In a moving ceremony in Havana this morning, the three Marines who took down the American flag from the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 1961 handed it to three current Marines who raised it once again. When Larry Tracey, Jim Morris and Mike East took the flag down in 1961, they vowed to return and raise it again. Secretary of State John Kerry told them, “Promises made, promises kept.”
The ceremony, broadcast live on cable, was attended by Cuban and American dignitaries, including the Archbishop of Havana. Pope Francis was instrumental in convincing President Obama and President Raul Castro to normalize relations. The crowd waved both American and Cuban flags.
Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco recited one of his poems. “We all belong to the sea between us…our footprints vanish into the sea that does not know the origin of their birth…Our grandfathers planted maple or mango trees that outlived them…Our mothers taught us to read in Spanish or English…No matter what anthem we sing, we all have all held seashells to our ears… Listen… breathe together, heal together.
Secretary of State John Kerry, spoke in both Spanish and English. He noted that 1945 was the last time a Secretary of State visited Cuba. “It is now time to push aside old barriers and explore new possibilities.”
“We are here because President Obama and President Castro made decision to normalize relations,” Kerry said. He pointed out how quickly relations between the two former friends turned sour. “In 1959, Fidel Castro came to the United States and was greeted by enthusiastic crowds. The following year he returned and was greeted by Nikita Khrushchev,” Kerry said. “Then the missile crisis pushed us to the brink of nuclear war.” Kerry added that in that frozen environment, ties between the nations became strained and then finally severed.
Addressing not only the Cubans, but also members of Congress, Kerry noted that he just returned from Hanoi, another communist nation, where he marked the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. “Imagine,” Kerry said, “after two decades of war were followed by two decades of commerce. Meanwhile, Cuban- American relations remained locked in the past.”
The road of estrangement was not the right one, Kerry said. Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape. We will urge Cuba to honor its obligations under the UN, and Cuba needs to be a genuine democracy. Let me be clear establishment of normal relations is something countries do together to benefit their citizens, he asserted.
While Kerry was speaking in Havana, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was telling a crowd at the Iowa State Fair that Obama was giving Fidel Castro a “birthday present.” Marco Rubio blasted the normalization of relations between the two countries and attacked President Obama. Both men are vying for support from the Cuban exile community in Miami.
Travel between the U.S. and Cuba is up 35 percent since January. U.S. companies are exploring business opportunities, Kerry said. The Cuban-American community in the U.S. has a special role helping establish a new relationship between the two countries, he said, and their strong cultural ties can contribute to improve the spirit of bilateral relations. Talking can deepen understanding, even when we do not see eye to eye on everything.
The Secretary addressed the elephant in the room—the embargo. He said that the embargo can only be lifted by Congress—a step we strongly favor. The president has taken steps to lift restrictions on travel but we want to go further. The crowd responded with cheers.
The Secretary concluded by thanking leaders throughout the Americas who have long urged the U.S. to normalize relations with Cuba. He thanked Pope Francis, saying that it is not accidental that the Holy Father will come to Cuba and to U.S. later this year. Finally, he said he wanted to applaud President Obama and President Castro for having the courage to bring us together.
Kerry said that above all, I pay tribute to Cuban people and the Cuban Americans in the U.S. They have endured too many days of sacrifice and sorrow and too many decades of suspicion. Now we can replace anger with friendship.
In spite of the hopes of the Cuban people and most Americans, the Republican-controlled Congress is not likely to end the embargo or confirm an Ambassador for the new Embassy. Perhaps Pope Francis needs to intercede with GOP leaders.