Latin America

“Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape,” says Kerry at US embassy opening

Secretary of state praises Obama and Castro for stopping being “prisoners of history”

Cubans gather outside the US Embassy in Havana on Friday.
Cubans gather outside the US Embassy in Havana on Friday.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Under a blistering Caribbean sun, US Secretary of State John Kerry presided over the historic reopening of the US Embassy in Havana on Friday and called for a continuation of the efforts to end the 54-year diplomatic divide.

The United States and Cuba have “stopped being prisoners of history,” said Kerry, who also delivered a few lines of his address in Spanish.

The US secretary of state appeared at the embassy exterior entrance at 10.20am (EDT), apologizing to those who had been waiting for his arrival in the sweltering heat.

This doesn’t mean that we should or will forget the past; how could we, after all?”

“I’m so sorry that we are a little bit late today, but what a beautiful ride in and how wonderful to be here,” said Kerry, the first US secretary of state to step on Cuban soil since 1945 when President Harry Truman’s top diplomat traveled to Havana.

“My friends, we are gathered here today because our leaders – President [Barack] Obama and President [Raúl] Castro – made a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that we should or will forget the past; how could we, after all? At least for my generation, the images are indelible.”

At a joint news conference afterwards with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, Kerry said that he could not imagine the next US president trying to roll back on Obama’s open policy toward Cuba.

“I can’t imagine a Republican or Democrat just throwing it out the window,” he said.

Kerry said he could not imagine the next US president rolling back Obama’s open policy toward Cuba

After intense behind-the-scenes talks, which were encouraged by Pope Francis, Obama and Castro announced the normalization of diplomatic ties on December 17. Last month, Cuba officially opened its embassy in Washington.

Both Kerry and Rodríguez announced the creation of a bilateral commission to tackle the most pressing issues between their two countries.

“We know that the road to plentiful diplomatic relations is a long one, and precisely because of this, we have to start quickly,” he said in Spanish during the ceremony.

The Cuban government was represented at the flag-raising by Josefina Vidal, who is head of the US affairs section at the Foreign Ministry.

The ceremony was especially emotional for three former US Marine guards – Larry Morris, Mike East and Jim Tracey – who were back in Havana after taking down the US flag at the embassy when President Dwight Eisenhower ordered it closed in late 1960, after Fidel Castro demanded a large cut in the size of the diplomatic mission.

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“Tensions were high. No one felt safe. But the Marines had a mission to accomplish. And slowly, the crowd just parted in front of them as they made their way to the flagpole, lowered Old Glory, folded it, and returned to the building,” Kerry explained.

Morris, East and Tracey were selected to unfurl the Stars and Stripes at the ceremony while a band played the US national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

During his 20-minute speech, Kerry recalled some of the dark episodes in Cuban-US relations, including the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, which both took place during President John F. Kennedy’s term in office.

“For more than half a century, US-Cuban relations have been suspended in the amber of Cold War politics. In the interim, a whole generation of Americans and Cubans have grown up and grown old,” he said.

Kerry noted that Obama’s recent executive policy changes, such as easing restrictions on remittances, exports and imports, telecommunications and family travel were aimed at helping “Cubans connect to the world and to improve their lives.

“Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape,” he said.

“We are all aware that notwithstanding President Obama’s new policy, the overall US embargo on trade with Cuba remains in place and can only be lifted by congressional action – a step that we strongly favor,” the secretary said, adding that the Havana government had to do its part by making “it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade [and] access information online.”

For more than half a century, US-Cuban relations have been suspended in the amber of Cold War politics”

The United States will continue to push Cuba for democratic reforms and to respect UN and Inter-American human rights charters, he said.

Hundreds of Cubans gathered outside the embassy’s gates to listen to Kerry’s speech – most of them expressed their approval by describing his statements as “beautiful,” “emotional,” and “exceptional.”

Marta Caballero, a 56-year-old Afro-Cuban who was wearing a Che Guevara pendant – “I will never take it off, he is my god” – praised Obama’s decision to improve relations between Cuba and the United States.

“The black man has done things that no white man could,” she said.

English version by Martin Delfín

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