Senators Hail A New Beginning In Cuba

Senators Hail A New Beginning In Cuba

10:36am Aug 15, 2015

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Secretary of State John Kerry raised the flag over the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Cuba yesterday. Mr. Kerry says he hopes to get back to Cuba sometime this winter, possibly to meet with President Raul Castro. NPR's Michele Kelemen joined the secretary on his brief visit to Havana.


MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A U.S. Army quintet played as guests at the embassy gathered in the hot sun. There were Cuban officials, U.S. lawmakers and many others who have spent years trying to improve ties to Havana. Three Marines, who had taken the flag down in 1961, were back to watch it rise again.


KELEMEN: It was an emotional moment for one of them, 77-year-old Francis Michael East.

FRANCIS MICHAEL EAST: Your adrenaline was pumping back inside, you know, you was all getting charged up. And when they gave the flag - when we gave the flag to the Marines, that was the greatest moment of my life when that flag went up. So it was beautiful.

KELEMEN: Cuban dissidents were not invited to the formal flag raising ceremony, but some did attend a reception later. And throughout the day, Kerry seemed to be walking a fine line with Cuban officials about human rights.


SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade, access information online. The embargo has always been something of a two-way street.

KELEMEN: Kerry was silent, though, when Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, took a swipe at America's human rights record, pointing to racial discrimination, police brutality, torture and indefinite detention. Rodriguez also repeated Cuba's long list of demands before relations can really be normal.


BRUNO RODRIGUEZ: The total lifting of the blockade or embargo, as you say, as well as a return of the territory occupied illegally by the Guantanamo naval base are essential to be able to develop normal relations with the U.S.

KELEMEN: Kerry says the two sides are already biting off a lot, and the future of the U.S. Naval base is not on the table. He says he told the Cubans privately they have to clean up their rights record for relations to improve.


JOHN KERRY: There's no way Congress is going to vote to lift the embargo if they're not moving with respect to issues of conscience. And we've been very clear about that.

KELEMEN: The members of Congress who traveled with him support an end to the embargo. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, calls this a new beginning.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: And I think it's more than just symbolism when you have an open embassy. We've got businesses that are interested in coming in here. We've got more citizens that are going to come on trips. And when you have that, you need a fully functioning embassy. And that's what we got today.

KELEMEN: Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California caught up with old friends.

BARBARA LEE: A lot of friends from the '70s, '80s, '90s, 2000s, and it was just really remarkable. We've got a long way to go until we lift the full travel ban and lift the embargo, but today was a glorious day.

KELEMEN: Another Democrat, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, says his interest in Cuba goes back further. When he was a 5-year-old boy with polio, Cuban-American baseball legend Minni Minoso gave him a ball.

STEVE COHEN: And he and I became friends and maintained a friendship right up to the time of his death. So I brought the hat, and I brought a baseball card 'cause I wanted to bring Minni back to Cuba with me.

KELEMEN: He left that hat with the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, hoping it will reach President Raul Castro. As for Kerry, he says perhaps he'll meet Castro on the next trip when he has more time. He did a bit of sightseeing, driving a half an hour outside of Havana to see where writer Ernest Hemingway lived.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: "For Whom The Bell Tolls."

JOHN KERRY: "For Whom The Bell Tolls."


KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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