The first US Secretary of State to visit Havana since March 1945, John Kerry will travel to Cuba, on Aug. 14 to formally reopen the US Embassy in an effort to further normalise relations with the country.
The US and Cuba officially restored diplomatic relations on July 20 by reopening embassies in their respective capitals 54 years after US President Eisenhower cut diplomatic ties with Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
While Cuban officials and three former US Marines who lowered the embassy flag in Havana on Jan. 3, 1961, will be among the audience at the embassy, Cuban dissidents have not been invited to the flag-raising ceremony.
A senior State Department official who asked to remain anonymous told reporters that due to space limitations Cuban dissidents will not be attending the embassy event but are instead invited to a later much larger gathering at the home of the US chief of mission along with other civil society members.
Kerry has even promised to squeeze in a stroll through the city and meet residents, telling Spanish-language US network Telemundo “I will take an open, free walk in Old Havana.”
Kerry is scheduled to meet his counterpart Bruno Rodriguez and hold a joint news conference.
The Cuban foreign minister was in Washington in July to inaugurate the Cuban embassy and complained about the US trade embargo of his country, Guantanamo Bay - a former US navy base on Cuban soil currently used to house prisoners suspected of terrorism - and what Rodriguez called US imperialist moves in the region.
US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry support lifting the embargo but are unable to do so without changing the 1996 Helms-Burton Act by going through a Republican-led Congress.
Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro most recently met in April in Panama on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, but Kerry is not scheduled to meet Raul Castro or his predecessor and brother Fidel Castro during his one-day visit.
“Normalisation is a process. We’ve been very clear about that,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.
“We’ve been very clear that [the raising of the US flag] doesn’t alleviate every challenge in the relationship, but it does give us the ability to speak directly with and to the Cuban government,” he added.
For normalisation to really take hold, Kerry needs to start trying for a reconciliation between the Cubans who fled the island and those who stayed, Carl Meacham, a Latin America specialist at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told the Los Angeles Times.
The US administration’s removal of Cuba from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism” has paved the way for easing diplomatic and trade sanctions, but the Obama administration has received its share of criticism.
Some Republicans have accused Obama of hasty action as Cuba is not yet a democracy, while Cuban dissidents previously embraced by the US government now fear that they will be abandoned in favour of better relations between the countries.
Presidential hopeful and Florida senator Marco Rubio, a second generation Cuban-American, is a vocal critic of the White House and has demanded that Kerry meet with dissidents during his visit to Havana.
If dissidents were invited to the embassy event, a “government to government affair” as described by an unnamed senior US official, there may have been a risk of Cuban officials boycotting the event, a possibility denied by the US official.
“The Cubans had no say over the invitations to our events, just as we had no say in who they invited to their opening of their embassy,” the official stated.
The official added that at the later reception “[Kerry] is certainly hoping to speak with as many people as possible during a relatively compressed period of time, among them some of the dissidents.”