Top U.S., Cuban diplomats spar over human rights after U.S. Embassy in Havana reopens

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry called for a “genuine democracy” in Cuba on Friday as the American flag was raised here for the first time in more than half a century, formally reopening the U.S. Embassy and beginning what the Obama administration hopes will be an era of political reform for the island nation.

Leading a solemn ceremony outside the high-rise embassy on Havana's waterfront, Kerry urged Cuba's repressive government to allow greater human rights and political freedoms, sparking a sharp retort later from Cuba's foreign minister.

“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,” Kerry said.

With Cuban authorities suspicious of Washington's call for reforms after decades of hostility, Kerry quickly added that “Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape.” Responsibility for change “rests, as it should, not with any outside entity, but solely with the citizens of this country.”

Several hours later, at a joint press conference with Kerry, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez defended his country’s political system and took shots at the United States that underscored the steep challenge the two countries face in their effort to improve ties.

Apparently irked at Kerry’s call for “genuine democracy,” Rodriguez said his country had gender and racial equality, free education and healthcare, and didn’t suffer from the flaws of America’s cash-fueled electoral system.

“Cuba is not a place where you can see police brutality … racial discrimination,” he said. “We do not practice torture,” a presumed reference to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo on Cuba's southeast coast.

“Cuba is proud of its performance on human rights,” Rodriguez said.

The day began on an high emotional note in the embassy courtyard.

After Kerry finishing speaking at the ceremony, Larry Morris, Jim Tracey and Mike East -- the three now-retired Marines who lowered the U.S. flag to close the embassy in January 1961 -- saluted and handed a folded flag to three Marine guards in crisp uniforms.

As a military band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," they carefully raised the Stars and Stripes up the gleaming flagpole at 10:37 a.m., where it drooped in a hazy sky.

In addition to an official U.S. delegation, Kerry brought a plane full of Cuban Americans and several pro-normalization lawmakers, including Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

But a crowd of cheering, flag-waving Cubans proved more colorful, including one man who showed his enthusiasm by wearing American flag shorts and a matching sleeveless T-shirt.

U.S. officials batted down suggestions earlier this week that they were barring dissidents from the flag-raising ceremony for fear of provoking the Cuban government. During his daylong visit, Kerry was to meet political activists and others at an afternoon reception at the official U.S. residence in Havana.

He also intended to try some personal diplomacy by taking a stroll in the Old Havana neighborhood to hear ordinary Cubans speak their minds. He also hoped to tour Finca Vigia, the house where Ernest Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and the Sea" and other classics.

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The events come eight months after President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro disclosed plans to restore ties. The two countries formally renewed diplomatic relations on July 20, and Cuba raised its own flag and upgraded its mission in Washington to an embassy that day.

The embassy’s new status means U.S. diplomats will have more opportunity to travel around the island as part of their outreach to the public. They will be required to notify the government of their plans to travel but won’t need permission to go. The State Department plans to add about two dozen Americans to the current 50 U.S. diplomats in Havana.

But full normalization of relations is a distant goal. Cuba remains the target of a decades-old U.S. trade embargo that only Congress can remove. That isn't likely any time soon.

And even though American and Cuban officials praised each other for the rapprochement, neither side shied away from leveling tough charges this week.

Former President Fidel Castro marked his 89th birthday Thursday with a newspaper column that said Cuba would demand millions of dollars in compensation for the economic damage inflicted by the decades-old embargo.

A senior State Department official told reporters that the administration planned to press Cuba to pay Cuban Americans and American companies for property and assets expropriated after the 1959 revolution.

The administration has taken steps to ease restrictions on remittances, on exports and imports, and on family travel. It also is encouraging U.S. companies to help Cuba expand its telecommunications and Internet links.

"Just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, engage in trade and access information online," Kerry said.

But Cuba's government has been signaling it wants to move slowly.

Carl Meacham, a Latin America specialist at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Google offered Cuba help in making its Internet connections state of the art.

But the government declined, saying it wanted old-fashioned dial-up connections, presumably because it could retain greater control of access to the Web, Meacham said.

Critics of the diplomatic opening, including some Cuban American lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates, contend the administration has made too many concessions to a Cuban government that needs U.S. cash and investments to stabilize its foundering economy.

They point to last weekend's detention of about 90 political activists, including some who oppose the renewal of relations.

"This is the embodiment of a wrongheaded policy that rewards the Castro regime's brutality at the expense of the Cuban people's right to freedom of expression and independence," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement.

While many U.S. lawmakers support widening the opening to Cuba, opponents are in key positions to block further liberalization, especially in the House.

Some advocates fear that without further progress, the next president could roll back the changes.

"In the next year and a half, we've got to push this to the limit," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a longtime supporter of normalization.

Others contend it will be difficult for the next president to undo the normalization campaign  because it is widely supported by the public, including many Cuban Americans in Florida.

Staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report from Edgartown, Mass.

Twitter: @richtpau

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

12:38 p.m: This article has been updated with details from the joint press conference.

11:24 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional details of the ceremony and the press conference.

This article was originally published at 7:49 a.m.

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