U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared a new era in relations as he celebrated restored diplomatic ties in Havana on Friday, but he also urged political change in Cuba, telling Cubans they should be free to choose their own leaders.
The first U.S. secretary of state to visit the Caribbean island in 70 years, Kerry presided over a ceremony raising the U.S. flag over the newly reopened American embassy.
The event at the seaside building was another symbolic step in a path opened last December when President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro announced they would seek to restore diplomatic ties, reopen embassies and work to normalize ties.
Kerry made plain that despite the historic opening between the Cold War-era foes, Washington would continue to push for democratic reform.
“We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders,” Kerry said, speaking in a country where the Communist Party is the only legal political party, the media is tightly controlled, and political dissent is repressed.
“We will continue to urge the Cuban government to fulfill its obligations under U.N. and Inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas,” Kerry said.
His words were translated precisely into Spanish and broadcast live on Cuban state television.
Kerry spoke on a podium outside the embassy, moments before U.S. Marines raised the American flag there for the first time in 54 years.
Cuba has long defended its style of government in the face of U.S. hostility and pressure to change since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Obama, a Democrat who has come under heavy criticism from Republican opponents and some in his own party over the policy shift toward Cuba, has said the rapprochement is partly because decades of efforts to force change by isolating the island did not work.
Three retired Marines who last lowered the flag in 1961 took part in Friday’s ceremony, handing a new flag to the Marine Color Guard. As the flag was raised, there were loud cheers and applause from the crowd of U.S. and Cuban dignitaries and longtime proponents of U.S.-Cuban engagement, and from people watching from neighboring balconies.
The event took place nearly four weeks after the United States and Cuba formally renewed diplomatic relations and upgraded their diplomatic missions to embassies. While the Cubans celebrated with a flag-raising in Washington on July 20, the Americans waited until Kerry could travel to Havana.