Capping off a Friday in Havana that began with the US flag being hoisted outside the US embassy, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Cuban dissidents in the evening and said the island would not see an end to a US trade embargo if Cuba’s single-party government does not make progress on human rights.
Cuban and US negotiators are scheduled to meet in Havana in early September to begin talks on normalization of the relationship between the two nations, which includes topics such as maritime security, the embargo and human rights, Kerry told reporters.
He said negotiations are set to follow three tracks. The first is to encompass areas in which rapid progress is expected, such as cooperation on naval matters, climate change and the environment. The second is set to tackle more complex topics, such as the establishment of direct airline flights and US telecommunications deals with Cuba. The last is expected to take on the toughest problems, including the embargo, human rights and each nation’s desire to have fugitives returned by the other.
While the three tracks are scheduled to proceed simultaneously, Kerry said Cuban leaders should not expect to see progress on the embargo without improvements in civil liberties in Cuba, which does not allow independent media, political parties other than the ruling communist party or direct election of anything but low-level municipal posts.
“There is no way [the US] Congress will lift the embargo if we are not making progress on issues of conscience,” Kerry said.
Kerry began the day with a nationally broadcast call for democratic change, saying: “We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas [and] practice their faith.”
Hundreds of Cubans mixed with US tourists outside the former US Interests Section, newly rechristened with a sign reading “Embassy of the United States of America.”
The crowd cheered as Kerry spoke, while the US Army Brass Quintet played The Star-Spangled Banner and US Marines raised the flag outside the building, which overlooks the famous Malecon seaside promenade.
Addressing reporters with Kerry after the ceremony, Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez responded by indignantly opening his remarks with complaints of US human rights transgressions — from police shootings of black men to mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the US naval base on Cuba that the government said must be returned.
“Cuba is not a place where there is racial discrimination, police brutality or deaths resulting from those problems,” Rodriguez said. “The territory where torture occurs and people are held in legal limbo is not under Cuban jurisdiction.”
Many Cubans disagree with that assessment, including Afro-Cubans, who say discrimination is still rampant despite the revolution’s egalitarian ideals. Human rights groups say regular, short-term arrests and beatings of the government’s critics seek to intimidate dissent.
Kerry is the first US secretary of state to visit Cuba since 1945, and his speech was remarkable for its bluntness and the national spotlight in which it came.
Many Cubans lauded Kerry’s call for reform, including greater access to technology on an island with one of the world’s lowest rates of Internet penetration. They paired their praise with calls for the US to lift the 53-year-old trade embargo and allow easier travel between the two nations.
“More democracy, elections, we hope for that to come with this diplomatic opening,” said Julio Garcia, a local mechanic.
Like US President Barack Obama, Kerry said that the longtime US strategy of trying to isolate Cuba and provoke regime change by choking off trade and fomenting grass-roots agitation had failed.
“It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have a transformative impact in the short term,” Kerry said.
“After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape,” he added.
Kerry briefly walked along Old Havana’s historic Plaza de San Francisco with city historian Eusebio Leal, stopping to look in shops, and greet residents and store owners before attending an afternoon flag-raising at the home of the US embassy’s chief of mission.
While there, Kerry addressed diplomats, Cuban-Americans and advocates of warming relations with Cuba. The event also was attended by dissidents, including Jose Daniel Ferrer, Miriam Leiva and Yoani Sanchez, who posted photographs with Kerry on Twitter.
The dissidents were not invited to the US embassy ceremony to avoid tensions with Cuban officials, who typically boycott events attended by the nation’s small political opposition.
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