Flag-Raising in Havana — to see and hear something worth remembering

“Now comes the hard part,” wrote Fox News Latino.  “Years of work remain to normalize ties,” the Wall Street Journal said.  “Now comes the hard part,” an opinion piece in Politico repeated.

Each of these articles was posted hours before Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Cuba to lead the historic ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Havana today.

At first, reading the headlines, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

With a blizzard of images in our minds — from the missile crisis to the migration crisis, from Pedro Pan to Elián González — it’s hard for us to picture what possibly could have made the last 54 years any harder before we could arrive at the day when we saw the American flag hoisted above the U.S. embassy in Havana.

As much as anyone, we’re all about the work ahead.  We welcome the chance to build on the recent achievements of U.S. and Cuban diplomacy (documented here by Peter Kornbluh and Bill LeoGrande, the New York Times, and the Guardian among others) to give proof to the idea that engagement will improve human lives on both sides of the Florida Strait as isolation never could.

But before we rush into the next battle, let’s first savor at least some of what transpired on this historic day of flag-raising.

In his biography of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg wrote a remarkable description of the crowd that gathered to hear the Lincoln-Douglas debate.  It reads in part: “Twenty thousand people and more sat and stood hearing Lincoln and Douglas speak…With ruddy and wind-bitten faces they were of the earth; they could stand the raw winds when there was something worth hearing and remembering.”

With umbrellas protecting them from a relentless Havana sun, observers inside and outside the U.S. Embassy- the invited guests who were seated, and the thousand or more, the ones with the most at stake, the ones leaning against the sea wall, standing in the intense heat, or leaning in from the benches or concrete steps where they sat — all could see and hear much that was worth remembering.

Some Cubans began to gather as early as 6am, as the Associated Press reported, “I wouldn’t want to miss it,” one said. Cubans adjacent to one of the WIFI hotspots made available following the Obama-Castro agreement could follow what was happening inside the embassy grounds on their phones.

As the ceremony began, the State Department’s Master of Ceremonies asked the guests to be seated and to welcome — to welcome — Cuba’s chief negotiator at the diplomatic recognition talks, Josefina Vidal, along with Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S., Jose Cabañas and other Cuban diplomats, who were shown to front row seats.

Moments after they were introduced, the United States Army Brass Quintet played the Cuban national anthem, after which cheers of “Que viva!” could be heard from the Malecón.

Richard Blanco, a Cuban American we first heard  at the Inauguration of President Obama’s second term, then read a poem recasting what had divided us — the waters between Cuba and the mainland U.S. — into something that unites us.  In his “Matters of the Sea,” he spoke of the waves that “don’t care on which country they break, they bless us and return to the sea,” — and said “no one is the other to the other to the sea.”

In his remarks, Secretary of State John Kerry, the combat veteran who helped Vietnam and the United States reconcile and normalize their relations, recognized that today’s ceremony was possible because “President Obama and President Castro made a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow.”

He made clear that those opportunities could only be realized by changing the fundamental premise of U.S. policy, regime change. “U.S. policy,” he said, “is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged…After all Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape.”

Secretary Kerry also addressed “the leaders in Havana – and the Cuban people” when he said “the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”

But, he made clear that we would advocate for those ideas at the negotiating table and through greater engagement among the U.S. and Cuban people, a welcomed break from the policies and practices of the past.

When Secretary Kerry concluded his remarks, the crowd of American, Cuban, and international guests stood as the flag was raised, with the help of the three Marines who lowered it in 1961, and the United States Army Brass Quintet played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

If the morning’s headlines were meant to fast-forward us past the event that hadn’t yet taken place, the statements issued by the opponents of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy were reminders of the failed ideas that we are now in the process of replacing.

As CNN reported, Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) said the U.S. flag should not fly in a country that does not value freedom.

“A flag representing freedom and liberty will rise today in a country ruled by a repressive regime that denies its people democracy and basic human rights. 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.”

Yesterday, the Miami Herald quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) who said, “I am concerned that the image of our flag may be tarnished in the eyes of the suffering Cuban people due to the administration’s misguided concessions to Castro.”
Such statements used to thrill the crowds in Miami, but no more. NBC’s Mark Potter said earlier today that a couple of dozen protestors had gathered in Old Havana to protest the flag raising this morning, a mere fraction of the number of Cubans who came out in Havana to see and hear something truly worth remembering.

Cuba Central, August 14, 2015

This entry was posted in Exchanges. Bookmark the permalink.