Cuban Embassy Opens in Washington as US-Cuban Diplomatic Ties Restored

History is being made in Washington today when Cuba raises its flag and officially reopens its US Embassy after 54 years. Hundreds are gathering for this historic moment, including US and Cuban lawmakers and diplomats, activists and artists, scholars and historians. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez is leading a delegation of over two dozen officials from Havana, including Cuba’s chief negotiator, Josefina Vidal. Also among the attendees is Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez and former Parliament President Ricardo Alarcón. This afternoon, Bruno Rodríguez will hold a joint news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department, where Cuba’s flag was raised earlier this morning, joining the flags of more than 150 other countries that have diplomatic relations with the US In Havana, the US Embassy will also reopen its doors today. Kerry is set to travel there later this summer for the formal inauguration ceremony where a US flag will be hoisted. Cubans have welcomed the diplomatic rapprochement with jubilation. For more, we’re joined by Cuban-American attorney José Pertierra and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Washington, DC, where history is being made today. In a major diplomatic thaw, Cuba will raise its flag here and officially reopen its embassy after 54 years. Hundreds are gathering for this historic moment, including US and Cuban lawmakers and diplomats, activists and artists, scholars and historians. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez is leading a delegation of over two dozen officials from Havana, including Cuba’s chief negotiator, Josefina Vidal. Also among the attendees is Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez and former Parliament President Ricardo Alarcón. This afternoon, Rodríguez will hold a joint news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department, where Cuba’s flag was raised earlier this morning, joining the flags of more than 150 other countries that have diplomatic relations with the United States. In Havana, the US Embassy will also reopen its doors today. Kerry is set to travel there later this summer for the formal inauguration ceremony where the US flag will be hoisted. Cubans have welcomed the diplomatic rapprochement with jubilation. This is Professor Alberto Matos.

ALBERTO MATOS: [translated] For us, this is significant. It’s important. I think it’s a decisive step toward normalizing relations. In other words, as Cubans, we celebrate this and are waiting to see what could happen and what could continue from this point on, which we are optimistic will be things that are feasible for the Cuban people and the people of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The Cuban Embassy, which I am standing just across the street from, was built in 1917, almost a hundred years ago, becoming the first diplomatic building in this neighborhood and helping to establish this area as a diplomatic center. Fidel Castro visited the embassy in 1959 after he overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Two years later, in 1961, the United States unilaterally broke off relations with Cuba. The last time the United States and Cuba had diplomatic ties, President Dwight Eisenhower was in office.

Today’s opening of embassies is just the first step in normalizing relationships between the two countries. On Wednesday, Cuban President Raúl Castro applauded the diplomatic renewal but called on President Obama to use his executive powers to remove the ongoing US trade and financial embargo.

PRESIDENT RAÚL CASTRO: [translated] The revolutionary government has the willingness to advance in normalizing relations, convinced that both countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, for mutual benefit, beyond differences that we have and that we will have, and contribute to peace. We hope that the US president continues to use his executive powers, that he can use as president without congressional interference, to dismantle aspects of this policy that has damaged and caused hardship to our people.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Raúl Castro.

So far, the Republican majority in Congress has rejected President Obama’s calls to lift the US embargo on Cuba. Obama’s congressional opponents have also vowed to block any ambassadorial nominee to Cuba and have denounced the decision to formally remove Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. Today, three Cuban-American lawmakers – Florida Republican Representatives Mario Díaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – are holding a news conference in Miami. Ros-Lehtinen told The Wall Street Journal, quote, “Allowing the opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington is nothing but another indefensible capitulation by the Obama administration to an avowed enemy of the US”

Meanwhile, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest has dismissed such opponents as a vocal minority with entrenched partisan interests. Speaking Friday, Earnest said US restoration of relations with Cuba has strong support in Congress.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: There exists bipartisan support for advancing the policy that the president announced to normalize our relations with Cuba, but there have been some entrenched partisan interests that have tried to block this in Congress so far. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that the president can take, using his executive authority, to begin to make these changes. The president is implementing these changes because he believes it’s in the broader strategic interest of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now by José Pertierra. He is a Cuban attorney based in Washington, DC, who represented Elián González in 2000-2001. He also represented the Venezuelan government in its efforts to extradite Luis Posada Carriles.

And we’re joined by Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. He’s the co-author of the book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. An updated version of the book, that tells the secret story of how Obama used back-channel diplomacy to normalize diplomatic relations, and particularly looks at the role of the pope in the back-channel negotiations, will be published in September.

José Pertierra and Peter Kornbluh, it’s so good to have you with us on this truly historic day. People who are watching, listening right now hear all the traffic. We’re right across the street from the Cuban Embassy, which will soon hoist the Cuban flag for the first time in Washington, DC, on the Cuban Embassy grounds in 54 years. José Pertierra, you’re a Cuban American. Talk about the significance of this.

JOSÉ PERTIERRA: Oh, this is very significant. This is historic. I’ve waited for this moment all my life. In 1961, I was 10 years old, and I remember as if it was yesterday when diplomatic relations were broken. There were times when I thought I’d never live to see the day.

