Wednesday 21 February 2018

Cuban flag raised above Washington embassy

The Cuban flag is raised over their new embassy in Washington (AP)
The Cuban flag is raised over their new embassy in Washington (AP)

The Cuban flag has been hoisted above the country's embassy in Washington in a symbolic move signalling the start of a new post-Cold War era in US-Cuba relations.

Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez presided over the flag-raising ceremony hours after full diplomatic relations with the United States were restored at the stroke of midnight, when an agreement to resume normal ties on July 20 took effect.

Earlier, without ceremony, the Cuban flag was hung in the lobby of the State Department alongside those of other countries with which the US has diplomatic ties. US and Cuban diplomats in Washington and Havana had also noted the upgrade in social media posts.

The United States and Cuba severed diplomatic relations in 1961 and since the 1970s had been represented in each other's capitals by limited service interests sections. Their conversion to embassies tolled a knell for policy approaches spawned and hardened over the five decades since President John F Kennedy first tangled with youthful revolutionary Fidel Castro over Soviet expansion in the Americas.

Mr Rodriguez is to meet later with Secretary of State John Kerry and address reporters at a joint news conference. Mr Kerry will travel to Havana on August 14 to preside over a flag-raising ceremony at the US Embassy there.

Shortly after midnight, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington switched its Twitter account to say "embassy". In Havana, the US Interests Section uploaded a new profile pictures to its Facebook and Twitter accounts that says US EMBASSY CUBA. And Conrad Tribble, the deputy chief of mission for the United States in Havana, tweeted: "Just made first phone call to State Dept. Ops Centre from United States Embassy Havana ever. It didn't exist in Jan 1961."

Though normalisation has taken centre stage in the US-Cuba relationship, there remains a deep ideological gulf between the nations and many issues still to resolve. Among them: thorny disputes such as over mutual claims for economic reparations, Havana's insistence on the end of the 53-year-old trade embargo and US calls for Cuba to improve on human rights and democracy.

Some US politicians, including several prominent Republican presidential candidates, have vowed not to repeal the embargo and pledged to roll back President Barack Obama's moves on Cuba.

Still, today's events cap a remarkable change of course in US policy towards the communist island under Mr Obama, who had sought rapprochement with Cuba since he first took office and has progressively loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island.

Mr Obama's efforts at engagement were frustrated for years by Cuba's imprisonment of US Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross on espionage charges. But months of secret negotiations led in December to Mr Gross's release, along with a number of political prisoners in Cuba and the remaining members of a Cuban spy ring jailed in the United States.

On December 17, Mr Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would resume full diplomatic relations.

Declaring the long-standing policy a failure that had not achieved any of its intended results, Mr Obama declared that the US could not keep doing the same thing and expect a change. Thus, he said work would begin apace on normalisation.

That process dragged on until the US removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in late May and then bogged down over issues of US diplomats' access to ordinary Cubans.

On July 1, however, the issues were resolved and the US and Cuba exchanged diplomatic notes agreeing that the date for the restoration of full relations would be July 20.

Some 500 guests, including a 30-member delegation of diplomatic, cultural and other leaders from the Caribbean nation, attended the Cuban ceremony at the stately 16th Street mansion in Washington that has been operating as an interests section under the auspices of the Swiss embassy.

The US was represented at the event by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, who led US negotiators in six months of talks leading to the July 1 announcement, and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana who will now become charge d'affaires.

Although the Interests Section in Havana will not see the pomp and circumstance of a flag-raising today, workers there have already drilled holes on the exterior to hang signs flown in from the US and arranged to print new business cards and letterheads that say "Embassy" instead of "Interests Section".

Every day for the last week, employees have been hanging hand-lettered signs on the fence counting down, in Spanish, to Monday: "In six days we will become an embassy," and so on.

Press Association

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