Kerry Havana speech: clear-eyed, optimistic

Havana embassyFriday morning, a glorious day in Havana with the sun sparkling on the water along the Malecon sea wall, marked an historic event for the United States and Cuba. After 54 years of enmity,  the U.S. Interests Section (for half a century under the auspices of Switzerland) was once again the American Embassy.  The three marines who had taken down the American flag when diplomatic relations were severed in January 1961, but promised to return, participated in the ceremony  to raise the flag once again.  It was, as Secretary of State John Kerry said, a “day for pushing aside old barriers to explore new opportunities.”

Kerry’s speech was optimistic but clear-eyed. Focusing on  events of last half century rather than our checkered colonial past, he didn’t sugarcoat the Cold War history. He drew an aspirational analogy to Vietnam, where we moved over time from war to normalizing relations to robust shared economic activity.  The path from here to there in Cuba won’t be certain, and he promised that the United States will remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms, including United Nations Human Rights obligations.  Kerry acknowledged that Cuba’s future is its own to shape, but he was very specific about US commitment to free elections, open communications and other conditions that allow civil society to flourish. Auspiciously, it was broadcast in accurate Spanish translation in Cuba.

It’s certain that the two countries won’t see eye to eye on everything, but it was heartening to hear Kerry speak of people starting to learn from each other (they’re only a 49-minute flight from Miami).  Congress will have the last word on lifting the Embargo that has, along with Castro’s mismanagement, kept Cuba’s economy in the 1950’s.  But the opening of the embassy will facilitate dealing with problems like aviation, migration, environment and climate.

Friday was a potential win for the United States, for Cuba and, most assuredly, for Kerry as well as Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who has been working on the ground with diplomats and academics from both countries.  As I wrote on my return from Cuba this past winter, all the good stuff won’t happen overnight.  A really positive relationship will take time and confidence-building measures, and ceremonial events like Friday’s are not an unalloyed victory but a tiny (albeit hard-won)  step in the right direction.

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