Flag-Raising in Havana — to see and hear something worth remembering

“Now comes the hard part,” wrote Fox News Latino.  “Years of work remain to normalize ties,” the Wall Street Journal said.  “Now comes the hard part,” an opinion piece in Politico repeated.

Each of these articles was posted hours before Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Cuba to lead the historic ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Havana today.

At first, reading the headlines, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

With a blizzard of images in our minds — from the missile crisis to the migration crisis, from Pedro Pan to Elián González — it’s hard for us to picture what possibly could have made the last 54 years any harder before we could arrive at the day when we saw the American flag hoisted above the U.S. embassy in Havana.

As much as anyone, we’re all about the work ahead.  We welcome the chance to build on the recent achievements of U.S. and Cuban diplomacy (documented here by Peter Kornbluh and Bill LeoGrande, the New York Times, and the Guardian among others) to give proof to the idea that engagement will improve human lives on both sides of the Florida Strait as isolation never could.

But before we rush into the next battle, let’s first savor at least some of what transpired on this historic day of flag-raising.

In his biography of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg wrote a remarkable description of the crowd that gathered to hear the Lincoln-Douglas debate.  It reads in part: “Twenty thousand people and more sat and stood hearing Lincoln and Douglas speak…With ruddy and wind-bitten faces they were of the earth; they could stand the raw winds when there was something worth hearing and remembering.”

With umbrellas protecting them from a relentless Havana sun, observers inside and outside the U.S. Embassy- the invited guests who were seated, and the thousand or more, the ones with the most at stake, the ones leaning against the sea wall, standing in the intense heat, or leaning in from the benches or concrete steps where they sat — all could see and hear much that was worth remembering.

Some Cubans began to gather as early as 6am, as the Associated Press reported, “I wouldn’t want to miss it,” one said. Cubans adjacent to one of the WIFI hotspots made available following the Obama-Castro agreement could follow what was happening inside the embassy grounds on their phones.

As the ceremony began, the State Department’s Master of Ceremonies asked the guests to be seated and to welcome — to welcome — Cuba’s chief negotiator at the diplomatic recognition talks, Josefina Vidal, along with Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S., Jose Cabañas and other Cuban diplomats, who were shown to front row seats.

Moments after they were introduced, the United States Army Brass Quintet played the Cuban national anthem, after which cheers of “Que viva!” could be heard from the Malecón.

Richard Blanco, a Cuban American we first heard  at the Inauguration of President Obama’s second term, then read a poem recasting what had divided us — the waters between Cuba and the mainland U.S. — into something that unites us.  In his “Matters of the Sea,” he spoke of the waves that “don’t care on which country they break, they bless us and return to the sea,” — and said “no one is the other to the other to the sea.”

In his remarks, Secretary of State John Kerry, the combat veteran who helped Vietnam and the United States reconcile and normalize their relations, recognized that today’s ceremony was possible because “President Obama and President Castro made a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow.”

He made clear that those opportunities could only be realized by changing the fundamental premise of U.S. policy, regime change. “U.S. policy,” he said, “is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged…After all Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape.”

Secretary Kerry also addressed “the leaders in Havana – and the Cuban people” when he said “the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”

But, he made clear that we would advocate for those ideas at the negotiating table and through greater engagement among the U.S. and Cuban people, a welcomed break from the policies and practices of the past.

When Secretary Kerry concluded his remarks, the crowd of American, Cuban, and international guests stood as the flag was raised, with the help of the three Marines who lowered it in 1961, and the United States Army Brass Quintet played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

If the morning’s headlines were meant to fast-forward us past the event that hadn’t yet taken place, the statements issued by the opponents of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy were reminders of the failed ideas that we are now in the process of replacing.

As CNN reported, Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) said the U.S. flag should not fly in a country that does not value freedom.

“A flag representing freedom and liberty will rise today in a country ruled by a repressive regime that denies its people democracy and basic human rights. This is the embodiment of a wrongheaded policy that rewards the Castro regime’s brutality at the expense of the Cuban people’s right to freedom of expression and independence.”

