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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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)

Democratic nominee Joe Biden

If you were a Trump supporter anticipating a ruinous assault on Joe Biden's integrity during that final debate, too bad. What you got instead was a series of incomprehensible outbursts from Donald Trump, who seems to assume that everybody believes whatever nonsense they hear on Fox News, just like he does.

The day after the debate was even more disappointing. The Wall Street Journal, owned by Fox News chairman Rupert Murdoch himself, dropped a front-page investigative report that directly contradicted Trump's accusations about Biden and China. The only candidate with unseemly business over there is Trump himself, whose secret account in a Chinese bank was just exposed.

For months, Trump and his minions have hyped allegations of financial corruption against Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Trump got himself impeached, with the help of legal genius Rudy Giuliani, over his attempt to force Ukraine's president to open a fake corruption probe of the former vice president and Burisma, the energy firm that once employed Biden's son Hunter. Their deception collapsed when Trump and Obama administration officials testified – with ample documentary evidence – that Biden had done nothing to protect Burisma and only carried out United States and European initiatives against corruption in Ukraine.

But that failure didn't discourage Giuliani, former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon, or the other fabricators in the Trump entourage. In recent days, they have unveiled a mysterious laptop computer that purportedly belonged to Hunter Biden and reached Giuliani and then the New York Post through a series of implausible events. There are clues that the electronic data on the laptop was invented or altered. Who might do that? Let's see: The Kremlin is seeking to harm Biden politically, and Giuliani has openly welcomed the assistance of Russian intelligence assets, so the answer is fairly obvious. Especially because Russian agents provided similar services for the Republican candidate four years ago.

When the laptop gambit flopped, the Trumpsters still didn't give up.

On the eve of the debate, a Wall Street Journal columnist published a claim that Joe Biden personally profited from investments in China fronted by Hunter. Her column was based on assertions by a shadowy but euphoniously named businessman, a certain Tony Bobulinski. In a move worthy of that old pardoned felon Roger Stone, Bobulinski actually attended the Nashville debate (after staging a "press availability" where he refused to answer any questions.)

Unfortunately for both Bobulinski and that eager Journal columnist, her newspaper on Friday published the investigation that cratered their nefarious tale. After months of actual reporting, the Journal's real journalists found that the venture cited by Bobulinski "never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals." Moreover, corporate records reviewed by the Journal's reporters "show no role for Joe Biden."

So far the Biden "scandal" most closely resembles Whitewater and the entire panoply of Clinton finance scandals that never revealed any wrongdoing whatsoever. Whatever Trump may spew and sputter, there is no plausible evidence that has been subjected to examination by journalists of integrity.

And fortunately for Biden, the nation's traditional news outlets are approaching the allegations against him with a cool and appropriate skepticism. That wasn't the case in 2016, the last time Steve Bannon played the same games. For Bannon and Giuliani, as well as their echoes across right-wing media, the objective was always to launch their false narratives into the mainstream. They succeeded brilliantly in 2016, with the assistance of the New York Times and other news organizations that should have known better and done better. This time they are failing.

In promoting these serial smears, the risk for Donald Trump is always that someone competent will inspect his record. That's what should have happened four years ago, when he and Bannon falsely attacked the Clinton Foundation while concealing the sordid truth about the Trump Foundation, a brazen criminal enterprise.

That 2016 frameup was a classic instance of projection – and we can assume the same dynamic is at work today. So now is the time to scrutinize all of the Trump Organization's crooked, conflicted deals overseas – and how he and his family have profited from his presidency.