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U.S. restores embassy while pushing for changes in Cuba

The U.S. Embassy has reopened in Cuba after 54 years. U.S. Marines raised the American flag and Secretary of State John Kerry called for change in a country where the Communist Party continues to rule unchallenged. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, reporting from Havana.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to an historic moment in Cuba this morning, Old Glory being hoisted up for the first time in more than 50 years.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It was something not seen in Havana since 1961: U.S. Marines raising the stars and stripes as the national anthem played and a crowd cheered. The audience included the three former Marines who'd lowered the flag 54 years ago.

    Also looking on, John Kerry, the first secretary of state to visit Cuba since 1945. He used the occasion to call for change in a country where the Communist Party rules unchallenged.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith, with a commitment to economic and social justice.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Later, Kerry met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, who defended the Castro government's human rights record.

    BRUNO RODRIGUEZ, Foreign Minister, Cuba (through interpreter): Cuba feels very proud of its performance when guaranteeing the full exercise of indivisible, interdependent, universal human rights, civil rights and civil liberties, on equal footing for each Cuban citizen.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Cuban dissidents were allowed to attend a flag-raising at the home of the U.S. chief of mission. They weren't, however, invited to the earlier embassy event. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and Republican presidential candidate, blasted that decision in a speech in New York.

  • SEN. MARCO RUBIO, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    Cuban dissidents have fought for decades for the very democratic principles President Obama claims to be advancing through these concessions. Their exclusion from this event has insured it will be little more than a propaganda rally for the Castro regime.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In a statement, fellow Republican hopeful Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, said Kerry's visit was "a symbol of the Obama administration's acquiescence to Castro's ruthless legacy."

    Kerry said today that talks on full normalization will start next month and President Obama plans to visit Cuba next year.

    Bloomberg's Indira Lakshmanan is covering Secretary Kerry's visit and joins me now.

    So, Indira, you were there. We saw some of the pictures of the flag being raised. What was the mood like? And, also, What's the mood like on the street behind you?

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, Bloomberg News:

    Well, this morning, I have to say it was really electric.

    There were people who were crowded, literally hundreds of Cubans crowded up against police barriers by the U.S. Embassy. Let's keep in mind this is a hugely symbolic historical day, because this is the building that the Cuban government and all of its government propaganda newspapers have referred to for decades as the nest of spies.

    And today, instead, we saw senior Cuban government officials coming together with John Kerry and his delegation. We saw the three Marines who were the same Americans who took down the flag in 1961 helping to put it back up again. And there was cheering from the apartment buildings that overlook the American Embassy.

    So there's very much — it's very hard to find anyone in the city who wasn't in favor of the normalization of ties. And there was a very happy spirit. And definitely John Kerry was trying to stress the positive: Forget the Cold War history. We have to move past all of the problems we have had in the past.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    I know you have got some technical difficulties. That's why you're holding the phone up and there's a slight delay.

    But juxtapose that event that you're describing with what happened right afterwards, some very tough words coming out of the foreign minister from Cuba at a different press conference, where the cameras weren't necessarily focused on the handshakes.

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:

    You're absolutely right.

    While John Kerry was trying to accentuate the positive and say that, look, we have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had normal ties with Vietnam, with whom we fought a war, let's forget this and put it behind us, we saw the foreign minister of Cuba saying, look, you tell us about human rights, but that in fact we have some issues with the way you deal with human rights.

    They brought up Ferguson. They brought up police brutality, unequal pay between men and women, race relations. A lot of these are common talking points that the Cuban government uses against the American government.

    And later, when we asked Secretary Kerry about it, he said: Well, that shows they're on the defensive. We're pressing them on human rights. We're pressing them on personal freedoms. And this is something which we're going to be working on as part of the dialogue.

    And Kerry made very, very clear that these talks are going to be restarting September 10 and 11 here in Havana. Then there will be a delegation coming back to the United States. And if they don't make progress on a number of issues — some of them are easier, like cooperation on environmental issues — and some of them are much harder, the issues of paying for the claims for the seized property and also the issues of human rights.

    So he made it very clear that some of these are really tough issues, and he thinks it is going to take time. But if they don't make some progress, I think — you know, I think they don't want to see backsliding. They are going to be continuing to press the Cubans on all of these issues, which Kerry referred to as issues of conscience.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We heard some criticism from Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, saying those dissidents not being at that first event was pretty important.

    But Secretary Kerry did meet with them afterwards. What was that meeting like?

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:

    Yes, that is of course an emotional meeting.

    John Kerry said from the start that he wanted to meet with all of these members of Cuban civil society. It's not just human rights activists. It's also members of the independent media, artists, private entrepreneurs, but all of them people who are, let's face it, marginalized by the Cuban state.

    He made it very clear that he was going to meet with them. But what we were told on background by State Department officials was that, just like in China, or Burma, or Vietnam or other countries that have repressive governments, it would be impossible to have government officials and dissidents in the same room, and that's why they had to have two separate events.

    Of course, that is not going to make Marco Rubio happy or Senator Bob Menendez. And the critics of the administration are going to continue to say, why did you have this meeting with the government and pay homage to the Castro government, and see the dissidents separately?

    But the explanation they gave is, in any country like this, in order to improve relations, we have to have communication, and we still have to meet with the dissidents in a separate venue.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News joining us from Havana, thanks so much.

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