Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Reuters

US flag raised at embassy in Havana

Ceremony precedes talks aimed at improving relations; Kerry heralds end of ‘old barriers’

In  a moment of symbolic significance, the American flag was unfurled and raised above the glass-and-concrete U.S. Embassy building on Havana's seafront Malecon Boulevard on Friday for the first time since Jan. 3, 1961 — the day the U.S. severed ties with Cuba at the height of the Cold War.

Secretary of State John Kerry — whose visit to Havana was fiercely attacked by some prominent U.S. politicians — called the ceremony a “truly historic moment,” while stressing to the leaders and citizens of the communist nation that the United States would "always be a champion of democratic principles." 

“This is truly a memorable occasion — a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities,” Kerry said in remarks delivered just before the flag was raised, capping Washington’s historic rapprochement with Havana after 54 years of animosity.  

The flag-raising ceremony will eventually giving way to serious talk about the road ahead in improving relations between the United States and Cuba.

Kerry said negotiations will follow three tracks. The first will encompass areas in which rapid progress is expected, such as cooperation on naval matters, climate change and the environment. The second will tackle more complex topics like the establishment of direct airline flights and U.S. telecommunications deals with Cuba. 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, 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 at the ceremony.

Addressing reporters with Kerry after the ceremony, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez responded by indignantly opening his remarks with complaints of U.S. human rights transgressions — from police shootings of black men to mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. 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," 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.

This is truly a memorable occasion — a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities

John Kerry

U.S. Secretary of State

The American flag flies at the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Cuba following Friday's ceremony in Havana
2015 Getty Images

While the diplomats exchanged criticism over alleged rights abuses, the event was mostly celebratory. Hundreds of Cubans gathered in a festive atmosphere to watch the ceremony, which involved the three retired Marines who last lowered the flag in 1961. They handed a new flag to an active Marine color guard, which raised it on the grounds outside the embassy. Many of the Cubans waved their nation's flag, and some also held the U.S. banner.

Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced last December that they would restore diplomatic ties, reopen embassies and work to normalize relations.

On the U.S. side, the Obama administration's decision came after decades of enmity and an inability to shake the Cuban communist government's hold on power, and is based on the argument that dealing directly with Cuba over issues including human rights and trade is far more likely to produce reforms over the long term than the previous policy of isolation. 

“We are gathered here today because out leaders … made a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow,” Kerry said during his speech, in which he also spoke at length in Spanish. 

Havana resident Sandra Jimenez told Al Jazeera she felt that Kerry spoke “like a human being” and “not a politician.”  She expressed hope for closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba. 

“This is going to be the best for everyone,” Jimenez said. “We do not want to be the enemy of any country.”

"I think it is about time. It is long long overdue, [it] makes no sense in this point in our history. [The] Cold War is long gone," Gus Martin, an American on a cultural exchange in Cuba, told Al Jazeera. 

This is going to be the best for everyone ... we do not want to be the enemy of any country

Sandra Jimenez

Havana resident

Hundreds of Cubans and visitors from other countries gather across the street from the newly reopened U.S. Embassy to observe the flag-raising ceremony.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Obama has used executive power to relax some U.S. travel and trade restrictions, but the Republican-controlled Congress has resisted his call to end America's wider economic embargo, which remains in place and can only be lifted by Congressional action — “a step that we strongly favor,” Kerry said of the Obama administration. 

Kerry also said that U.S.-Cuba talks on the "full normalization" of ties would start in September. 

But the decision to soften ties between the two nations has been met with criticism from some, including Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who is the son of anti-Castro Cuban immigrants. Rubio has characterized President Barack Obama's diplomacy moves as evidence of “every flawed strategic, moral and economic notion” that has driven his foreign policy.

“We must guarantee that the U.S. stands on the side of the Cuban people, not the side of their oppressors,” Rubio said in a speech to the conservative-leaning Foreign Policy Initiative in New York. 

We must guarantee that the U.S. stands on the side of the Cuban people, not the side of their oppressors

Marco Rubio

Republican Senator, Florida

In Miami, Miguel Saavedra, who arrived in the U.S. from Cuba in the early 1960s as a teenager, helped organize a small protest Friday against the restoration of ties. He told Al Jazeera that Obama administration officials made "a big mistake to do any negotiation or [hold meetings] with the Castro regime."

Kerry addressed such criticism in his speech, saying that the U.S. remains "convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy." He also said the easing of ties between the two countries "doesn't mean we should or will forget the past," mentioning the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion meant to topple Castro as well as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Ultimately, Kerry said, "Cuba's future is for Cubans to shape."

"I hope that both countries really shake hands in real solid way. Maybe even with a kiss," said Benny Rodriguez, a Cuban-American who left when he was nine years old. "Life is too short...forget the past. Let’s take the new step together, hand-in-hand and start a new world." 

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez responded to Kerry's call for democracy, and made allusions the U.S. human rights record.

Rodriguez said that the U.S. and Cuba will continue to have profound differences over issues such as democracy and human rights, and that Cuba is proud of its record in human rights.

He said that Cuba is not a place where people are subject to racial discrimination or police abuse, and that it has no control over another country's territory where people are tortured — apparently a reference to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo in eastern Cuba. 

Kerry was also set to meet Cuban dissidents at the U.S. embassy residence in Havana on Friday afternoon. However, dissidents were not invited to the flag-raising in deference to the Cuban government, which sees many of them as U.S.-sponsored mercenaries. The decision to not invite them drew ire from some U.S. politicians. 

"It is shameful that on the grounds of our embassy in Havana, the Cuban regime can dictate to the United States government who may or may not attend this ceremony," Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American senator from New Jersey, said in a statement. 

Kerry was also slated to meet with Cuban officials and the head of the Catholic Church in the country. He was not, however, expected to meet with either Raul Castro or his brother Fidel, who led Cuba from its 1959 revolution until his retirement in 2006. 

Underlining the sticking points still complicating relations between the two countries, Fidel Castro said in an essay published in Cuban state media Thursday — his 89th birthday — that the U.S. owes Cuba "many millions of dollars" because of the U.S. trade embargo on the island.

He did not specify exactly how much money he believed was due, but Cuba said in September that the half-century-old embargo had cost it $116 billion. The U.S. for its part says Cuba owes $7 billion to American citizens and companies whose property was seized after Castro came to power. 

Al Jazeera and wire services. Melissa Chan and Mary Caraccioli contributed to this report from Havana. Rob Reynolds contributed from Miami.

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