Yesterday, the Miami Herald quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) who said, “I am concerned that the image of our flag may be tarnished in the eyes of the suffering Cuban people due to the administration’s misguided concessions to Castro.”
Such statements used to thrill the crowds in Miami, but no more. NBC’s Mark Potter said earlier today that a couple of dozen protestors had gathered in Old Havana to protest the flag raising this morning, a mere fraction of the number of Cubans who came out in Havana to see and hear something truly worth remembering.


U.S. flag raised in Havana

This morning, John Kerry became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Cuba since 1945, marking a major milestone in the process of normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Secretary Kerry presided over the formal flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, surrounded by members of Congress, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, and the retired U.S. Marines who lowered the U.S. flag when the embassy closed in 1961.  Jim Tracy, F.W. Mike East, and Larry C. Morris presented the American flag to the current Marine Corps contingent, who hoisted it to enthusiastic applause. A U.S. military band first played the Bayamo, Cuba’s national anthem, and later the Star Spangled Banner.

In his remarks, which were simultaneously translated and broadcast on Cuban state television, Secretary Kerry said, “As two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors… [It is] time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”

Secretary Kerry emphasized the administration “strongly” favors lifting the embargo. He affirmed that the U.S. remains “a champion for democratic reform” and will continue to urge Cuba’s government to respect human rights.

The eight Members of Congress in Kerry’s official delegation included Senators Barbara Boxer (CA), Jeff Flake (AZ), Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Patrick Leahy (VT); and Representatives Karen Bass (CA), Steve Cohen (TN) Barbara Lee (CA), and Jim McGovern (MA).

The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), which publishes the Cuba Central Newsblast, took Senator Klobuchar on her first trip to Cuba in February 2015, and previously organized trips to Cuba for Senators Boxer and Flake and Representatives Bass, Cohen, Lee, and McGovern.

Among the observers was Didier Burkhalter, Foreign Minister of Switzerland, who was invited to attend by Secretary Kerry in honor of the pivotal role his country played as an intermediary between Cuba and the U.S. and the guarantor of Interests Sections in Washington and Havana between 1977 and 2015. U.S. policy institutions, including CDA, Engage Cuba, and CubaNow, were also present to witness the historic event.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of CDA, said in a statement: “The flag-raising over the new U.S. embassy in Havana symbolizes the hopeful idea that, after more than 50 years, the two governments can discuss and try to resolve their differences, respectfully and peacefully. Many of the Cubans I know have been waiting to enjoy normal relationships with us in the United States all of their lives, and now bold leadership by Presidents Obama and Castro are giving them that chance.”

In the weeks leading up to the ceremony in Havana, reporters raised the question of whether Cuban dissidents would be invited to attend. State Department officials, talking to reporters by teleconference on Wednesday, characterized the flag raising ceremony as “primarily a government-to-government event,” which would not include political dissidents, citing space constraints at the U.S. Embassy. The State Department announced that Cuban political activists would be invited to a more widely-attended reception later in the afternoon at Ambassador DeLaurentis’ residence.

The Associated Press reported that the decision not to invite dissidents to the flag-raising ceremony was influenced by the risk of a boycott by Cuban officials involved in normalization negotiations. Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, was not surprised that “North American diplomats prioritize[d] contacts with the Cuban government. If we show up, they leave.”

On Sunday, 90 protestors were detained briefly in Havana for protesting Cuba’s government, according to AFP. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the U.S. is “deeply concerned by this roundup of peaceful activists,” and he reiterated that the U.S. will “continue to voice our support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba.”

First legal U.S. yacht arrives in Cuba

On Wednesday afternoon, the “Still Water” became the first U.S. yacht to dock legally in Cuba, according to The Wall Street Journal. Coming ashore at Marina Hemingway, located 9 miles West of Havana, were 12 passengers and three crew members who traveled on people-to-people licenses, one of the 12 categories of legal travel open to Americans.

