US, Cuba open embassies after 54 years

Washington, July 20

The Cuban flag was raised at the US State Department today, in a historic gesture to mark renewed diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington as embassies were re-established in their respective capitals.

Diplomatic relations officially resumed at the stroke of midnight and the Cuban banner was hoisted a few hours later, in a move towards burying decades of enmity between the Cold War foes seeking to normalise relations.

A foreign policy legacy for President Barack Obama, the historic turnaround between two bitter adversaries has come about at breakneck pace, in just a matter of months since the two sides agreed to bury the hatchet and work together as equals.

The shift came after Washington acknowledged that its policy of trying to effect change in tightly controlled communist Cuba through isolation and trade restrictions had failed, and that engaging Havana directly was a better way to nudge it towards democracy and prosperity.

At about 4:00am (0800 GMT) the Cuban banner took its place among a row of flags from around the world adorning the State Department’s imposing marble entrance in the US capital as workers hoisted it up a newly installed flag pole, according to an AFP photographer. The banner took its place between the flags of Croatia to the left and Cyprus to the right.

And for the first time since 1961, the standard — with a white star inside a red triangle against white and blue stripes — will also fly over Havana’s newly upgraded embassy in Washington, just a stone’s throw from the White House.

In yet another historic gesture, US Secretary of State John Kerry will formally receive his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez for talks before holding a joint press conference around 1:45 pm (1745 GMT) today.  Ahead of the meeting, Rodriguez will preside over a ceremony to mark the upgrading of the Cuban interests section to a full embassy.

The US interests section in Havana will also be upgraded to a full embassy, but with little fanfare as diplomats there await the arrival of Kerry, who is due to officially hoist the American Stars and Stripes over the building in the coming weeks.

The rapprochement was announced on December 17, as Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro agreed to end their countries’ estrangement and put them on track towards a full normalisation of ties. After a series of negotiations in Havana and Washington, the restoration of diplomatic relations has come about just seven months later.

But both nations have cautioned that this is only a beginning, warning that overcoming decades of very bad blood is not easy. There are “issues that we don’t see eye-to-eye on,” State Department spokesman John Kirby admitted on Friday.

The United States “wants to move beyond a Cold War-era approach to one of constructive engagement as a way to support and empower the Cuban people,” analyst Ted Piccone from the Brookings Institution told AFP.

“Cuba needs the United States as an economic engine for its troubled economy and hopes to attract new foreign investment and human capital to update its socialist model, but without undergoing political reform.”“Building confidence and trust will be critical to the ability to move forward,” he added.

Contentious issues remain

•    One of the biggest areas of contention remains human rights, with Washington pressing for an improvement in freedoms of expression, religion and the press in the Caribbean island nation

•    Another tough issue is compensation for American property seized after the 1959 Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro. Some 5,911 lawsuits have been opened in the United States seeking an estimated $7 billion to $8 billion

•    On Havana’s side, Raul Castro has urged Obama to use his executive powers to “dismantle” the economic embargo in place since 1960, calling it the main stumbling block towards normalisation

•    Washington also wants to ensure the return of several American fugitives wanted in the United States. Top of the list is a former member of the violent Black Panther revolutionary group, Joanne Chesimard, wanted for the killing of a New Jersey policeman in 1973 and who has been hiding in Cuba since 1984