US flag raised above Havana embassy, hurdles remain
'We are gathered here because our leaders made a courageous decision to stop being prisoners of history', Secretary of State John Kerry says

Secretary of State John Kerry presided over the raising of the U.S. flag at Washington's Havana embassy for the first time in 54 years on Friday.

"We are gathered here because our leaders made a courageous decision to stop being prisoners of history,” Kerry told a crowd at the embassy, mixing Spanish into his remarks.

"My friends, it doesn't take a GPS to realize that the road of mutual isolation and estrangement that the United States and Cuba were traveling is not the right one and that the time has come for us to move in a more promising direction,” he added.

The three marines who lowered America’s flag in 1961 - Larry Morris, Jim Tracy and Mike East - were present to see it re-raised, fulfilling a half-century old pledge.

The ceremonial opening of the embassy is a major milestone in the diplomatic detente between Cuba and the U.S. that was announced last December by President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro.

Thousands of Cubans gathered outside of the embassy, some holding American and Cuban flags together as they celebrated the historic occasion.

The embassy has been open since July 20, when full diplomatic relations were restored, but Kerry has been unable to travel to the Caribbean island nation until now.

"Our government is willing to normalize relations with the United States on the basis of respect and equality and without any interference in our internal affairs," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said at a joint news conference.

"We strongly believe that, despite the differences that exist between the governments of Cuba and the United States, which will not disappear, it is possible to build civilized and respectful and productive relations - different in nature from those which have existed in the past.”

Despite the boost in relations, several obstacles remain between the Cold War foes as they seek to fully normalize relations, including Cuba's demand that Washington lift its decades-old embargo. Obama has loosened the economic ban through a series of executive actions, but Congress will have to act to fully lift the trade barrier.

The administration will also need lawmakers' consent to name a new ambassador to Havana. Currently, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis is serving as chief of mission.

Both countries also have outstanding financial claims - Washington is seeking repayment for damages that were incurred when American property was seized during the revolution while Havana wants compensation for the damage caused by the U.S. embargo.

The Obama administration has continued to take issue with Cuba’s human rights record and has said the resumption of relations will better allow it to make progress on the issue.

"We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith,” Kerry said.

However, it is unclear if the ruling Communist Party is willing to ease its grip. Last week, Cuba reportedly arrested around 90 activists.

Washington and Havana will establish a steering committee early next month to smooth relations between the countries further.

However, some are skeptical of the attempts to improve ties, particularly Republican politicians. In a statement issued on Friday, presidential candidate Jeb Bush pledged to reverse the "strategy of accommodation and appeasement”.

The U.S. and Cuba severed relations in 1961, two years after Castro seized power.

Kerry will attend a reception at the chief of mission’s residence later Friday where he is expected to meet with Cuban activists.

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Last Modified: 2015-08-16 13:05:25
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