Since December 17, when Presidents Obama and Castro announced their decision to begin normalizing relations, the Treasury Department has issued licenses for select sailboats, ferry companies, and cruise lines to operate to Cuba, reports The Detroit News.

As we previously reported, American businesses remain concerned over the competitive disadvantage posed by the embargo and travel ban. Though Cuba has begun preparing to better accommodate increased shipping and tourism, the Palm Beach yacht broker who organized the Still Water’s journey says Cuba lacks hotel space and amenities need improvement. Cubans working at destinations outside of Havana also worry that they will be left behind as tourism increases. Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, received a tenth of the tourism that Havana did over the past year.

The Still Water’s journey highlights the potential for expanding legal nautical travel from the U.S. to Cuba. Jose Viera, a retired senior Cuban diplomat, believes that “The genie of free enterprise is out of the bottle and it is a powerful genie.”

Despite the successful maiden voyage in this new era of engagement, restrictions still apply to U.S. commercial vessels that dock in Cuba. Under the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, when such vessels visit Cuba, they cannot enter an American port for 180 days. These and other restrictions on travel and trade are opposed by prominent U.S. business interests including the Chamber of Commerce, JetBlue, Pfizer, and MasterCard, who want Congressional leaders to lift the embargo. In July, an amendment to the State and Foreign Operations funding bill repealing the 180-day quarantine was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, as we reported.

The Obama administration continues efforts to close Guantánamo Bay prison

Over the weekend, a top Obama aide revealed that the White House is likely to present Congress with a renewed plan for shutting down Guantánamo Bay prison soon. Currently, 116 prisoners remain at Guantánamo; 52 of them are cleared to leave. U.S. law prohibits any use of federal funds for the transfer of detainees to U.S. soil, a cornerstone of President Obama’s plan to draw down prison numbers.

The administration would like to move cleared prisoners overseas while transferring non-cleared prisoners to super-max facilities in Illinois and South Carolina. In order to move the prisoners, Defense Secretary Ash Carter must sign off on their removal. In order to transfer out all cleared prisoners, Carter would have to sign off on one release every 10 days until the end of January 2017. Senator John McCain (AZ), the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has voiced tentative approval for closing the prison but wants to see a plan to mitigate security concerns posed by detainees sent abroad.

The U.S. has occupied the forty-five square acre land adjacent to Guantánamo Bay since 1898 as part of the imposition of the Platt Amendment following the Spanish-American War. The administration contends that Guantánamo Naval base still has “operational value” and relies on the 1934 Treaty of Relations between the U.S. and Cuba as the basis for its legality. The Cuban government, which objects to the U.S. presence on its sovereign territory, has emphasized it would not attempt to seize the land by force.

Currently, the U.S. writes Cuba a monthly check in the amount of $4,085 as rent payment for the naval base, a check that Cuba’s government does not cash on principle. As previously reported in the Cuba Central Newsblast, Cuba’s government finds efforts to close the prison housed there positive but insufficient. President Raúl Castro insists that the U.S. return the base, calling Guantánamo “illegally occupied,” and has insisted that the process of normalization would remain incomplete pending its return. National Security Advisor Susan Rice has said that is “not in the offing at the present.”

President Obama signed an executive order two days into his presidency to close the prison. He has 525 days to make good on his pledge.

Cuban doctors in Colombia write to U.S. politicians over visa concerns

Dozens of Cuban doctors left their medical missions in Venezuela and met in Bogotá, Colombia on Friday to ask for accelerated processing of U.S. entrance visas, reports El Nuevo Herald. The physicians sent the plea to U.S. legislators including Senator Marco Rubio (FL) and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25), and Carlos Curbelo (FL-26).

The doctors seek to take advantage of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which The New York Times editorial board has highlighted as one of “Washington’s failed policies toward Cuba and the embargo,” calling the policy “particularly hard to justify.”

