In brief trip to Havana, Kerry to preside over U.S. embassy flag-raising

Cuban-Americans gather in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, Monday, July 20, 2015 — the day diplomatic relations between the United State and Cuba were renewed. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Aug. 14 for a ceremonial flag-raising at the embassy.
Cuban-Americans gather in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, Monday, July 20, 2015 — the day diplomatic relations between the United State and Cuba were renewed. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Aug. 14 for a ceremonial flag-raising at the embassy. AP

When the stars and stripes run up the flagpole Friday at the U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time in nearly 55 years, it will officially mark the end of the Cold War in the Caribbean and the beginning of the really tough work of trying to forge a normal relationship between the United States and Cuba.

As part of a thaw that was announced Dec. 17, the two countries established diplomatic relations on July 20 and both nations converted their diplomatic missions from interests sections to full-fledged embassies.

Cuba raised its flag at its Washington embassy the first day diplomatic ties were restored, but the United States is waiting until Friday when Secretary of State John Kerry will do the honors in Havana. Three of the U.S. marines who took down the last U.S. flag to fly over the embassy on Jan. 3, 1961 will be guests at the ceremony.

Kerry will preside over two flag-raising events, the first at the embassy in the morning then a second just before a late afternoon reception at the home of the U.S. chief of mission in Havana’s Cubanacan neighborhood. In addition to American business executives, academics and others who have been supportive of the U.S. opening toward Cuba, some dissidents and other members of Cuban civil society also are on the guest list for the 4:15 p.m. reception.

Demand for invitations to the events has been brisk. “It’s a hot ticket,” said invitee Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America and a Cuba specialist. With the deal to reopen embassies already consummated, “this is the champagne-popping moment,” he said.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential hopeful, has written a letter to Kerry urging him to “demand the freedom and rights of the Cuban people” and to meet with dissident leaders while in Havana. About 90 dissidents were briefly detained on Sunday. Some wore Obama masks, saying it was President Barack Obama’s fault that the Cuban government is growing bolder in moving against them.

Although Kerry is expected to meet with senior Cuban officials during his quick one-day trip, neither leader Raúl Castro nor his brother Fidel is expected at the events. Kerry is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Cuba since 1945 and his trip is a prelude to a possible visit by Obama before the end of his term.

During Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez’s trip to Washington in July, he and Kerry talked about the possibility of setting up a bilateral commission or steering committee that would have regular meetings to discuss normalization issues.

Since Obama and Raúl Castro announced they planned to work toward normalization, there have been a number of meetings and discussions on issues such as migration, telecommunications and the Internet, human rights, environmental protection and fisheries, human trafficking, cooperation on law enforcement and counter-narcotics and civil aviation.

The United States, for example, is awaiting a Cuban response on a proposal to reestablish regularly scheduled air service, and has around a dozen proposals pending before the Cubans. During ongoing discussions, the Cuban side also has been pushing for the resumption of direct mail service between the two countries.

“They will deal with the obvious low-hanging fruit first,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But negotiations on other issues will be “contentious and slow,” he said.

While in Washington, Rodriguez was crystal clear about what Cuba’s priorities are in the evolving relationship: lifting the blockade — the Cuban term for the embargo, return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, and reparations for economic damages for economic and human damages caused by the embargo and terrorist acts against the island.

“That [reparations], I think is a non-starter. It would wreak havoc with American foreign policy,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego and former senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs during the Clinton administration. “We would, in fact, be giving up economic sanctions as a tool if we acceded to Cuba on this.”

Even though only Congress can lift the embargo, Rodriguez has said he thinks Obama can do more to chip away at its impact by using his executive authority. Obama has already said he wants to work with Congress to end the embargo.

Most analysts say that will be difficult in an election year. But Washington lawyer Robert Muse said Obama could further use his executive power to create a “hollowed out embargo’’ — one that is essentially “more holes than cheese.”

Another cloud over the budding relationship is an estimated $6 billion to $8 billion, in today’s dollars, in 5,913 certified claims by U.S. companies and citizens whose properties were expropriated by Cuba during the early years of the revolution. The United States has asked the Cubans for the first meeting on claims this fall, according to U.S. sources.

“The Cuban government does recognize the principle of compensation — the argument is how much,” said Feinberg.

Since Dec. 17, it’s common to see U.S. and Cuban flags draped from balconies of Havana apartments and Cubans wearing clothing ranging from kerchiefs to spandex in stars and stripe patterns.

With the embassy already open, the flag-raisings are symbolic but nonetheless significant. “It’s important to see have these rituals,’ said Miami lawyer Pedro Freyre. “For people to see the American flag flying on the Malecón will really be something.”

But South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen worries raising the American flag in Havana could send the wrong message.

“The U.S. flag is the symbol of freedom and liberty not only to our nation, but across the globe. I am concerned that the image of our flag may be tarnished in the eyes of the suffering Cuban people due to the administration’s misguided concessions to Castro. We must redouble our efforts to educate and support the people of Cuba to ensure that this flag continues to serve as an inspiration for those who seek democracy, justice and respect for human rights.”

Raising the flag also sends a message about how far the relationship between the two countries has progressed from a decade ago. In 2006, for example, an electronic ticker set up across the facade of the then-U.S. Interests Section flashed messages such as “Democracia en Cuba” or “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up” in five-foot-tall red letters. Its intent was to bring messages of hope to the Cuban people but also to annoy Fidel Castro.

The Cubans responded by erecting a thicket of dozens of flag poles across the way and flying black flags to block the view. But after taking office, Obama pulled the plug on the provocative electronic sign in July 2009 and the Cubans took down the black flags.

Rubio has said he will seek to block confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba until topics, such as outstanding claims for confiscated U.S. properties, the return of U.S. fugitives living in Cuba and political freedom for the Cuban people, are addressed. Members of the Cuban-American congressional delegation also oppose additional funding to run an embassy. Ros-Lehtinen says she wants all non-security-related funding blocked.

Both Rubio and Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has long advocated for more travel to and trade with Cuba, sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as does Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, who also favors blocking confirmation of an ambassador. It’s possible an ambassadorial appointment will not get out of committee.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “has a conundrum,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center. Obama could make a recess appointment when Congress isn’t in session “but the question is would he make a recess appointment without even giving it a try in Congress,” he said.

To insure his Cuba legacy, however, Obama will need to go beyond opening an embassy and renewing diplomatic relations, said Muse. “He needs to build enduring trade relations with Cuba, get U.S. companies in there,” he said.

While legislation to both lift the embargo and allow all Americans to travel freely to Cuba has been introduced in Congress, “it’s going to be very tough to move on difficult votes during the presidential cycle,” said Schechter. There are Republican business executives who are very interested in seeing a further commercial opening with Cuba or an end to the embargo, he said, but their top corporate interest might not be Cuba. “These companies are not one-issue voters,” Schechter said.

Piccone suggests that the Cuban government may not be all that eager to put out the welcome mat for U.S. companies. “At the end of the day, I think they want to open just enough to the United States so European countries [that do business in both places] don’t get penalized and work with them while keeping the U.S. companies at bay.”

However, he said, if American companies see European firms eating their lunch, it could “generate more support for changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.”

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