For the first time in 54 years, Cuba’s flag was raised over Havana’s embassy in Washington as the United States and Cuba formally restore diplomatic relations – a move which opened a new chapter of engagement between two Cold War adversaries.
The inauguration of the embassy was presided by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, a milestone in the re-establishment of relations between the two countries first announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on December 17.
Acknowledging the differences between the two countries, Rodriguez took the opportunity to urge Obama to use executive powers to do more to undo the economic embargo, the main hurdle to full normalization of ties. The Obama administration, for its part, pressed Havana to look into improving human rights in Cuba.
Despite ongoing frictions, the reopening of embassies in their respective capitals provided the most concrete symbol of progress after more than two years of negotiations between the United States and Cuba which have long shunned each other.
Taking this further, Secretary of State John Kerry later hosted Rodriguez, the first Cuban foreign minister to visit Washington after the Cuban Revolution, for talks at the State Department.
Nevertheless, in spite of the “new beginning” in relations between the two countries, much remains to be discussed before normalization of ties are to take place, something which Kerry says may be “long and complex”.
“The historic events we are living today will only make sense with the removal of the economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes so much deprivation and damage to our people, the return of occupied territory in Guantanamo, and respect for the sovereignty of Cuba,” Rodriguez said at the reopening ceremony.
Obama has modestly relaxed a few business and travel restrictions, but the 53-year-old embargo still remains in effect. Republican-led Congress has the ability to lift the sanctions though it is unlikely to do so anytime soon despite appeals by the Democratic president.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the administration was “hopeful” that Cuba will begin to address and show greater interest in observing basic human rights.
Enthusiasm in Washington, less in Havana
A three-man honor guard marched into the front lawn of the newly reinstated embassy in Washington where the Cuban flag was hoisted. Outside the gates, groups yelled competing chants with one group shouting “Cuba si, embargo no!” while another, smaller contingent shouted “Cuba si, Fidel no”.
In Havana, the US embassy was also reopened albeit with much less fanfare. The American flag will not be hoisted until Kerry’s scheduled visit on August 14.
A crowd of around 100 Cubans, tourists, and Cuban-Americans gathered in front of the embassy waving small US flags. One Cuban held a banner that read “Welcome USA”.
On the other hand, the ceremony in Washington was attended by 500 people and was headed by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson. In the State Department, the Cuban flag was hung in the lobby alongside the banners of other countries with which the United States has diplomatic relations.
As he entered the Cuban embassy, Senator Patrick Leahy, a staunch supporter of rapprochement, said: “we’ve waited a long time for this day.”
Hard-line anti-Castro lawmakers, such as Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, who oppose Obama’s outreach to Cuba, were not invited to the inauguration.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush Tweeted his disapproval of the move, saying: “Obama’s rush to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba is wrong. This embassy will only serve to further legitimize a repressive regime.”
The restoration of diplomatic ties reflects the Obama administration’s stance of negotiating with enemies, a concept which faces grueling tests as a nuclear deal was reached with Iran last week.