As we previously reported, the program was conceived during the presidency of George W. Bush and is designed to lure doctors from their posts and to accelerate Cuba’s brain drain by awarding them preferential entry into the United States. Opponents of the policy say that the program unnecessarily exacerbates tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, as a group of Members of Congress argued in a letter to President Obama in January 2015.

As the Cubans wait for the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá to respond to their requests, they live without legal documentation required for them to work in Colombia or rights to medical care.

AP upgrades live reporting facilities in Cuba

The Associated Press has announced its plan to upgrade the news agency’s live reporting facilities in Cuba, according to Broadcast Tech.

Andy Braddel, AP global media services director, explained that “The thaw in US-Cuba relations means more broadcasters are now getting the opportunity to go into the country and there will be a steady stream of stories emerging from Cuba.”

The Associated Press first stationed a correspondent on the island in 1870. It reported on the explosion that hit the USS Maine in 1898, a prelude to the Spanish-American War. The news agency’s presence on the island continued through the early years of the Cuban Revolution, but the AP was told to leave in 1969. Restrictions by the U.S. government and opposition by then-President Fidel Castro prevented the AP from returning to Cuba for 30 years. Correspondent Anita Snow reopened the bureau.

Now, with the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuban governments, the AP is expanded its capacity to report the news from Cuba.

Broadcast Tech also reported that AP is upgrading its facilities in China and North Korea.


Pope Francis’ upcoming visit draws attention to religion and Cuba

On July 30, a group of Cuban intellectuals and participants in a project called Cuba Posible sent a letter to Pope Francis requesting the beatification of Cuban Priest Félix Varela Morales, reported Aleteia this week.

Pope Francis, aged 78-year-old, will visit from Sept. 19-22, celebrating mass at the Plaza of the Revolution and later at the basilica of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. As it did on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba in 2012, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up a website to commemorate the Pontiff’s visit to Cuba.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website showcases a 1985 book called Fidel and Religion, based on over 20 hours of conversations between Frei Betto, a Brazilian Jesuit priest, and Fidel Castro in anticipation of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit.

International conference on dengue meets in Havana amid growing concerns over outbreak

This week, researchers at the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute, joined by experts from other Cuban state institutions, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization, began the 14th International Dengue Course. Participants from North America (including the U.S.), South America, and Europe will be on hand for the eleven-day meeting.

The conference enables healthcare researchers and providers to debate and discuss the development of antiviral substances, genetics, the virus, its vector, new control tools, the influence of climate change on dengue, and confrontation of emergencies. The meeting in Havana is extremely timely given the current outbreak of dengue in Cuba.

Last week, authorities in Holguin, a city in the northeast of Cuba, postponed the city’s annual carnival in response to an outbreak of the dengue virus, according to the Havana Times. The Provincial Health Office reports that the city’s infection rate is significantly higher than normal; the area has also seen an increase in the Chikungunya virus which, like dengue, is transmitted to humans by mosquitos. Authorities report that Santa Clara and Sagua la Grande are also at risk.

There is no vaccination to prevent the spread of dengue, which causes a high fever and several other symptoms that can be fatal. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that a third of the world’s population live in areas at risk for dengue, with 400 million people infected each year, as illustrated by this outbreak map.

Cuba experiencing drought conditions

El Centro del Clima de Cuba (CENCLIM), reports that drought currently affects 63 percent of Cuban land. In total, 119 out of 168 municipalities are experiencing some level of drought. Eastern provinces including Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Guantánamo and Camaguey are particularly dry. As we reported in July, Cuba’s water reservoirs are far below capacity due to the lack of rainfall in its usual rainy season.

August is typically dry in Cuba; however, for several provinces dry conditions at the end of 2014 compound current scarcities. Government figures show that eight percent of the island is experiencing a severe drought, 18 percent had moderate drought conditions and 37 percent has mild drought conditions. In the hardest-hit areas around Santiago de Cuba, Fox News Latino reports that some households have gone 16 days without receiving water. To combat the drought, water trucks bring water to regions without access. Local reports explain that some of the truck drivers are profiteering from the shortage by charging residents a markup for their services.

