HAVANA — Washington’s top diplomat came to Havana on Friday to raise the Stars and Stripes over the newly opened U.S. Embassy, making a symbolically charged victory lap for the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement with Cuba.
Ordinary Cubans will cheer, U.S. business executives will network and Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Cuba’s foreign minister, the country’s Roman Catholic archbishop and, separately, a hand-picked group of dissidents.
Then the hard part begins.
Soon after Kerry heads home Friday evening, the Cuban and U.S. diplomats who negotiated the embassy reopening will launch full-time into the next phase of detente: expanding economic ties between the two nations with measures like direct flights and mail service.
The Americans also want to resolve billions of dollars in half-century-old American claims over property confiscated after the Cuban revolution. Cuba has its own claims, as noted in a newspaper column by Fidel Castro on Thursday saying the U.S. owes the island “numerous millions of dollars” for damages caused by the embargo.
“We have diplomatic relations; now we can get to the real work,” said Wayne Smith, a retired U.S. diplomat who witnessed the closing of the U.S. Embassy in 1961, served in Cuba under President Jimmy Carter and returned this week to attend Friday’s ceremony.
Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 that they would re-establish diplomatic ties 54 years after the flag was taken down from the embassy overlooking Havana’s seaside boulevard, the Malecon.
Obama also said he would be moving to empower the Cuban people by loosening the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba through a series of executive actions that make it easier for American citizens to travel to Cuba and trade with the island’s growing class of private business owners.
Eight months later, Cuba has repeatedly demanded a complete lifting of the embargo. It has not responded to Obama’s actions with measures that would allow ordinary Cubans to benefit from them, such as allowing low-cost imports and exports by Cuban entrepreneurs looking to do business with the U.S.
“I think we’re ending one phase and entering another,” said Robert Muse, a U.S. lawyer specializing in Cuba. “The handshakes, the fraternal regards, the raising of the flags, that’ll end on Aug. 14. Then I think it’s very particular conversations begin.”
While Cuba has increased its highly limited Internet access since Dec. 17 in a measure U.S. officials partially attribute to the warming with Washington, ordinary Cubans are growing increasingly impatient for concrete results from the new relationship.
“I’m optimistic but cautious,” said Rolando Mendez, a state worker walking outside the new U.S. Embassy on Thursday. “We have to wait and see how events develop and if there really will be benefits for the two peoples.”
The U.S. tried several times to hold discussions with Cuban officials about the details of Obama’s loosening of U.S. regulations but those meetings never happened amid the pressure to strike a deal allowing the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington on July 20.
U.S. diplomats say that such a meeting, which will hopefully lead to a real increase in trade with the U.S., is among the top priorities of the normalization talks expected to start in earnest in coming weeks.
After the flag ceremony and a meeting with Havana Archbishop Jaime Ortega, Kerry is scheduled to meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez followed by a news conference and the raising of a second flag at the stately home of the embassy’s chief of mission, where the secretary of state is also expected to meet with Cuban dissidents.
Kerry said in a series of interviews with Spanish-language press Wednesday that the day would move the U.S.-Cuban relationship into a series of detailed talks about topics including “law enforcement, maritime security, education, health, telecommunications.”
“We will talk very directly about a sort of road map toward real, full normalization,” Kerry said.