Flag ceremony marks serious work to build US-Cuba relations

The US and Cuba are getting down to serious talks about the road ahead in improving relations after a jubilant flag-raising ceremony at Havana’s reopened American embassy.

Flag ceremony marks serious work to build US-Cuba relations

The US and Cuba are getting down to serious talks about the road ahead in improving relations after a jubilant flag-raising ceremony at Havana’s reopened American embassy.

Capping off a day in Havana that began with the Stars and Stripes being hoisted outside the embassy, US secretary of state John Kerry met Cuban dissidents and said the island would not see an end to the despised US trade embargo if Cuba’s single-party government did not make progress on human rights.

Cuban and US negotiators are to meet in Havana in early September to begin talks on normalising the relationship between the two countries, which includes topics ranging from maritime security to the embargo to human rights, Mr Kerry said.

Negotiations will follow three tracks. The first will encompass areas in which rapid progress is expected, such as co-operation on naval matters, climate change and the environment.

The second will tackle more complex topics like the establishment of direct airline flights and US telecommunications deals with Cuba and the last will take on the toughest problems, including the embargo, human rights and each country’s desire to have fugitives returned by the other.

While the three tracks will proceed simultaneously, Mr Kerry said, Cuban leaders should not expect to see progress on the embargo without improvements in civil liberties in Cuba, which does not allow independent media, political parties other than the ruling Communist Party or direct election of anything but low-level municipal posts.

“There is no way Congress will lift the embargo if we are not making progress on issues of conscience,” he said.

Mr Kerry began the day with a nationally-broadcast call for democratic change on the island, saying that “we remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practise their faith”.

Hundreds of Cubans mixed with American tourists outside the former US Interests Section, newly rechristened with a sign announcing Embassy of the United States of America.

They cheered as Mr Kerry spoke, the United States Army Brass Quintet played The Star-Spangled Banner and US Marines raised the flag outside the building, which overlooks the famous Malecon seaside promenade.

Addressing reporters with Mr Kerry after the ceremony, foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez responded by indignantly opening his remarks with complaints of US human rights transgressions – from police shootings of black men to mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the US naval base on Cuba that the government says must be returned.

“Cuba isn’t a place where there’s racial discrimination, police brutality or deaths resulting from those problems,” Mr Rodriguez said. “The territory where torture occurs and people are held in legal limbo isn’t under Cuban jurisdiction.”

Many Cubans disagree with that assessment, including Afro-Cubans who say discrimination is still rampant despite the revolution’s egalitarian ideals. Human rights groups say regular, short-term arrests and beatings of the government’s critics seek to intimidate dissent.

President Barack Obama also called for change in Cuba when he announced the new US policy of engagement in December, but his words were less pointed than Mr Kerry’s.

Cuba formally reopened its Washington embassy last month. The US raised its flag in Havana then, too, though saving the formal ceremony for Mr Kerry’s visit. Three marines who took part in lowering the US flag when the embassy was closed in 1961 handed over the new flag to marines who raised it on Friday.

Mr Kerry was the first secretary of state to visit Cuba since 1945 and his speech was remarkable for its bluntness and the national spotlight in which it came.

Many Cubans lauded Mr Kerry’s call for reform, including greater access to technology on an island with one of the world’s lowest rates of Internet penetration. They paired their praise with calls for the United States to lift the 53-year-old trade embargo and allow easier travel between the two countries.

“More democracy, elections, we hope for that to come with this diplomatic opening,” said Julio Garcia, a mechanic.

Like Mr Obama, Mr Kerry said the long-time US strategy of trying to isolate Cuba and provoke regime change by choking off trade and fomenting grass-roots agitation had failed.

“It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalising relations to have a transformative impact in the short term,” he said. “After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape.”

Mr Kerry briefly walked Old Havana’s historic Plaza de San Francisco with city historian Eusebio Leal, stopping to look in shops and greet residents and store owners before attending an afternoon flag-raising at the home of the embassy’s chief of mission.

While there, he addressed a group of diplomats, Cuban-Americans and advocates of warming relations with Cuba. The event also was attended by dissidents including Jose Daniel Ferrer, Miriam Leiva and Yoani Sanchez, who tweeted a selfie with Mr Kerry and a photo of the secretary of state meeting privately with a group of dissidents.

The dissidents were not invited to the embassy ceremony to avoid tensions with Cuban officials who typically boycott events attended by the country’s small political opposition.

More in this section

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox