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CUBAN FLAG DAY AT EMBASSY IN WASHINGTON D.C.
Author: Gregory Clay

WASHINGTON ---- An honor guard trio of men dressed in regal uniforms and sporting stern facial expressions delicately manipulated taut rope-cords as a red-white-and-blue flag reached its zenith atop a flagpole on Monday. Then a sun-baked delegation of ladies and gentlemen joyously sang the Cuban national anthem in front of a gated mansion on 16th Street, about 2.5 miles north of the White House.

With that pomp-and-circumstance on a 95-degree day in Washington D.C., Cuba was open for diplomatic relations and international business with the United States for the first time since 1961. The Cuban flag, designed in alternating blue-and-white stripes with one star dotted on a red equilateral triangular chevron covering its left-hand side, flew atop the newly opened Cuban embassy at 10:36 a.m. Eastern time.

Hundreds of celebratory onlookers, with many chanting “Viva Cuba,” lined the path along 16th Street, a key thoroughfare in Washington, between Fuller and Euclid Streets and across the way from the consulate of Mexico. As the flag rose higher and higher on the metal pole, an eclectic crowd cheered louder and louder.

A crowd that was almost boisterous in tone as the flag reached its once-improbable perch on the grounds of the Cuban embassy, which is flanked by the embassies of Lithuania and Poland, and is housed in a building that once was the domain of Switzerland.

That domain changed on a day when water bottles were plentiful and opinions were ubiquitous as Cuba found the spotlight in D.C.

Juan Carlos Perez, a late 20-ish first-generation Cuban living in Washington, said Monday was a glorious and welcomed change for him, though a bit bittersweet. “I’m for this,” he said proudly. “But my grandfather was a political prisoner in Cuba. He died there.”

One woman eagerly carried a sign featuring just one all-caps word, “FINALLY.”

Other signs were inscribed with pro-Cuba-U.S. relations messages, such as, “Cuba Salsa Si, Embargo No” and “Welcome Cuba, End the Blockade Now.” A young woman who admitted Monday was her first day of work at codepink.org, a female-led human rights advocacy group, zestfully showcased this inscription: “U.S. Y Cuba Amistad Siempre”, or in translation . . . United States and Cuba, Always Friends.

A cluster of black Cuban-Americans that gathered on the sidewalk played percussion instruments and sang Cuban songs as they rejoiced in the glory of the flag-raising.

One of them exulted, “God bless Obama.”

It was President Barack Obama who announced from the White House, in December, a restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States. At the time, Obama stated on national television, “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez led a delegation of about 30 people from the Caribbean island nation of approximately 11 million. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, paced the U.S. delegation. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, also was present for Monday’s event, which featured a strong law-enforcement presence.

At 10:54 a.m., the U.S. national anthem “Star-Spangled Banner” was played as a phalanx of television cameras from numerous U.S. networks from Washington to Miami (CNN and Telemundo) and internationally from Turkey to Japan captured the highlights of the ceremony.

More than 65 percent of the U.S. Cuban-American population of 1.8 million lives in Florida, with nearly 900,000 living in Miami-Dade County, according to The Miami Herald.

Though an overwhelming majority of the attentive observers seemed to cheer the festivities, a handful dissented.

One middle-aged white Cuban-American woman from Maryland displayed a sign with the inscription, “Freedom for Political Prisoners,” and adamantly explained, “No, I’m not happy today. This isn’t good for the Cuban people. The only people who benefit from this is the Cuban government.”

Asked what would make her happy in the relationship, she responded, “When the communism ends; we need free elections in Cuba.”

On Jan. 3, 1961, outgoing U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the closing of the U.S. embassy in Havana and severed all diplomatic relations with Cuba. The move came after the newbie Fidel Castro regime asked the United States to reduce its embassy staff. As accusations went back and forth --- Fidel Castro accused the U.S. of harboring embassy spies while the U.S. charged Cuba with an unwarranted promotion of Soviet-backed communism in the western hemisphere --- the two countries’ relationship declined to the point of no relations.

Interject the United States’ failed attempt to overthrow the Castro government in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the uber-tense Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which almost provoked a nuclear holocaust, a full-fledged Cold War was in the offing. Both events occurred during President John F. Kennedy’s administration.

Said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a Washington non-profit organization advocating improved relations between the nations: “As embassies in Washington and Havana open today, we begin a new chapter of engagement between our two countries. American diplomats will now be much better equipped to engage with the Cuban people and civil society. They will be in a stronger position to elevate issues of concern, like human rights, as well as expanding on areas of cooperation with Cuba.”

Likewise, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to Havana next month for a U.S. flag-raising ceremony on Aug. 14. That occurrence will mark the first time a secretary of state has made an official visit to Cuba since 1945.

Eloy, a 63-year-old black Cuban who moved to the United States in 1980, offered a steep sense of optimism.

“I think people in Cuba will be helped by this,” he said as he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his passport with the inscription “Republica de Cuba,” embossed on the front. Eloy lives within walking distance of the embassy.

A staunch dissenter, Francisca, a woman of Cuban descent born in the United States, countered this way as she spiritedly screamed “Traitors” while holding a sign that read, “One Day Cuba Will Be Free”: “I’m very disappointed in the U.S. government. We’ve seen an increase in the number of political prisoners in Cuba since the announcement. We’ve seen an increase in the violence against pro-democracy protesters.”

However, freelance food-and-restaurant photographer Scott Suchman, a white American who lives two blocks from the Cuban embassy, reflected a very vocal majority on this day, while coolly smoking a Cuban cigar, in saying, “I think it’s great. (The flag ceremony) abolished this relic of the Cold War. I’m excited. It’s great to see that flag up there. It’s a huge leap forward for Cuba.”

An enormous undertaking of symbolism and reality on a hot, humid and happening day in the nation’s capital.

And add another adjective to this mix . . . that is, historic.

---


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