WASHINGTON, D.C. — The crowd of hundreds of reporters, protesters, and onlookers fell silent Monday morning as Cuban soldiers in white uniforms processed out of the stately mansion on 16th Street that from today forward will house the Cuban Embassy. But as soldiers hoisted Cuba’s red, white, and blue up the previously bare flagpole, the competing chants began. “Yes to Cuba, no to Castro!” shouted one group of dissidents and their allies. A few yards away, a larger group shouted: “Yes to Cuba, no to the embargo!”
The anthems of both nations boomed one after the other over the loudspeakers to mark the moment that the long-standing “interests section” in Washington, D.C. was upgraded to a full embassy. After the flag made its way up for the first time since the countries severed ties in 1961, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez remarked: “Today we raise our single-starred flag, which embodies the blood and the sacrifice our people made for 100 years to gain independence and our will for self-determination in the face of the gravest threats and dangers.”
Rodriguez told the assembled diplomats he also brought a message from Raul Castro, who he said was eager for “a dialogue based on mutual respect and sovereign equality to move towards a civilized coexistence.”
Despite the celebratory tone of the event, all the talk of embarking on a new path and leaving a Cold War mentality in the past, the speeches touched on the sticky issues that remain.
Rodriguez called on the U.S. to lift the half-century-long economic embargo — which requires an act of Congress — saying it has caused much harm and privation to his people, who should be compensated with reparations. He also condemned the continued existence of the military base and prison at Guantanamo Bay, which he called a “usurpation of territory,” and said resolving both those issues will “give meaning to the historic moment we are witnessing today.”
In a press conference a few hours later, Secretary of State John Kerry also touched on “differences that still separate our governments,” including cooperation on law enforcement and counter-narcotics, environmental issues, and human trafficking. “Patience will be required,” he cautioned, noting that major changes on sensitive issues can take time. But he emphasized that it’s a huge step to acknowledge that “the Cold War ended long ago, and the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than estrangement.”
In the negotiations ahead, U.S. diplomats have also promised to raise concerns around the Cuban government’s record on human rights, free speech, and political prisoners. A handful of people outside the embassy gates, many of them children or friends of people who have been imprisoned by the Cuban government, said they would only support the normalization of relations if the U.S. steps up pressure around these issues.
But other demonstrators, including D.C.-based activist Lita Trejo, took issue with these complaints. “Here in the U.S. we are violating human rights! What right do we have to criticize Cuba? This embargo itself is a violation of human rights.”
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Several members of Congress who attended Monday’s ceremony have recently traveled to Cuba and seen the effects of the embargo first-hand.
“They still need dialysis machines, they still need medicines from America,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) told ThinkProgress, describing her delegation to the island in February. “But I’ve seen how the Cuban people are resilient, how they — as we say in the black church — make a way out of no way.”
Lee has introduced bills in Congress to opening up travel between the U.S. and Cuba and lift the embargo, but her Republican colleagues have sworn not only to block them, but to refuse to either confirm an ambassador to Cuba or fund the new U.S. embassy in Havana. Nearly all of the current Republican senators who are running for president, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham, have condemned the normalization of relations and vowed to reverse it and shut down the new embassies if elected to the White House.
“I see this each and every day,” said a visibly-frustrated Lee. “They’re living 54 years ago and they need to get with the program. This is 2015. The public needs to reach out to these Congress members and say, ‘Get with it. Sign off on these bills. Stop living in the past and let us move forward.'”
Another member of Congress at the ceremony, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), added: “If we only had embassies in countries whose governments we agree with we would have to close half of our current embassies. That is not why you have embassies.”
A poll conducted in June by Univision found that Hispanic voters in key swing states overwhelmingly want a presidential candidate who supports the normalization of relations with Cuba.
Cuban-American Eloy Hernandez, who has lived in the U.S. for 36 years, told ThinkProgress in Spanish he agrees. “There is so much possibility now that wasn’t there before,” he said. “Over there [in Cuba] I think the quality of life will get much better, now that we’ve restored relations with the country that has the most money in the world. My family who are still there are excited to become closer with the United States. ”
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Despite the challenges ahead, including Republican opposition to the diplomatic restoration, most of the crowd that surrounded the gates of the embassy and spilled out onto the surrounding streets was dancing and singing Monday as the Cuban flag flew overhead.
“Today gives us a glimmer of hope,” said Rep. Lee, who has visited Cuba more than 20 times between the 1970s and this year. “Both sides have issues they want to raise, but we could barely talk about them before today. Now, the United States is becoming less isolated in the world and this president has led us, in a very difficult climate, in an amazing direction. I hope Americans will be able to travel freely to Cuba soon, and invest in companies that want to do business there, which will create jobs.”
Kerry will travel to Cuba in August to formally raise the U.S. flag at the embassy in Havana.