HAVANA TIMES — A new milestone in the historic rapprochement between two old enemies takes place this Friday when US Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Cuba to officially reopen the US embassy after more than half a century, report Beatriz Juez and Isaac Risco for dpa news.
The United States flag will officially wave in Havana, but the headquarters of the US embassy is actually an old acquaintance for Cubans.
Fidel Castro once called the gray concrete building a “nest of spies.” It has witnessed some of the most critical moments of conflict between the two governments. The seven-story block located in the middle of the emblematic Malecón seawall, for decades symbolized the “imperialist enemy”, when its status was only as the US Interests Section.
With his visit, part of the diplomatic thaw began almost eight months ago, Kerry will also become the first head of US diplomacy to visit Cuba in 70 years.
The last secretary of state to make the trip was Edward Reilley Stettinius in March 1945, under the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
The two countries formally resumed diplomatic relations on July 20th. On that day the Cuban flag was hoisted on the island’s embassy in Washington, in a ceremony attended by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who also visited the US State Department.
Almost a month later, Kerry plans to do the same in the garden outside the US embassy building in Havana. The facility also housed the former US embassy until relations were broken off in 1961. As of 1977 it served as the US Interests Section until returning to its former status just over three weeks ago.
Kerry will remain on the island only a few hours, returning home on the same day. The agenda released by the Cubans includes a meeting with his counterpart Bruno Rodriguez and a subsequent press conference.
“It’s basically a protocol visit, which corresponds to what the foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez did here in Washington,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue “think tank”.
Shifter believes the chief diplomat of the Obama administration must maintain a diplomatic balance during his visit, advocating the defense of human rights and political freedoms but without offending his hosts.
“It’s not an official visit to meet all Cuban sectors, but obviously he wants to send a message that with the presence of an embassy in Havana, the United States will maintain its policy of having an open dooor to all sectors, including dissidents, “Shifter told the dpa news agency.
Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a lobby group formed by Cuban-Americans who advocate the end of the US embargo against the island, believes that it is important that Kerry “has the opportunity to know the views of the civil society in Cuba.”
“I wouldn’t limit it to a specific group of people, but instead civil society in general: artists, youth, entrepreneurs, chefs,” Bilbao told dpa.
The US side has not informed of possible meetings of Kerry with opposition activists in Cuba, as some other officials carried out during visits in past months, including Roberta Jacobson, who led the diplomatic negotiations with the government of Raul Castro.
Some sectors of Cuban dissidents oppose Obama’s policy toward the island, calling the new approach a “betrayal” of the Cuban opposition, traditionally supported by Washington.
“I do not think there will be a change, probably a new dimension in the relationship between the United States and Cuban civil society,” said dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua, who supports Obama’s policy.
“I am among those who believe that the process of normalization (of relations) is positive for Cuba. That it helps all sectors,” the activist told dpa. During the Summit of the Americas held in April in Panama, Cuesta Morua was received by Obama before his historic meeting with Raul Castro.
“So far we have not been invited to a meeting with Kerry,” said Cuesta Morua on a possible encounter with the US Secretary of State in Havana.
Although the former Cuban and US Interests Sections in Havana and Washington were converted to embassies since July, both delegations are still awaiting the appointment of ambassadors.
In the US, the Republican opposition has threatened to block the appointment of a future ambassador to Havana. The Senate, dominated by Republicans, must confirm the appointment and that could take months. The lack of confirmation, however, would have no practical impact on the everyday functioning of the embassy.
The struggle over Cuba policy also threatens to move to the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Two of the candidates in the Republican primaries are of Cuban origin: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, while Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, a Cuban exile stronghold.
Rubio, who often makes Cuba the center of his campaigning, has said he will oppose the appointment of a future US ambassador in Havana until the government of Raul Castro makes a series of political reforms and progress is made on the island in the area of human rights.