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Stars and Stripes fly over U.S. Embassy in Havana for first time in half century (w/video)


The American flag was raised over the newly inaugurated U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time in more than half a century Friday morning, as relations between the Cold War-foes continue to thaw.

Cheers went out on the embassy grounds, as the banner was run up the flag pole by U.S. Marines. Outside the gates, crowds waved tiny Cuban flags.

"We are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors," Secretary of State John Kerry said shortly before the flag-raising. It's "time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well."

The three marines who last lowered the embassy flag 54 years ago — Larry Morris, Jim Tracey and Mike East — were present at the event. Kerry said the three men had vowed to see the flag fly again.

"At the time, no one could have guessed how distant that day would be," Kerry said.

The event marked the first time a U.S. secretary of state has set foot on the island since 1945. It was a busy day for Kerry, who also had plans to meet with his Cuban and Swiss counterparts, hold two media roundtables and have conversations with members of Cuban civil society, dissidents and human rights activists. He also was slated to meet Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a role in secret normalization relations between Cuba and the United States, on Friday.

Even though the United States and Cuba renewed diplomatic relations on July 20 and opened their embassies for business, Friday's ceremony marks the official opening of the embassy.

Presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco, who was born in Madrid two months after his parents left Cuba and spent his childhood in Miami, read a new poem, Matters of the Sea (Cosas del Mar), at the embassy. He said it's a plea for healing, "getting back to our own humanity, the shared humanity beyond politics" and it's addressed to people on both sides of the Florida Straits.

"The sea doesn't matter," he recited before the flag-raising, "what matters is this: We all belong to the sea between us, all of us."

Demand for invitations to the history-making event was so brisk that there also was an afternoon flag-raising and reception at the residence of U.S. Chief of Mission Jeffrey DeLaurentis, where Kerry was expected to meet with members of Cuban civil society.

Several Cuban-Americans received coveted invitations to the flag-raising at the embassy, and Kerry noted their presence and said they could "contribute much to the new spirit of cooperation."

"Above all, I want to pay tribute to the people of Cuba and the Cuban-Americans," said Kerry near the end of his speech.

Among those in attendance were Florida Crystal's Andres Fanjul, former South Florida Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, Ric Herrero of CubaNow, businessman Paul Cejas, lawyer Pedro Freyre and Alberto Ibarguen who heads the Knight Foundation.

Many more were invited to a second flag-raising and reception at the home of the American chief of mission.

As the flag went up the pole on a brilliant Havana day, Freyre said, "I almost fainted from the emotion. I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that I would see this. It's an extraordinary moment to be here."

A large Cuban crowd who had assembled outside the embassy, began to applaud as the flag climbed the pole and the Star-Spangled Banner began to play.

The events required a bit of diplomatic juggling because it's unlikely Cuban government officials would have attended the embassy flag-raising if any dissidents were present. In the eight months since the rapprochement was announced, the Cuban government has continued to routinely round up and detain anti-government protesters for short periods, provoking criticism from the United States.

One man not present was Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro.

On Thursday, his 89th birthday, he released an open letter saying the island would "never stop fighting for peace for all humanity." He also said that the United States owes the island "millions" in reparations. But he didn't mention the embassy opening.

Kerry acknowledged that the historic event might not lead to quick changes for the two long-time foes.

Washington needs to recognize "that U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba's future will be forged," he said. "Decades of good intentions aside, the policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition here in Cuba."

"It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have in the short term a transformative impact," he added. "After all, Cuba's future is for Cubans to shape."

Kerry was also scheduled to meet formally with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez later at Cuba's Foreign Ministry.

Although the two nations have normalized relations to the point where they have renewed diplomatic ties, many areas of contention remain — from U.S. concerns over respect for human rights and payment of claims for property expropriated from U.S. citizens and companies in the early days of the revolution to Cuban demands for an end to the embargo and the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay.

"We have a situation where there is a normalization of diplomatic relations but we don't have a normalized relationship. It's unusual, a very unique relationship in foreign policy," said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Calfiornia, said she has been fighting to lift the embargo for nearly four decades and has visited Cuba two dozen times.

"I have been doing this for years," she said, adding she always had hope that the United States and Cuba would renew diplomatic relations.

The American flag atop the pole outside the embassy sends the message "that finally we're normalizing relations with a country 90 miles away. It's about time. It's a good day."

But neither Lee nor several other members of the congressional delegation on the trip said they thought legislation to allow all Americans to travel freely to Cuba and to lift the embargo would be successful in this session of Congress.

But she said it will be easier to get support for ending travel restrictions.

"The travel ban, I think, is much easier for people to embrace and understand," she added.

But Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, said what is important is that "this is a turning point of a new relationship.

"Everything is not going to get done this year, or next year or maybe even the year after that," she said. "But I can guarantee it won't take 50 years."