August is expected to be a transitional month for Cuba before the rainy season begins.

Information on the Island: Cuban Internet passed by hand

With fewer than five percent of Cuban homes connected to the Internet, “El Paquete Semanal,” (the Weekly Package) is an “alternative to the web,” the BBC’s Fifth Floor podcast program explained this week.

The paquete is a terabyte of data assembled by curators who remain largely anonymous due to the semi-illicit nature of the business. The paquete is delivered to the door of subscribers, providing them with recent music, Hollywood movies, TV series, cellphone apps, magazines, and even a classifieds section. Subscribers pay between $2 and $3 or $1 and $15, depending on the amount of content they use and how often it’s delivered. It’s an expensive service in Cuba, where the average monthly salary is roughly $23.

Now advertisements for small businesses, including hair salons, private restaurants, and a cellphone repair clinic, are appearing in the weekly paquete the Miami Herald reports. One advertising firm ETres charges clients a fee to advertise in the paquete. Cuba’s government launched its own version of the paquete called the mochila, or backpack, to “avoid losing the cultural war” according to the Miami Herald. The future of El Paquete Semanal is uncertain, as access to faster and cheaper Internet in Cuba increases. Cuba analyst Ted Henken told CCTV in an interview that Cuba’s government has big plans to increase Internet access for paying customers.


Venezuela’s Vice President and other regional leaders visit Cuba

Last Sunday, President Raúl Castro met with Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s Vice President, who was in Havana to discuss Venezuela’s dispute with Guyana over the Essequibo region and bi-lateral relations with Cuba, according to Prensa Latina.

Government news sources report that President Castro and Vice President Arreaza had a “fruitful” discussion and affirmed their “excellent” bilateral relations. Their conversation reportedly included the continued development of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). ALBA, founded in 2004 by Cuba and Venezuela, is an agreement that promotes regional economic integration and socialist principals. CELAC, founded in Venezuela to push for deeper Latin American integration, is often seen as counter to the Organization of American States.

Arreaza was one of many regional leaders to visit Cuba this week. Other visitors included Salvador Sánchez Cerón, President of El Salvador, who met with President Castro and discussed expanding cooperation between their countries. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s President, and a delegation of leaders from ALBA also traveled to Cuba to celebrate Fidel Castro’s birthday.

Recommended Reading

Getting to Maybe: Next Steps in Normalizing U.S.-Cuba Relations, William M. LeoGrande, World Politics Review
William LeoGrande, co-author of Back Channel to Cuba, examines issues that must be addressed U.S. and Cuba move forward with normalizing relations, and the role of Cuba in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

N.J. author foresees easing of Cuban embargo and travel restrictions, Tim Darragh, NJ Advance Media

Dr. John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco, author of the forthcoming book “Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left, 1930-1975,” comments on changing U.S.-Cuba relations with an emphasis on New Jersey.

Havana on the Brink: What will happen to the Cuban city when American tourists arrive? Henry Grabar, The Atlantic
The article details how Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana’s chief historian, convinced Fidel Castro to allow a tourist-management company, Habaguanex, to bring foreign investment back to island.

Strong Cultural Ties between U.S. and Cuba, Andrea Rodriguez and Michael Weissenstein, Washington Post
Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein and Andrea Rodriguez discuss historical and contemporary U.S. cultural influence in Cuba.

Cuba opens its creaky doors to U.S. tourists, seeking to connect, Christopher Muther, Boston Globe
Boston Globe staff writer Christopher Muther describes a recent trip to Cuba and his observations about life on the island.

Recommended Viewing

120 Years of Rocky US-Cuba Relations in Pictures, Mark Murrmann, Mother Jones
Mark Murrmann presents a timeline of photos tracing the entire history of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Cuba: Reliving Memories of Communism, Yana Paskova, New York Times
Photojournalist Yana Paskova, reminded of childhood in Bulgaria, presents photographs and thoughts about Cuba.

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