The American flag was raised next to the U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in 54 years Friday, but Cuban dissidents who have influenced U.S.-Cuban relations for decades were barred from the event.
Secretary of State John Kerry justified the exclusion by telling Telemundo the symbolic opening was a “government-to-government moment, with very limited space.”
The State Department conceded the ceremony was not limited to government officials, extending invitations to select private individuals.
Notably, James Williams, president of the prominent anti-embargo lobbying group Engage Cuba, and Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the trade association American Society of Travel Agents, were both invited to the flag-raising ceremony.
“It truly shows the administration’s priorities when there’s space at the flag-raising ceremony for business interests and anti-embargo lobbyists, yet there’s no space for Cuban dissidents. Who in fact are we really supporting with this new policy?” said Ana Quintana, an analyst specializing in Latin America policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Kerry said he would meet with dissidents during a reception at the chief of mission’s residence following the embassy ceremony, after it was demanded he explain how normalized relations will improve human rights standards.
“I look forward to meeting whoever I meet and listening to them and having, you know, whatever views come at me,” Kerry said.
John Suarez, the international secretary at the Cuban Democratic Directorate, said under President Barack Obama’s diplomatic policies with Cuba, human rights have “deteriorated.”
Since Obama announced the U.S.’s plan to normalize relations with Havana in December, Suarez said violence against activists has escalated, nearly 4,000 politically motivated arrests have occurred as a result of dissident demonstrations, and “Cubans continue to be killed for trying to leave the island.”
“The current U.S. policy on Cuba will strengthen and legitimize the dictatorship and is undercutting Cuban democracies,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is the son of Cuban exiles, called the State Department’s decision to exclude dissidents in the ceremony a “slap in the face” and said it marked the event as “little more than a propaganda rally for the Castro regime.”
Kerry highlighted opponents’ concerns during the ceremony, calling for a “genuine democracy” in Cuba that includes free elections, freedom of religion and speech, and human rights improvements.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona joined Kerry’s delegation in Havana, splitting from the majority in his party to laud the embassy opening.
“The United States will be able to do much more to protect and serve U.S. citizens in Cuba and encourage a better future for the Cuban people with an American flag flying over our embassy in Havana,” he said in a statement.