HAVANA, Cuba — U.S. Marines raised the Stars and Stripes over the newly reopened American Embassy in Cuba on Friday as Secretary of State John Kerry made an unprecedented nationally broadcast call for democratic change on the island ruled by a single party for more than five decades.
“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, practice their faith,” Kerry said before an audience of Cuban and U.S. diplomats on the embassy grounds and millions of islanders watching and listening live.
Political change remains a taboo topic in Cuba despite a series of economic reforms and the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with the U.S. under President Raul Castro, who took over when his brother Fidel formally stepped down in 2008 after decades in power.
Hundreds of Cubans gathered outside the former U.S. Interests Section, newly emblazoned with the letters “Embassy of the United States of America.” They cheered as Kerry spoke, the United States Army Brass Quintet played “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the flag rose alongside the building overlooking the Malecon seaside promenade.
After the ceremony, Kerry met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. He told reporters afterward that diplomats would meet in the second week of September to set the agenda for wide-ranging talks on normalization, covering topics from maritime security and public health to the billions of dollars in claims and counterclaims stemming from Cuban confiscation of U.S. property and the subsequent U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
Rodriguez said the countries continue to have profound differences over issues such as human rights. He accused the United States of rights abuses from police shootings of black men to mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. naval base that Cuba says must be returned before relations can by fully normalized.
“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 Afro-Cubans say discrimination is still rampant despite the revolution’s egalitarian ideals, and human rights groups say regular, short-term arrests of government opponents aim to intimidate dissent.
President Barack Obama made a milder call for change in Cuba when he announced the new U.S. policy of engagement on Dec. 17. In 2002, former President Jimmy Carter addressed Cubans in an unprecedented hour of live, uncensored television — telling them their country did not meet international standards of democracy and repeatedly promoting a grass-roots campaign for greater civil liberties.
But a live call for change from a serving U.S. official speaking in Havana — Kerry is the first secretary of state to visit since 1945 — was remarkable for its bluntness and the national spotlight in which it came.
It seemed that virtually all of Cuba was glued to a television or listening to a live radio broadcast on a cellphone. Many islanders lauded 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 on Cuba and allow easier travel between the two countries.
“We agree with what Kerry said,” said Julio Garcia, a 51-year-old mechanic. “More democracy, elections, we hope for that to come with this diplomatic opening.”
Giant Cuban flags hung from the balconies of nearby apartment buildings and people gathered at windows with a view of the embassy, which was formally converted from an interests section on July 20. Self-employed graphic designers Danay Lopez, 28, and her husband Yosvel Martinez, 32, watched the ceremony with their 3-year-old son, sang both countries’ national anthems and shouted “Long live Cuba!” and “Long live the United States!” as the event drew to a close.
“Kerry spoke about democracy, freedom, WiFi, and he’s right,” Lopez said. “We want all that to be freed up, but (also) for the U.S. to free up travel, and I don’t want my son to live under the embargo.”
Kerry said a longtime U.S. strategy of trying to isolate Cuba, foment grass-roots agitation and provoke regime change by choking off trade and finance through the embargo had failed.
“The policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition here in Cuba. It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have a transformative impact in the short term,” he said. “After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape.”
The U.S. has been working to balance its goal of promoting change in Cuba with its desire to work directly and amicably with the Cuban government in a new, formal diplomatic relationship.
Dissidents were not invited to the embassy ceremony, avoiding tensions with Cuban officials who typically boycott events attended by the country’s small political opposition. The State Department said it had limited space at what it called a government-to-government event, and dissidents were invited to an afternoon flag-raising at the home of the embassy’s chief of mission.
After speaking to reporters with Rodriguez, Kerry briefed walked Old Havana’s historic Plaza de San Francisco with Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal, stopping to look in shops and greet residents and store owners.
Soon after Kerry heads home Friday evening, diplomats who negotiated the embassy reopening will launch full-time into the next phase of detente: expanding economic ties between the two nations with measures like re-establishing direct flights and mail service.
The Americans also want to resolve billions of dollars in half-century-old American claims over property confiscated after the Cuban revolution. Cuba has its own claims, as noted in a newspaper column by Fidel Castro on Thursday saying the U.S. owes the island “numerous millions of dollars” for damages caused by the embargo.
When the countries announced Dec. 17 that they would re-establish diplomatic ties 54 years after the flag was taken down from the embassy, Obama also said he would move to empower the Cuban people by loosening the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba through a series of executive actions that make it easier for American citizens to travel to the island and trade with its growing class of private business owners.
Eight months later, Havana has repeatedly demanded a complete lifting of the embargo. It has not responded to Obama’s actions with measures that would allow ordinary Cubans to benefit from them, such as allowing low-cost imports and exports by Cuban entrepreneurs looking to do business with the U.S.
While Cuba has expanded its highly limited Internet access somewhat in a measure U.S. officials partially attribute to the diplomatic thaw, ordinary Cubans are growing increasingly impatient for concrete results from the new relationship.
“Great, let’s now have democracy and human rights and freedom,” said Diego Carrion, a 74-year-old retired state worker. “But to have that, the U.S. should lift the embargo and show us an example of respecting human rights and respecting us as Cubans.”