US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cuba on Friday to raise the American flag at the new embassy in Havana, over 40 year after the shuttering of the old diplomatic mission and the freezing of relations between the two nations.
Hundreds of Cuban citizens gathered at the embassy to observe the symbolic flag raising ceremony, which was also attended by the three US marines who removed the flag back in January 1961. The symbolic step in improving US-Cuban ties comes less than eight months after US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro announced a renewal of diplomatic relations.
At the morning ceremony Kerry spoke to a crowd of diplomats and called for Cuba to move towards a more democratic government.
"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, practice their faith," Kerry said.
After Kerry spoke, US Marines hoisted the flag and a US Army Brass Quintet performed the US national anthem, the Associated Press reported. The event was broadcast on local television stations in Cuba.
"We are gathered here because our leaders made a courageous decision to stop being prisoners of history," Kerry said Friday. "It doesn't take a GPS to realize that the road of mutual isolation and estrangement that the United States and Cuba were traveling is not the right one and that the time has come for us to move in a more promising direction."
On Friday, Kerry is expected to meet with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla and also have a closed meeting with a group of dissidents within the country. Notably, no dissidents were invited to the flag raising, with the White House citing limited space as the reason for the decision. As the countries move towards warmer relations, the next step will be finding avenues to boost business and economic connections.
In January, President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes to the current US sanctions against Cuba, allowing some exports, permitting expanded travel to the island, and easing banking restrictions. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi visited Cuba in February and said there is "great enthusiasm" in Congress about lifting the embargo completely, but lawmakers have yet to act.
Watch a live stream here.