The Cuban flag rose over Washington, D.C., today at the new embassy in a moment that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said “continues to validate the Castro regime’s brutal behavior.”
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was also in Washington in the first such visit by a Cuban diplomat since 1958, what Secretary of State John Kerry called “an historic day, a day for removing barriers” before offering a few words in Spanish.
“We want to make sure that those embassies are able to function fully, and I am confident that diplomats from both countries will have the freedom to travel and to converse with citizens from all walks of life,” said Kerry, who will head to Havana on Aug. 14 to christen the U.S. Embassy.
“I thank our friends around the hemisphere, who have urged us in some cases for decades, to restore our diplomatic ties, and who have warmly welcomed our decision to do so.”
Rodriguez stressed that they “have insisted that the total lifting of the blockade is essential to move on towards the normalization of relations” — something only Congress can do — as well as the return of “illegal” Guantanamo and “the full respect for the Cuban sovereignty as well as the compensation to our people for human and economic damages.”
Kerry called those demands “absolutely no surprise, because it’s been a subject of discussion.”
“We’ve both been crystal clear with each other. There’s been no pulling of punches. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve built up an ability to be able to get to this moment. With respect to the embargo, President Obama could not have been more clear. The president has called on Congress to lift the embargo,” he said, adding that there are no plans to hand over Gitmo right now but “we understand that Cuba has strong feelings about it.”
His Cuban counterpart added that President Obama “has adopted some executive measures which are still limited in scope, but which are oriented in the right direction.”
But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was brought to the U.S. from Cuba as a young girl, said today’s flag-raising was nothing less than a national security threat in the heart of D.C.
“In the past two weeks, President Obama has rolled out the red carpet at the White House for Vietnam’s communist party leader, negotiated a dangerous deal with the Iranian regime, and moved forward with further legitimizing the tyrannical regime in Havana,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “The Cuban people’s oppressors will not hesitate to use this ‘embassy’ as a spy hub, as they have done in the past to threaten our homeland.”
“Just yesterday, Cuban State Security arrested pro-democracy members, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, which continues to illustrate how the Castro brothers are emboldened by Obama’s overtures. While human rights activists are imprisoned and jailed for speaking out for freedom and justice, the Obama administration is rejoicing and looking the other way today as embassies are opened,” she added.
Far from obeying Obama’s command to lift the embargo, Ros-Lehtinen noted that she will “look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to block funding for the expansion of a U.S. embassy in Cuba and to stop the confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to the island.”
“However, no matter the steps we are able to take, it is undeniable that today is a sad day for U.S. national security and human rights around the world,” she said.
Menendez noted there have been more than 2,800 political arrests on the island this year alone. Obama announced rapprochement with Cuba in December.
“There is no sign the Castro regime is willing to begin respecting the Cuban people’s right to freedom of expression, independent journalism, or access to information,” he said. “Diplomatic relations with the U.S. are a privilege and must be earned, yet the Cuban government refuses to make any substantial changes to uphold democratic principles and human rights since the December 17th announcement.”
Menendez stressed that “there may be a flag raising over the embassy of a dictatorship, but the real goal is a flag raising where the Cuban people are free, have their human rights respected and where we do not accept dictatorial conditions on our embassy and its people.”
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), though, told MSNBC it was “pretty emotional” to hear both national anthems played today.
I think President Obama and President Castro deserve a great deal of credit. They obviously get along well in the meetings they’ve had. They have both told me how much they think of each other. And I’ll keep on going down there. I was beginning to think this day would never come. I’m a very, very happy senator,” Leahy said.
Of the concerns of Ros-Lehtinen and Menendez, he said, “If we closed every one of the U.S. embassies around the world where we have problems with the human rights of the country we’re in, we would close half our embassies.”