Human rights, other ‘toughies’ now focus after flag raised at U.S. Embassy in Havana

Video: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to Andres Oppenheimer on Cuba

Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer speaks to Secretary of State John Kerry in advance of his historic visit to Cuba on Friday. Video by Miami Herald/CNN en Espanol
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Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer speaks to Secretary of State John Kerry in advance of his historic visit to Cuba on Friday. Video by Miami Herald/CNN en Espanol

The American flag was raised over the newly inaugurated U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time in more than half a century Friday morning, as relations between the Cold War-foes continue to thaw.

Cheers went out on the embassy grounds, as the banner was run up the flag pole by U.S. Marines. Outside the gates, crowds waved tiny Cuban flags.

“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. It’s “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 embassy flag 54 years ago — Larry Morris, Jim Tracey and Mike East — were present at the event. Kerry said the three men had vowed to see the flag fly again.

“At the time, no one could have guessed how distant that day would be,” Kerry said.

Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer speaks to Secretary of State John Kerry in advance of his historic visit to Cuba on Friday. Video by Miami Herald/CNN en Espanol

The event marked the first time a U.S. Secretary of State has set foot on the island since 1945. It will be a busy day for Kerry, as he’s 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. He’s also slated to meet Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a role in secret normalization relations between Cuba and the United States, Friday afternoon.

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 matters 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.

Several Cuban-Americans received coveted invitations to the flag-raising at the embassy, and Kerry noted their presence and said they could “contribute much to the new spirit of cooperation.”

Above all, I want to pay tribute to the people of Cuba and the Cuban-Americans," said Kerry near the end of his speech. Among those in attendance were Florida Crystal’s Andres Fanjul, former South Florida Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, Ric Herrero of CubaNow, businessman Paul Cejas, lawyer Pedro Freyre and Alberto Ibarguen who heads the Knight Foundation.

Many more were invited to a second flag-raising and reception at the home of the American chief of mission.

As the flag went up the pole in a brilliant Havana day, Freyre said, "I almost fainted from the emotion. I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that I would see this. It's an extraordinary moment to be here."

A large Cuban crowd who had assembled outside the embassy, began to applaud as the flag climbed the pole and the American anthem began to play.

The events required a bit of diplomatic juggling because it’s unlikely Cuban government officials would 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 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 owes 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,” he added. “After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape.”

Kerry will meet formally with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez later in the morning at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.

More than double the number of guests attending the embassy event are 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 will 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 where they have renewed diplomatic ties, many areas of contention 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 Guantánamo 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.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Calfiornia, said she has been fighting to lift the embargo for nearly four decades. and has visited Cuba two dozen times.

“I have been doing this for years,” she said, adding she always had hope that the United States and Cuba would renew diplomatic relations.

The American flag atop the pole outside the embassy sends the message “that finally we’re normalizing relations with a country ninety miles aways. It’s about time. It’s a good day.”

But neither Lee nor several other members of the Congressional delegation on the trip said they thought legislation to allow all Americans to travel freely to Cuba and to lift the embargo would be successful in this session of Congress.

But she said it will be easier to get support for ending travel restrictions. “The travel ban, I think, is much easier for people to embrace and understand,” she added.

But Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, said what is important is that “this is a turning point of a new relationship.

“Everything is not going to get done this year, or next year or maybe even the year after that,” she said. “But I can guarantee it won’t take 50 years.”

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 Díaz-Balart at a Wednesday news conference.

Many leading dissidents won’t even be on the island during the secretary’s visit.

They’ll 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 Hernández, 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 Hernández, who plans to be in Puerto Rico. The dates for the dissident event have been known since last spring, he said.

But Hernández said he expects 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, Hernández 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.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the Obama administration has conceded too much in its rapprochement with Cuba and only received “the regime’s empty promises of future discussions.”

But Blanco said that “through communications things can happen.” Raising the flag is the symbolic “end of the era of silence and stalemate.”

Kerry’s whirlwind day begins with a pre-dawn departure flight “from Andrews Air Force base and his first official meeting in Havana is 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 as tensions intensified after the 1959 Cuban Revolution..

From 1961 to 1977, it was the Swiss Embassy that 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.

Miami Herald South America Correspondent Jim Wyss contributed from Bogotá, Colombia

U.S. Embassy in Cuba

History: The United States established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba in 1902 and opened the first U.S. embassy in Havana 21 years later. The current embassy building along Havana’s seaside Malecón opened in 1953.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961 after Cuba’s Revolutionary government expropriated all U.S.-owned industrial and agricultural holdings the previous year, and Fidel Castro blasted the U.S. Embassy as a “nest of spies” and demanded that the staff be reduced to just 11 people. The White House asked the Swiss government to represent it in its dealings with Cuba after it broke off relations.

During the administration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, both the United States and Cuba established interests section with their own staffs but the diplomatic posts remained under the protection of the Swiss Embassy. That relationship ended when the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic ties on July 20 and reopened their embassies.

Chargé D’affaires: Jeffrey DeLaurentis is the chief of mission.

Ambassador: DeLaurentis is the most senior diplomat at the embassy. The United States is expected to name an ambassador at some future date.

U.S. Delegation for U.S. Embassy ceremony in Havana

John Kerry, Secretary of State

Bruce Andrews, Deputy Secretary, Department of Commerce

Karen Bass, Congressional Representative

Sarah Bloom-Raskin, Deputy Secretary Department of the Treasury

Barbara Boxer, Senator

Steve Cohen, Congressional Representative

Mark Feierstein, Senior Director, NSC

Jonathan Finer, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State

Jeff Flake, Senator

Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary, Western Hemisphere Affairs

John Kirby, Spokesperson, Department of State

Amy Klobuchar, Senator

Patrick Leahy, Senator

Barbara Lee, Congressional Representative

Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Jim McGovern, Congressional Representative

David McKean, Director, Office of Policy Planning

Peter Selfridge, Ambassador, Office of Protocol

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