The stars and stripes adorn the US embassy in Cuba for the first time in 54 years.
The flag raising ceremony in Havana marked another symbolic step towards the thawing of relations between the former Cold War foes.
John Kerry is the first US Secretary of State to visit the country in seven decades. Marking the historic moment, he said:
“We don’t need a GPS to realise that the road of estrangement is not the right one. It’s time to move in a different direction.”
He also said that “the goal of all these changes is to connect Cubans to the world” adding that “Cuba’s future is for Cuba to shape.”
John Kerry: Live from Havana http://t.co/lWl7anYqJv— euronews (@euronews) August 14, 2015
Three marines who first lowered the embassy’s flag in 1961 were present in a symbolic gesture as the flag was raised once again.
Marines raise US Flag in Havana http://t.co/5byn88tSN7— euronews (@euronews) August 14, 2015
American poet Richard Blanco, born to a Cuban exile family recited a poem ‘Cosas del Mar’ or ‘Matters of the Sea’ at the ceremony. The first lines deal with what unites rather than separates.
“The sea doesn’t matter. What matters is this – that we all belong to the sea between us.”
The State Department faced criticism that dissidents were not allowed to attend the ceremony.
Engagement not estrangement
Speaking to Telemundo ahead of the ceremony Kerry said ties were “better served by engagement than estrangement”. US President Barack Obama argued that attempting to force change in the Communist-governed country through isolation did not work.
While the US has eased some travel and trade restrictions, the Republican-controlled Congress refuses to budge on lifting a wider economic embargo.
Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush reacting to Kerry’s Cuban visit said, “The accommodation of the Castro regime comes at the expense of the freedom and democracy that all Cubans deserve. “
Former leader Fidel Castro took the opportunity to remind the US of the consequences of the decades of embargo. In an article released on his 89th birthday Castro said the US owes millions of dollars of compensation to Cuba for the years of embargo.
Other sticking points remain between the two countries. While the US will press Cuba on human rights, Havana wants Washington to return the naval base of Guantanamo.
The Cuban embassy opened in Washington in July.
A brief history of US-Cuba relations
The US and Cuba have had no diplomatic relations since 1961, but the breakdown of relations came steadily after the revolution in 1959 which brought communist leader Fidel Castro to power.
By 1960 Castro’s government had seized private land and companies, some of which were US subsidiaries. President Eisenhower began restricting trade with the island nation but it was President Kennedy who established a permanent embargo on February 7 1962.
The tensest moment came in October of the same year when US spy planes found evidence of Soviet missiles being built on Cuban soil. The Cuban missile crisis was defused when Soviet leader Kruschev and President Kennedy struck a secret deal to remove US missiles from Turkey. Soviet missiles left Cuban soil, but the damage was done.
The US strengthened embargo rules in 1992 and 1996. The last decade has seen restrictions relaxed and tightened depending on the political climate.
Reactions to thaw
In the Cuban capital Havana, there were celebrations at the news of the thaw in relations with the US.
If Obama succeeds in getting Congress to drop the US embargo, life could be very different for Cubans.
The country has suffered decades of hardship. The UN has consistently condemned the embargo. Amongst other things, it restricts Cubans’ access to medicines, affordable food and building materials.