cuban civil society.
The events required a bit of diplomatic juggling because Cuban government officials likely would not have attended the embassy flag-raising if any dissidents were present. In the eight months since the rapprochement was announced, the Cuban government has continued to routinely round up and detain anti-government protesters for short periods, provoking criticism from the United States.
“The Cubans have no say over invitations to our event,” said a senior U.S. State Department official.
One man not present at the event was Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro. On Thursday, his 89th birthday, he released an open letter saying the island would “never stop fighting for peace for all humanity.” He also said that the United States owed the island “millions” in reparations. But he didn’t mention the embassy opening.
Kerry acknowledged that the historic event might not lead to quick changes for the two long-time foes.
Washington needs to recognize “that U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged,” he said. “Decades of good intentions aside, the policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition here in Cuba. It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have in the short term a transformative impact. After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape.”
Officials said that space was very constrained at the embassy and the flag-raising there “would be “principally a government-to-government event” attended by officials from both governments and members of the U.S. Congress. Kerry was scheduled to meet formally with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez later in the morning at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.
More than double the number of guests attending the embassy event were expected at the afternoon flag-raising on the sprawling grounds of the chief of mission’s mansion in Cubanacan. In addition to Cuban-Americans, U.S. business executives, academics and members of the Havana diplomatic corps, the afternoon event was to include Cuban entrepreneurs, artists and cultural figures, human rights activists and media.
Kerry “is certainly hoping to speak to as many people as possible during a relatively compressed period of time, among them some of the dissidents,” said the State Department official. “He’s very much looking forward to the trip.”
Although the two nations have normalized relations to the point of renewed diplomatic ties, disagreements remain – from U.S. concerns over respect for human rights and payment of claims for property expropriated from U.S. citizens and companies in the early days of the revolution to Cuban demands for an end to the embargo and the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay.
“We have a situation where there is a normalization of diplomatic relations but we don’t have a normalized relationship. It’s unusual, a very unique relationship in foreign policy,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
For the Cuban-American delegation in Congress, any flag-raising in Havana should be all about alternative voices in Cuba and freedom for the Cuban people. Instead of raising the American flag as a symbol of “liberty and democracy,” what the United States is “really doing is raising the white flag of surrender to all the principle of the United States,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart at a Wednesday news conference.
Many leading dissidents were not expected to be on the island during the secretary’s visit.
They planned to be in Puerto Rico for a long-planned Encuentro Nacional Cubano, a three-day gathering that brings together about two dozen Cuban dissidents from the island with members of the diaspora “to see if we can get to an understanding on a path forward,” said Pepe Hernandez, president of the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba.
As do many Cuban-Americans, Cuban dissidents have mixed feelings about the Obama opening, with some supporting it and others feeling it pulls the carpet out from under them. Those attending the Puerto Rico meeting have agreed not to debate such issues, but rather focus on the needs of exiles and Cubans on the island.
“Some people say that Kerry chose Aug. 14 to go to Cuba because most of the dissidents will be off the island for the three-day encounter,” said Hernandez, who planned to be in Puerto Rico. The dates for the dissident event have been known since last spring, he said.
But Hernandez said he expected a very small group of dissidents and activists – perhaps five or six – to meet briefly with Kerry at the chief of mission’s residence. Some dissidents who had been planning to travel to Puerto Rico decided to stay home in hopes they would be invited to the U.S. events, Hernandez said.
“The important thing is not the raising of the flag but sitting down with Kerry,” he said. Just opening the embassy “isn’t going to be a very significant solution to the problems of the Cuban people. The main problem is that the table is already set” and “the interests of the Cuban people aren’t represented.”
Still, he said, “the bottom line is (U.S. engagement with Cuba) is a step forward.”
Blanco said that “through communications things can happen.” Raising the flag is the symbolic “end of the era of silence and stalemate.”
Kerry’s first official meeting in Havana was with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter to thank the Swiss government for watching over U.S. interests in Cuba for so many decades after the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Havana on Jan. 3, 1961, after the 1959 revolution.
From 1961 to 1977, the Swiss Embassy defused many tense moments between the two countries when, as the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs put it, “the Cold War threatened to turn hot.”
Even though Cuba and the United States established interests sections with their own personnel in 1977, the diplomatic missions remained under Swiss protection until July 20.