Diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba have been officially restored, with Cuba’s foreign minister taking the hugely symbolic step of raising his country’s flag at a newly designated embassy in Washington later on Monday.
Bruno Rodríguez, visiting the US capital for the first time in his life, conducted the ceremony at the mansion which has not functioned as an embassy for more than 50 years.
He was scheduled to attend the State Department for what both sides said would be “substantive” discussions with the secretary of state, John Kerry. The two top diplomats were set to appear together at a joint press conference.
At the flag-raising ceremony, Rodríguez said the restoration of US-Cuba relations would only make sense if the US lifted its comprehensive trade embargo and returned to Cuba the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
“The historic events we are living today will only make sense with the removal of the economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes so much deprivation and damage to our people, the return of occupied territory in Guantánamo, and respect for the sovereignty of Cuba,” Rodríguez said.
The last time the US hosted a Cuban foreign minister in Washington in such fashion was in September 1958, when John Foster Dulles was secretary of state to President Dwight Eisenhower.
Diplomatic relations were broken off by Eisenhower in 1961, after the deterioration in relations that followed Fidel Castro’s revoultionary insurrection. That was the same year that Barack Obama – the driving force behind secret talks with Cuba that culminated in his announcement of a new era of cooperation – was born.
Obama agreed to the precise timing for normalisation of relations, which will also involve the opening of a US embassy in Havana, in an exchange of letters with the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, earlier this month. The embassy opening will be an important milestone for Obama, whose second term in office is becoming defined by a recalibration of foreign policy that has enraged his conservative critics.
Compared with his predecessor, George W Bush, Obama has shown a reluctance to engage militarily. He has also been unexpectedly critical of Israel, usually a steadfast US ally, and has overseen a pivot in economic policy towards Asia that was a critical step to a trade deal with countries in the Pacific rim.
Last week, the White House unveiled the terms of a historic nuclear deal with Iran, another longtime US adversary with which Obama has improved relations, including through a series of personal overtures to leaders in Tehran.
Cuba planned a small ceremony at its DC embassy building, which was closed after diplomatic relations were severed in 1961 and has served only as an interests section, under the supervision of neutral Switzerland, since 1971. Cocktails were to be served, reportedly from a small bar in the mansion that is named after Ernest Hemingway.
The US is adopting a more low-key approach. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a State Department official involved in the plans said the department was sending only a “very limited” delegation to the ceremony at the embassy, none of whose members would give a speech.
Overnight, Cuba’s flag was quietly added to the others that adorn the lobby of the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom.
The US interests section in Havana will also perform the functions of an embassy starting on Monday, but it will not be formally anointed as such until Kerry travels to Havana later this summer to raise the Stars and Stripes above the building. Kerry will be the first secretary of state to visit the Caribbean island in 70 years, which Reuters has reported will occur on 14 August.
Explaining the decision to open the Havana embassy without any ceremony, the State Department official said there was “not a legal requirement” for any flag at an embassy.
“It’s important, it’s historic, but legally the [US] embassy will be functioning on Monday,” the official said.
The normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba ends decades of enmity that reached their nadir of at the height of the cold war. But it will not alter major barriers between both countries.
Travel will be easier but will remain subject to restrictions, and the all-important embargo cannot be lifted without the backing of the US Congress. A major lobbying push from US corporations is likely to end the embargo, but that will not happen soon.