Flag raising at U.S. Embassy in Cuba will mark start of relationship-building efforts

Tourists ride on a vintage American car in front of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday. The embassy will hold a ceremony on Friday  to raise the U.S. flag, to mark its reopening on Havana's historic waterfront. [Associated Press]
Tourists ride on a vintage American car in front of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday. The embassy will hold a ceremony on Friday to raise the U.S. flag, to mark its reopening on Havana's historic waterfront. [Associated Press]
Published Aug. 12, 2015

The stars and stripes will run up the flagpole Friday at the U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time in nearly 55 years, officially marking the end of the Cold War in the Caribbean and the beginning of the really tough work of trying to forge a normal relationship between the United States and Cuba.

As part of a thaw that was announced Dec. 17, the two countries established diplomatic relations on July 20 and both nations converted their diplomatic missions from interests sections to full-fledged embassies.

Cuba raised its flag at its Washington embassy the first day diplomatic ties were restored, but the United States is waiting until Friday, when Secretary of State John Kerry will do the honors in Havana. Three of the U.S. Marines who took down the last U.S. flag to fly over the embassy on Jan. 3, 1961, will be guests at the ceremony.

Kerry will preside over two flag-raising events, the first at the embassy in the morning, then a second just before a late-afternoon reception at the home of the U.S. chief of mission in Havana's Cubanacan neighborhood. In addition to American business executives, academics and others who have been supportive of the U.S. opening toward Cuba, some dissidents and other members of Cuban civil society also are on the guest list for the 4:15 p.m. reception.

Demand for invitations to the events has been brisk. "It's a hot ticket," said Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America and a Cuba specialist who has been invited. With the deal to reopen embassies already consummated, "this is the champagne-popping moment," he said.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential hopeful, has written a letter to Kerry urging him to "demand the freedom and rights of the Cuban people" and to meet with dissident leaders while in Havana. About 90 dissidents were briefly detained on Sunday. Some wore Obama masks, saying it was President Barack Obama's fault that the Cuban government is growing bolder in moving against them.

Although Kerry is expected to meet with senior Cuban officials during his quick one-day trip, neither Cuban President Raul Castro nor his brother Fidel is expected at the events. Kerry is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Cuba since 1945, and his trip is a prelude to a possible visit by Obama before the end of his presidency.

During Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez's trip to Washington in July, he and Kerry talked about the possibility of setting up a bilateral commission or steering committee that would have regular meetings to discuss normalization issues.

Since Obama and Raul Castro announced they planned to work toward normalization, there have been a number of meetings and discussions on issues such as migration, telecommunications and the Internet, human rights, environmental protection and fisheries, human trafficking, cooperation on law enforcement, and counternarcotics and civil aviation.

The United States, for example, is awaiting a Cuban response on a proposal to re-establish regularly scheduled air service and has about a dozen proposals pending before the Cubans. During ongoing discussions, the Cuban side also has been pushing for the resumption of direct mail service between the two countries.

"They will deal with the obvious low-hanging fruit first," said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But negotiations on other issues will be "contentious and slow," he said.

While in Washington, Rodriguez was crystal clear about what Cuba's priorities are in the evolving relationship: lifting the blockade — the Cuban term for the embargo, the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, and reparations for economic and human damage caused by the embargo and terrorist acts against the island.

"That (reparations), I think, is a non-starter. It would wreak havoc with American foreign policy," said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California-San Diego and former senior director of the National Security Council's Office of Inter-American Affairs during the Clinton administration. "We would, in fact, be giving up economic sanctions as a tool if we acceded to Cuba on this."

Even though only Congress can lift the embargo, Rodriguez has said he thinks Obama can do more to chip away at its impact by using his executive authority. Obama has already said he wants to work with Congress to end the embargo.

Most analysts say that will be difficult in an election year. But Washington lawyer Robert Muse said Obama could further use his executive power to create a "hollowed-out embargo" — one that is essentially "more holes than cheese."

Another cloud over the budding relationship is an estimated $6 billion to $8 billion — in today's dollars — in 5,913 certified claims by U.S. companies and citizens whose properties were expropriated by Cuba during the early years of the revolution. The United States has asked the Cubans for the first meeting on claims this fall, according to U.S. sources.

"The Cuban government does recognize the principle of compensation — the argument is how much," said Feinberg.

Since Dec. 17, it's common to see U.S. and Cuban flags draped from balconies of Havana apartments and Cubans wearing clothing ranging from kerchiefs to spandex in stars and stripe patterns.

With the embassy already open, the flag-raisings are symbolic but nonetheless significant. "It's important to have these rituals," said Miami lawyer Pedro Freyre. "For people to see the American flag flying on the Malecon will really be something."

But South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen worries that raising the American flag in Havana could send the wrong message.

"The U.S. flag is the symbol of freedom and liberty not only to our nation, but across the globe. 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. We must redouble our efforts to educate and support the people of Cuba to ensure that this flag continues to serve as an inspiration for those who seek democracy, justice and respect for human rights."

Rubio has said he will seek to block confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba until topics such as outstanding claims for confiscated U.S. properties, the return of U.S. fugitives living in Cuba and political freedom for the Cuban people are addressed. Members of the Cuban-American congressional delegation also oppose additional funding to run an embassy. Ros-Lehtinen says she wants all non-security-related funding blocked.

Both Rubio and Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has long advocated for more travel to and trade with Cuba, sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as does Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who also favors blocking confirmation of an ambassador.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., "has a conundrum," said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center. Obama could make a recess appointment when Congress isn't in session, "but the question is would he make a recess appointment without even giving it a try in Congress," he said.

To ensure his Cuba legacy, however, Obama will need to go beyond opening an embassy and renewing diplomatic relations, Muse said. "He needs to build enduring trade relations with Cuba, get U.S. companies in there," he said.