And now that you mention flags, Amy, it’s interesting. There’s going to be a new Cuban flag hoisted in this flagpole across the street. But inside the embassy, they are going to hoist the flag that the Cuban government took back to Cuba when, on January 3rd, 1961, Dwight Eisenhower broke relations. That flag was folded, taken back to Cuba and put in a museum in Las Tunas. And it has been brought back, and it will be flying inside the embassy today.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did Dwight Eisenhower, the president of the United States, cut off relations?

JOSÉ PERTIERRA: Well, the United States, I think, has had a problem, as you know, and this show has presented to the world knowledge of that. The United States feels that it owns a large part of Latin America, and it was very hard for the United States to stomach a revolution that said Cuba is an independent and sovereign country, and set an example for the rest of Latin America. I think, really, there were a lot of reasons, but that really was at the time the reason and has been the reason why diplomatic relations have not been restored, until President Obama did so on December 17 by announcing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, can you weigh in on that?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I can weigh in a little bit, but I just want to say thank you for having us here on this momentous day. There are a lot of people that never really thought they’d live to see today come, and so many people have worked for this day to arrive, and here it is right now.

You know, the more sinister reason that Eisenhower broke relations was because the United States was preparing to invade Cuba, the Bay of Pigs. And Fidel Castro had his intelligence agents in Central America reporting on these preparations, and he decided he wasn’t going to let the US Embassy be a “nest of spies,” as he put it, and he was going to tell the United States they had to remove almost – I don’t know – I think 70 percent of the embassy personnel, cut the embassy way down, so that it wouldn’t be a center of this espionage and preparations for the attack. And Eisenhower seized the opportunity of Fidel expelling these people, who were in fact working to overthrow the Cuban government – he seized on that opportunity as a public relations kind of hook to say, “Well, we can’t take this insult. We’re just going to break relations with Cuba.” Things have changed in the 54 years since. And now the real work begins, I think, to actually normalize overall relations beyond just diplomatic relations.

AMY GOODMAN: Because, let’s be clear, the embargo has not been lifted. And that would have to go through Congress, is that right, José Pertierra? Is there any other way?

JOSÉ PERTIERRA: Well, the president has a great deal of authority under the Constitution to further relax the restrictions of the embargo. But you’re right, Amy, the embargo was codified by President Clinton in a move that it seems unfathomable that a president would make, that stripped not only his powers, but the power of future presidents, to, by executive order, lift restrictions against Cuba. It codified it. And it’s sitting in Congress, and it’s very difficult to do it when you have a Republican-majority Congress, especially a Republican Party that has gone off the cliff in the last few years.

PETER KORNBLUH: I think what President Obama is trying to do is use his executive powers to poke holes in this dam that is the US embargo. And the holes are going to grow bigger and bigger as the kind of economic waters and cultural, social waters of US interests, various interests – you know, the people’s interests, musicians’ interests, artists’ interests –

AMY GOODMAN: Silvio Rodríguez is part of the official delegation, the great Cuban musician.

PETER KORNBLUH: Exactly, exactly. And certainly economic interests, as there are quite a few corporations and hotel industry, the shipping industry, the Carnival cruise industry, that would like to get into Cuba. And as they rush through the holes in the dam that Obama has created, the dam that is the embargo, I think, is going to erode and eventually collapse. And you’re going to have Republicans saying, “Yeah, I think it doesn’t make sense to restrict trade with Cuba.”

JOSÉ PERTIERRA: The business of America is business. Isn’t that what they say?

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the US Chamber of Commerce has been pushing for the lifting of the embargo.

PETER KORNBLUH: And they will –

JOSÉ PERTIERRA: And Carlos Gutierrez, who was secretary of commerce under Bush, has come out in favor of the lifting of the blockade. So, yeah, it’s a tidal wave.

PETER KORNBLUH: Because it – you know, I mean, because, of course, business has no politics in the end. It’s there to make money. And people see opportunities in Cuba. So, but the point is, is that we can make great strides towards better relations and normal relations with Cuba, even with the embargo in place. I think we have to be patient about that. There a lot of other serious issues, actually, that Cuba and the United States are going to be discussing from this day onward – compensation for expropriated property, the whole issue of Guantánamo, the USAID programs that are focused on promoting democracy in Cuba that are great insult to Cuba’s sovereignty. These are things that, going forward, are still going to be under discussion. But let me just say, they’re going to be under discussion under a different framework of relations, a framework of normal, nonhostile, civil ties.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back. We’ll continue with José Pertierra, learn about his story, how he came to the United States with his family from Cuba, representing Elián González and also representing the Venezuelan government in efforts to extradite Luis Posada Carriles, who still lives today in Florida. And Peter Kornbluh, also joining us, the head of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, co-author of the book, Back Channel to Cuba. We’ll be joined by Danny Glover and longtime activist Medea Benjamin. They are holding – Medea Benjamin and CodePink – a party outside the embassy today that will go throughout the day and the afternoon. Meanwhile, inside the embassy, 700 people will gather as the flag is hoisted for the first time, the Cuban flag, on the Cuban Embassy property in 54 years. Stay with us.