By Matt Spetalnick
The Cuban flag was raised over Havana’s embassy in Washington on Monday for the first time in 54 years as the United States and Cuba formally restored relations, opening a new chapter of engagement between the former Cold War foes.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez presided over the reinauguration of the embassy, a milestone in the diplomatic thaw that began with a breakthrough announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on Dec. 17.
With the re-establishment of relations severed more than five decades ago, the U.S. Embassy in Havana was also officially reopened for business. But the Stars and Stripes will not be hoisted there until a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry, expected next month.
“We wanted the Secretary to be there to oversee these important events,” a State Department official said.
The significant symbolic event in Washington was followed by a meeting at the State Department between Kerry and Rodriguez, the first Cuban foreign minister on an official visit to Washington since the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Even before the Cubans held their ceremony, the US Interests Section in Havana, long serving as Washington’s de facto diplomatic post there, issued a statement announcing that on Monday it “officially became US Embassy Havana”.
Without fanfare in the pre-dawn hours, maintenance workers hung the Cuban flag in the lobby of the US State Department in Washington where it joined the banners of other countries with which the United States has diplomatic relations.
Differences remain and efforts toward full normalisation between the United States and the Communist-ruled island are expected to proceed slowly. Monday’s steps culminated more than two years of negotiations between governments that had long shunned each other.
More than 500 people will attend the Cubans’ festivities in Washington, including members of Congress. No invitations went out to hardline anti-Castro lawmakers. The US delegation will be headed by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson.
Kerry and Rodriguez last met in April at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, where Obama and Castro also held talks. Aides see the outreach to Cuba as a boost to Obama’s legacy.
The re-establishment of embassies, agreed to on July 1, opens a new chapter of engagement by easing government contacts heavily constrained since the United States broke off relations in 1961.
A full-service US mission in Havana could offer some reassurance to companies interested in investing in Cuba and also help seed the way for more travel to the island by American citizens which is still heavily restricted,
The normalisation process has been slowed by lingering disputes, including over human rights, as well as Havana’s desire to keep a tight rein on its society and state-run economy.
A US economic embargo against Cuba will remain in place, and only Congress can lift it, something that majority Republicans are unlikely to do anytime soon despite Obama’s call for it to be rescinded.