With festive flourishes that belied the intense diplomacy behind the scenes, Secretary of State John Kerry reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana on Friday in a flag-raising ceremony marking the end of a five-decade break in relations with Cuba.
After salsa music and a poem lauding the two nations’ “shared horizons,” Kerry gave remarks in Spanish and English, announcing that both governments were ready to “stop being the prisoners of history.”
Mindful of the criticism the Obama administration took for keeping dissidents out of the embassy ceremony – some activists will attend a separate reception at the chief of mission’s residence – Kerry stressed that improved relations with the Castro regime wouldn’t mean a letup in U.S. pressure on Cuba to widen human rights and basic freedoms.
“The leaders in Havana – and the Cuban people – should also know that the United States will remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms,” he said.
Still, Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both of whom hail from Miami, took the opportunity to criticize the administration’s outreach. Bush called the flag raising a “birthday present” for Fidel Castro, who turned 89 on Thursday, while Rubio said the Cuba policy and Obama’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran “represent the convergence of nearly every flawed strategic, moral, and economic notion” of his foreign policy.
Kerry is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Cuba in 70 years, and his arrival on a sweltering morning drew dozens, perhaps hundreds of Cubans who peered from balconies and ogled from doorways as the American convoy snaked through the palm-lined streets to the U.S. diplomatic mission, whose upgraded status was spelled out in gleaming new letters: Embassy of the United States of America.
The three octogenarian former Marines who lowered the flag in 1961 were on hand to present a new U.S. flag to the current Marine security detachment, earning a standing ovation and shouts of “Thank you!” from 200 or so guests at the event. The three men had vowed to return to Havana one day to see the flag raised again, Kerry said.
“Promise made, promise kept,” Kerry said, as the crowd cheered.
Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam