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US flag rises over Havana

The Stars and Stripes are flying over the U.S. embassy in Cuba for the first time in 54 years.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday presided over an elaborate ceremony at the recently re-opened embassy in Havana, symbolizing a new era in the long contentious relationship between the two nations.

Speaking both and English and Spanish, Kerry marked the event as a “truly historic moment,” recalling the height of tensions between the two nations during the Cold War.

“The road of mutual isolation and estrangement that the U.S. and Cuba have been traveling is not the right one,” Kerry said. “The time has come for us to move in a more promising direction.”

Three retired Marines who lowered the flag in 1961 after Washington cut off ties with Havana were on hand Friday to help raise it again.

“Time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well,” Kerry said.

President Obama’s inaugural poet — Richard Blanco, the son of Cuban exiles —recited an original poem to being the ceremony. The U.S. Army Brass band played the U.S. and Cuban national anthems.

A 20-member U.S. delegation attended the event, including administration officials and members of Congress who support restoring formal ties with Cuba. The group included just one Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.)

Friday’s event is just the latest step in the effort to end the Cold War-era thaw, which President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced last December.

The ceremonies follow a similar flag-raising at the Cuban embassy in Washington last month. Kerry’s trip to Havana is the first time a U.S. secretary of State has visited the island since 1945.

But for all the pomp and circumstance, major obstacles stand in the way of building better relations between the former foes.
Critics of Obama’s Cuba outreach have slammed the administration for excluding dissidents from the flag-raising ceremony.
“President Obama has rewarded the Castro regime for its repressive tactics,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a speech Friday. “As a symbol of just how backward this policy shift has turned out to be, no Cuban dissidents have been invited to today’s official flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.”
Dissidents in the communist country continue to struggle with government suppression, including beatings and mass arrests.
Last Sunday, security forces rounded up 90 human-rights activists participating in a protest, including some who donned masks with the image of President Obama’s face.
“The Cuban government has grown even bolder,” Angel Moya, a prominent Cuban dissident, told AFP. “That’s why we have this mask on. Because it’s his fault.”
The Obama administration has been forced to perform a delicate balancing act, between establishing ties with the Cuban government and continuing its longstanding support for dissident groups.
Kerry will host a separate event at the chief of mission’s residence later Friday, which will be attended by dissidents, civil society groups, Cuban-American entrepreneurs, artists and cultural leaders.
“Nothing in the secretary’s events on Friday will change our support for dissidents on the island, for political actors, for human rights activists, for independent media,” a senior State Department official told reporters this week.
The U.S. has had a diplomatic presence in Cuba since 1977, under the informal guise of an interests section. The facility was quietly upgraded to an embassy last month, a move the administration says will allow dissidents better access to American officials.
And Obama believes that ending the U.S.’ longstanding policy of isolation with Cuba could improve chances of a political opening in Cuba.
“The goal of all these changes is to help Cubans connect to the world and improve their lives,” Kerry said. “We urge Cuban government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, engage in trade and access information online.”
But tensions persist between the two governments. The Cuban government has lobbied hard for the U.S. to fully lift its longstanding trade and travel embargo, a move Obama supports but leaders in Congress do not.
Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro on Thursday published an op-ed in the Communist Party’s official newspaper claiming the U.S. owes his government “millions of dollars” because of the decades long embargo.
Castro, 89, made no mention of Kerry’s visit to Cuba or efforts to improve relations with the U.S.

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