US embassy in Cuba formally reopens: ‘A day for pushing aside old barriers’

John Kerry formally reopened the US embassy in Cuba with a flag-raising ceremony on Friday, issuing a call for “genuine democracy” in the country.

It was the first visit to Cuba by a US secretary of state since 1945, and the ceremony at the newly recommissioned US embassy in the Cuban capital marked the return of an American presence to a building the US had vacated in 1961.

“We remain convinced that the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy,” Kerry said.

The main thrust of his speech, sections of which he delivered in Spanish, however, played up the promise of a new chapter in Cuban-American ties as the two countries begin to normalize relations following Barack Obama’s historic announcement that diplomatic ties would be restored last year.

“For more than half a century, US-Cuba relations have been suspended in the amber of cold war politics,” Kerry said. “It’s time to unfurl our flags and let the world know we wish each other well.”

The secretary of state was welcomed to the country by foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, who dispatched a delegation to attend the ceremony at the seaside facility. Groups of Cuban onlookers, some holding US flags, gathered on adjacent sidewalks and at overlooking windows.

Adding symbolic weight to the proceedings was the presence of three US Marines who had taken the flag down at the site 54 years earlier. Kerry greeted each by name before they stepped forward to stand with three younger counterparts hoisting the banner.

Even as the flag went up, however, the diplomatic promise heralded by Kerry revealed its limits. Excluded from the crowd in the embassy courtyard were the political dissidents who, until Obama announced the diplomatic thaw last December, had been among the most influential voices in the United States on the subject of US-Cuba relations.

The opposition had warned, with each stage of the “normalization” – the release on both sides of political prisoners; a deal to allow telecom companies to strengthen the internet on the island and for US banks to do business there; a US agreement to expand remittances and ease travel restrictions – that too many opponents of the Castro regime remain in prisons, or remain sentenced to silence under threat of retribution.


“Cuba needs freedom. And freedom will not be brought by the US or any other country,” Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, a dissident group composed of wives and relatives of former political prisoners, said in an interview published on their website. “Freedom can only be established by Cubans themselves. We are worried that while [US officials] are making concessions to the Castro government, the regime is getting stronger all the while.”

Pressure for a denouement proved to be greater. Since Obama’s re-election in 2012, influential voices from Pope Francis to a growing number of US legislators to the president himself have made the normalization of relations a priority. “I think that having the secretary of state go provides it with a weight that will make it harder to roll back,” Gregory Weeks, a professor at the University of North Carolina and an expert in US-Latin American relations, said. “President Obama is lending a lot of political capital to it.”

The occasion followed decades of troubled history across the Gulf Channel that began in crisis and settled in recent decades into a seemingly anachronistic refusal by Washington to approach a vestigial enemy whose main sponsor, the Soviet Union, had not existed for more than 25 years.

The United States withdrew from Cuba in 1961, following an embrace by Fidel Castro of the Soviet leadership and a decision by US authorities to target the nascent communist government. A disastrous would-be attack on the regime that year engineered by the John F Kennedy administration and launched at the Bay of Pigs threatened to turn open an active conflict between the countries.

At the embassy on Friday, Kerry recalled this nadir in US-Cuban relations, when Castro accepted Soviet nuclear ballistic missiles 90 miles off the coast of Florida. “In October of 1962 the missile crisis arose, 13 days that pushed us to the very threshold of nuclear war,” Kerry said. “We were unsettled and uncertain about the future, because we didn’t know when closing our eyes what the world would look like the next day. “In that frozen period, diplomatic ties between Washington and this capital city were strained, then stretched thin, then severed.”

Former US presidents including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had attempted to make overtures to the Castro government and, perhaps more significantly, to members of the US Congress opposed to lifting an economic embargo on Cuba, which remains in place. It took a series of backroom negotiations steered by the current president, however, for relations finally to budge.

Beginning in June 2013, top aides to Obama held a series of secret meetings in Canada with Canadian officials to put in place a framework for renewed ties. Obama shook Cuban president Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa in December 2013. The pope hosted a meeting between the two sides at the Vatican a few months later.

The secret meetings culminated in a phone call between Obama and Castro in December 2014 that finalized plans for Cuba to release Alan Gross, a State Department subcontractor who had been imprisoned for five years, after he was caught supplying telecommunications equipment to groups in Havana.

The United States, in turn, agreed to release still-imprisoned members of the so-called Cuban Five, a former spy ring based in Miami that had been convicted of conspiracy to commit murder after the shooting down of two planes operated by a Cuban-American group. The dialogue that Kerry moved forward on Friday was designed to secure the concrete advances that dissidents have fought for, Weeks said.

“I think that the Obama administration’s idea is that you re-establish these channels of dialogue, and then you use them to push on human rights,” he said. “The progress in Cuban democratization would be dialogue with the opposition. As far as deepening economic and political relations, it’s going to be the sheer amount of Americans that go to Cuba, and the amount of increased investment that we see in Cuba. “And that’s really the ultimate goal, ending the embargo.”

Meanwhile Fidel Castro marked his 89th birthday on Thursday with a newspaper column repeating assertions that the US owes socialist Cuba “numerous millions of dollars” for damages caused by its decades-long embargo. The former Cuban leader did not directly mention the restored relations, though he made several critical references to the US. He said Washington owes Cuba indemnifications “that rise to numerous millions of dollars” for damage caused by the embargo.

Kerry paired his call for “genuine democracy” with a call for parallel reform. “We urge the Cuban government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to go online, to engage in trade,” Kerry said. “We are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another as two people who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors.”

Source: The guardian