POLITICS

After 54 years of cold animosity, Stars and Stripes flies again in Havana

In a historic speech outside the newly opened United States embassy in Cuba, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised leaders from both countries for resolving decades of deep-seeded animosity and restoring relations between Havana and Washington.

Speaking in front of Havana’s famed Malecón esplanade, Kerry heaped praise on both President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro for their work in helping restore relations, but also warned that U.S. leaders would still push Cuba on its hazy human rights record and help it become a more democratic society.

“The goal of all these changes is to help Cubans connect to the world and improve their lives,” Kerry said.

The U.S. top diplomat – who became the first secretary of state to visit the island since 1945 – spoke about all the changes that have occurred in the world since the U.S. and Cuba severed ties in the early 1960s. He spoke of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transitions to democracy throughout the former Soviet states in Eastern Europe and the improvement of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam.

“All that time – the reconciliation and the normalization – and Cuban-American relations remained locked in the past,” Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said.

Kerry's visit was heavily criticized by those who say the Obama administration acquiesced to a regime that has no respect for human rights. 

“The accommodation of the Castro regime comes at the expense of the freedom and democracy that all Cubans deserve, but Secretary Kerry’s visit is especially insulting for Cuba’s dissidents," said GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. "That courageous Cubans whose only crime is to speak out for freedom and democracy will be kept away from the official ceremony opening the U.S. Embassy is yet another concession to the Castros." 

Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, another GOP presidential contender, said the U.S. is now friendly with a nation that has long been hostile to its own people.

“In Cuba, we face proudly anti-American leaders who continue to work with nations like Russia and China to spy on our people and government,” Rubio said, “who harbor fugitives from American justice; and who stand in opposition to nearly every value our nation holds dear by violating the basic human rights of their own people, preventing democratic elections, and depriving their nation’s economy of freedom and opportunity.”

 In his speech, Kerry also acknowledged that the strong-arm policy that the U.S. has held toward Cuba in the past was misguided and needed to be changed. He added that Cubans need to chart their own path and not be influenced by American foreign policy.

“U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future is forged,” he said. “Cuba’s future is for Cuba to shape.”

While the U.S. and Cuba have normalized relations, the 53-year old embargo placed on the island nation is still in place.

Kerry said that the Obama administration would like to have the embargo lifted, but lawmakers in Congress must vote to repeal it.

Obama has said he would be moving to empower the Cuban people by loosening the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba through a series of executive actions that make it easier for American citizens to travel to the island and trade with its growing class of private business owners.

Havana has repeatedly demanded a complete lifting of the embargo. The Cuban government has not responded to Obama's actions with measures that would allow ordinary Cubans to benefit from them, such as allowing low-cost imports and exports by Cuban entrepreneurs looking to do business with the U.S.

“This is a step we strongly favor,” he added.

The secretary of state, however, did not fail to address some of Washington’s long-running qualms with the Castro regime, including its suppression of free speech, lack of democratic elections and allegations of widespread human rights’ abuses.

Cuban dissidents were not invited to the embassy ceremony, avoiding tensions with Cuban officials who typically boycott events attended by the country's political opposition. The State Department said it had limited space at what it called a government-to-government event, and invited dissidents to a separate afternoon flag-raising at the home of the embassy's chief of mission.

“We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas (and) practice their faith,” Kerry said.

Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, who read a poem at Obama's second inauguration, presented a new work, “Matters of the Sea,” before three Marines who lowered the flag at the embassy's closing in 1961 return to raise the Stars and Stripes again.

High-ranking Cuban officials, U.S. business executives and Cuban-Americans who pushed for warming with Cuba gathered inside the former U.S. Interests Section, newly emblazoned with the letters "Embassy of the United States of America."

Among those gathering in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana were the drivers of three 1950s-era Chevrolets parked outside the building, which Kerry jokingly referred to as his “future transportation.”

Julio Alvarez, head of the custom cab company that operates them, said the State Department had invited him to send them without saying why, but he hoped that Kerry will take a ride in one.

Soon after Kerry heads home Friday evening, the Cuban and U.S. diplomats who negotiated the embassy reopening will launch full-time into the next phase of detente: expanding economic ties between the two nations with measures like re-establishing direct flights and mail service.

The Americans also want to resolve billions of dollars in half-century-old American claims over property confiscated after the Cuban revolution. Cuba has its own claims, as noted in a newspaper column by Fidel Castro on Thursday saying the U.S. owes the island "numerous millions of dollars" for damages caused by the embargo.

"We have diplomatic relations; now we can get to the real work," said Wayne Smith, a retired U.S. diplomat who witnessed the closing of the U.S. Embassy in 1961, served in Cuba under President Jimmy Carter and returned this week to attend Friday's ceremony.

Includes reporting by The Associated Press.

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