After embassy opening, next chapter in U.S.-Cuba relationship begins

For Secretary of State John Kerry, Monday’s resumption of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba was a day to celebrate but also to begin to repair a relationship that had been broken for more than a half-century.

Just after the red, white and blue Cuban flag was raised over the island’s embassy in Washington as a fluttering symbol of the historic thaw between the Cold War foes, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said it marked the end of the first phase of rapprochement between the two countries.

In the next phase of the new relationship, Rodríguez said, “The challenge is huge because there have never been normal relations between the United States of America and Cuba, in spite of the one and a half century of intensive and enriching links that have existed between both peoples.’’

Kerry said he planned to hoist the stars and stripes over the American embassy in Havana on Aug. 14 and preside over a similar ceremony. The American diplomatic post began operating as a full-fledged embassy Monday, but no American flag will fly until Kerry’s arrival.

Speaking in Spanish during a small portion of an afternoon press conference, Kerry said July 20 was being celebrated “because today we begin to repair what was damaged and to open what has been closed for many years.” The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961.

In ending the old U.S. policy of isolating Cuba, Kerry said, “This milestone does not signify an end to differences that still separate our governments, but it does reflect the reality that the Cold War ended long ago, and that the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement, and that we have begun a process of full normalization that is sure to take time but will also benefit people in both Cuba and the United States.”

During a sit-down between Kerry and Rodríguez that stretched well over the expected 45 minutes, cooperation on law enforcement, counternarcotics, telecommunications, the Internet, environmental issues, human rights and human trafficking were all discussed. So was Venezuela.

Even in those talks, there was a hint that future conversations might not be easy. “There are profound differences between Cuba and the United States with regard to our views about the exercise of human rights by all people all over the world,” Rodríguez said.

In the first meeting of a secretary of state and a Cuban foreign minister in Washington since 1958 — before the Cuban Revolution — they also discussed how the two nations’ relationship had progressed since a Dec. 17 surprise announcement by President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro that the two countries planned to renew diplomatic ties.

Rodríguez called the talks with Kerry “constructive and respectful,” and he thanked Obama for his commitment to lifting the blockade, the Cuban term for the embargo, and using his executive authority to lessen its impact. But he said more needs to be done and that Obama could use his executive powers even more to chip away at the embargo.

For Cuba, the most critical issues that must be addressed in future talks are the embargo, the return of the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo and compensation for human and economic damages caused by U.S. isolation. For the United States, key issues include respect for human and civil rights and claims for confiscated property owned by U.S. citizens.

Monday was an emotional day both in Washington and Miami.

As the Cuban lone-star flag was raised during a Washington heat wave, some 500 Cuban and American guests and members of the diplomatic corps packed inside the sweltering embassy. They gave each other congratulatory hugs, wished each other well, and many put their hands over their hearts as a band played the Cuban and American national anthems.

Both pro- and anti-Cuban protesters gathered outside the gates of the embassy chanting “Fidel” and “Justice” and “Viva Cuba” as the flag was raised about 10:35 EST. Lift-the-embargo demonstrators outnumbered generally more low-key anti-government demonstrators. Most numerous were Code Pink protesters who want an end to the embargo.

Skipper Bailey, of Washington D.C., lifted a bandana that read “Stop the Blockade.”

“The blockade needs to be lifted now, abandoned. It hasn't worked for 50 years,” said Bailey, who has been on humanitarian missions to Cuba with Pastors for Peace delegations.

Near Bailey, Carlos Casanova, 82, a former political prisoner who lives in Germantown, Md., was holding a homemade “Freedom for political prisoners” poster.

He said he was released from a Cuban prison in 1979 after serving 20 years for anti-Castro activities.

“There is oppression today in Cuba. My message is opening this embassy is an error,” he said. “Those people who are trying to do business with Cuba don't care about the Cuban people.”

A man also rushed the embassy gate with sacks of red paint under his shirt. As the bags burst, he yelled, “This is Cuban blood.” Police quickly wrestled him to the ground and took him away.

As for the people protesting the embassy opening, Bailey said, “Their time has passed.”

But that sentiment wasn’t shared as Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, watched Monday morning from Miami as the Cuban flag rose once again in Washington.

In the afternoon, they gathered in Ros-Lehtinen's district office to declare it a “sad” day for Cuban Americans who have fought to keep the island isolated until the Castro regime becomes a democracy. The three stood next to posters brandishing images of bruised and beaten Cuban dissidents and the four men who died when Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in1996.

“There is not enough room in this office to display the faces of the opposition,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

There was also a small protest at the Versailles restaurant, a magnet for Cuban protests, but nowhere near the numbers that might have been expected a generation ago.

Some Cuban-Americans admitted feeling a bit conflicted. “It was a very emotional moment for me. On the one hand, I think opening the embassies is a good thing but I also had these twinges about what would my father have thought,” said lawyer Pedro Freyre.

“Everything that’s happened this whole year, I never thought I’d live to see it,” said Vivian Mannerud, who was among the South Florida guests at the embassy ceremony. “I’m just so used to fighting the battle, fighting the battle,” said Mannerud, a long-time advocate of normalization whose Cuban charter business was firebombed in 2012. There still have been no arrests in the case.

South Florida was well-represented at the event with executives interested in doing business with Cuba under the opening, travel and charter company executives, lawyers and even ex-Hialeah Mayor Raúl Martínez.

There was also symmetry and a closing of the loop at the embassy event.

After the United States broke off relations with Cuba, the island’s affairs in Washington were handled first by the former Czechoslovakia and then by the Swiss Embassy.

But during an opening toward Cuba by the Carter administration in 1977, both countries decided to staff their interests sections. The first Cuban chief of mission, Ramón Sánchez Parodi, greeted his U.S. counterpart, Wayne Smith, the first U.S. mission chief at the interests section in Havana, during the embassy event.

After Smith left his post in 1982, he became a tireless advocate for the normalization process.

“As of July 20, we have diplomatic relations but we still have the embargo and that’s going to be very difficult because it has to go through Congress to be lifted,” Smith said.

The two women who led the normalization talks between the United States and Cuba, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, who heads the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s United States Department, were also at the ceremony.

They faced off against either other across a negotiating table as the two sides hammered out an agreement on how the new embassies will operate. Diplomats from both countries will have greater freedom to travel and engage with the people of each nation.

“We want to make sure that those embassies are able to function fully,” Kerry said, “and I am confident that diplomats from both countries will have the freedom to travel and to converse with citizens from all walks of life.”

Miami Herald South American Correspondent Jim Wyss contributed from Bogotá, Colombia and political reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed from Miami. Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @heraldmimi

The Cuban flag is raised over their new embassy in Washington, Monday, July 20, 2015. Cuba's blue, red and white-starred flag was hoisted Monday at the country's embassy in Washington in a symbolic move signaling the start of a new post-Cold War era in U.S.-Cuba relations. Andrew Harnik AP
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