Latin America & Caribbean

US and Cuba feel weight of history as embassy reopens

John Kerry stops to get a closer look at a statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes in Cuba on 14 August, 2015 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption John Kerry is said to have become emotional during the ceremony in Havana

The US Secretary of State John Kerry has formally reopened the American embassy in Cuba after the restoration of diplomatic ties last month. Barbara Plett Usher has been travelling with him.

There was so much interest in this visit that the State Department booked two planes from Washington, for lawmakers who had pushed for detente with Cuba and government officials who made it happen.

"It's a funny feeling for someone who's been a grey bureaucrat for 29 years," mused Roberta Jacobson, the senior State Department official who led negotiations on restoring diplomatic ties.

"Suddenly it feels like everything's in Technicolour, like when Dorothy enters the Land of Oz and the world becomes colourful."

Some lawmakers, like congressman Jim McGovern, shared that sense of wonder: "It felt like this day would never come," he said.

Others talked about what more there was to do.

New leaders

"As an American I want to be able to visit any country on the planet," said congresswoman Karen Bass.

Despite the easing of travel restrictions, Cuba is still the only nation that Americans are forbidden to visit as tourists, part of the economic embargo which is still in place.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Kerry and Mr Rodriguez exchanged heated words during their joint press conference

The simple ceremony on the grounds of the embassy was weighted with history.

The three marines who took down the flag in the tense atmosphere after President Dwight D Eisenhower cut ties in 1961 helped to put it back up.

This time the hundreds of Cubans who massed outside on the street came to cheer.

They were standing in the shadow of a thicket of 138 flag poles set up by the former Cuban President Fidel Castro to block a Times Square-style ticker installed by George W Bush to flash news and political statements.

Both leaders are no longer on the scene, one of the factors that made rapprochement easier, along with political changes in the US and economic ones in Cuba.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The ceremony was a historic occasion for both nations

Mr Kerry hailed the "courageous decision to stop being prisoners of history".

He recounted the decades of hostilities rife with provocative gestures and punctured by dangerous escalations, but said estrangement had long since become a relic of the Cold War.

'Issues of conscience'

Democracy and human rights came up, because they always do.

The Secretary of State acknowledged that America's policy of isolation had failed to change the island's one-party communist government.

Cuba's future must be shaped by Cubans, he said. But he insisted they'd be better served by democracy and the US would continue to monitor human rights violations.

The Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, fired back with a lengthy defence of Cuba's human rights record and concerns about America's. He declared that Cuba didn't have police brutality, racial discrimination or torture, while Mr Kerry stood by silently.

"I wasn't uncomfortable in the least," he later told the journalists travelling with him.

"I found it quite interesting and… somewhat defensive and purposely pre-emptive," he said. "And I find that encouraging, it means they're listening."

The two countries are set to begin talks on these and other difficult issues in September, but Mr Kerry said it would be a two-way street.

Congress won't lift the embargo "if there isn't movement on issues of conscience here," he said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hundreds of Cubans gathered to watch the flag raising ceremony
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption But not everyone was happy, with protesters taking to the streets of Little Havana in Miami

A Cuban blogger and media activist, Yoani Sanchez, was given access to the restricted press event, but she wasn't invited to cover the official ceremony.

None of the political dissidents were either, they came to the chief of mission's residence for a private function afterwards.

The administration was at pains to explain that the former event was for government officials and the latter for civil society, as is the practice in other countries.

But until now the practice here has been to isolate the government and back the dissidents.

That's something Cuba hawks in Congress have seized upon, lambasting President Obama for appeasing a dictator.

They form a small but passionate group of mostly Cuban-Americans - some of whom are running for president.

What is more noteworthy, though, is how relatively uncontroversial this historic change has been in both Cuba and America, and how fast it took place once the decision was announced.

The momentum will probably slow now - restoring diplomatic relations was the easy part - but many commemorating the change of direction are convinced it's irreversible.

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