By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Cuban flag was raised over Havana’s embassy in Washington on Monday for the first time in 54 years as the United States and Cuba formally restored relations, opening a new chapter of engagement between the former Cold War foes.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez presided over the reinauguration of the embassy, a milestone in the diplomatic thaw that began with a breakthrough announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on Dec. 17.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana was also officially reopened for business. But the Stars and Stripes will not be hoisted there until a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expected next month.
Without fanfare in the pre-dawn hours, maintenance workers also hung the Cuban flag in the lobby of the U.S. State Department, where it joined the banners of other countries with which the United States has diplomatic relations.
Serious differences remain between the United States and Communist-ruled Cuba, and efforts toward full normalization of ties are expected to proceed slowly for now. But the steps that officially took effect on Monday carried enormous symbolism after more than two years of initially secret negotiations between governments that had long shunned each other.
More than 500 people, including Obama administration officials, U.S. lawmakers and a large visiting Cuban delegation, attended the ceremony at the nearly century-old mansion that was being converted back into the Cuban Embassy.
The U.S. delegation was headed by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson.
A three-man honor guard marched onto the front lawn where the Cuban flag was mounted on a newly installed pole while a band played the Cuban national anthem.
As the flag was slowly raised, there were competing chants from the crowd outside the gates. “Cuba si, embargo no!” Shouted one group. “Cuba si, Fidel no,” yelled a much smaller group.
In a further sign of a desire to move past decades of enmity, Kerry and Rodriguez, the first Cuban foreign minister on an official visit to Washington since the Cuban Revolution, were due to meet at the State Department and then hold a news conference later on Monday.
NO INVITATIONS TO ANTI-CASTRO LAWMAKERS
The crowd at the embassy reopening included members of Congress who have supported rapprochement. But no invitations went to hard-line anti-Castro lawmakers, such as Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, who have opposed Obama’s outreach and modest easing of restrictions on business and travel.
“You don’t invite into your home those who want to do you harm,” Gustavo Machin, deputy director for U.S. affairs in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said in Havana last week.
The meeting between Kerry and Rodriguez will be their first since April during the Summit of the Americas in Panama, where Obama and Castro also held talks.
The opening to Cuba marks not only a legacy achievement for Obama but also a major application of his presidential doctrine of negotiating with enemies, a concept that now faces an even tougher test with a nuclear deal reached with Iran last week.
The re-establishment of embassies could usher in a new era of engagement between the United States and Cuba by easing government contacts heavily constrained since the United States broke off diplomatic relations in 1961.
A full-service U.S. mission in Havana could offer some reassurance to companies interested in investing in Cuba and also help seed the way for more – although still heavily restricted – travel to the island by American citizens.
But both countries have made clear that restoration of ties, agreed on July 1, will be just a step in a long normalization process that is only inching along because of lingering disputes as well as Havana’s desire to keep a tight rein on Cuba’s society and its state-run economy.
Differences include the U.S. economic embargo, Cuba’s human rights record, outstanding legal claims against each country, American fugitives still sheltered in Cuba and Washington’s retention of its naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
The embargo will remain in place, and only Congress can lift it, something that majority Republicans are unlikely to do anytime soon.
Neither side has named an ambassador. The Obama administration has made clear it is in no rush, mindful that Republicans have vowed to block any nominee.
(Additional reporting by Dan Trotta in Havana, Editing by Doina Chiacu and Dan Grebler)
Photo: People gather outside the Cuban embassy after the Cuban flag was raised in a ceremony in Washington July 20, 2015. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)