US Secretary of State John Kerry lands in Cuba, the first top diplomat to visit country in 70 years

The last US secretary of state to visit Cuba was Edward Stettinius on March 9, 1945.
The last US secretary of state to visit Cuba was Edward Stettinius on March 9, 1945. PHOTO: REUTERS

HAVANA (Reuters) - United States Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Havana on Friday to take part in a flag-raising ceremony at the US Embassy, marking the restoration of US-Cuban diplomatic relations and becoming the first chief of American diplomacy to visit Cuba in 70 years.

The last US secretary of state to visit Cuba was Edward Stettinius on March 9, 1945, for a brief stopover upon his return from an international conference in Mexico City, according to the State Department.

Mr Kerry will raise the US flag at the recently restored American Embassy in Havana, another symbolic step in improved relations between the two Cold War-era foes.

The ceremony, raising the flag over the building for the first time in 54 years, will come nearly four weeks after the United States and Cuba formally renewed diplomatic relations and upgraded their diplomatic missions to embassies.

While the Cubans celebrated with a flag-raising in Washington on July 20, the Americans waited until Kerry could travel to Havana.

Overnight, workers attached a sign reading "Embassy of the United States of America" above the entrance of the seaside building, accompanied by a US seal.

Three classic American cars like those that still ply the streets of Havana were parked on the street behind the podium where Mr Kerry will speak: a 1955 and a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 1959 Chevrolet Impala, from the year of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

Buildings surrounding the embassy were draped with large Cuban flags but the numerous flag poles in front of the embassy were bare but for one Cuban flag.

The restoration of diplomatic ties sets up the more complicated task of normalizing overall relations.

Cuba wants the United States to end its economic embargo of the island, return the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba and halt radio and television signals beamed into Cuba.

The Americans will press Cuba on human rights, the return of fugitives granted asylum and the claims of Americans whose property was nationalized by Fidel Castro's government.

Mr Kerry will be accompanied by aides, members of Congress and three US Marines who last lowered the flag there in January 1961.

Then President Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic ties with Havana as relations soured soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

The seven-storey building in Havana and Cuba's mansion in Washington were closed from 1961 until 1977, when they reopened as interests sections.

Seeking to end the long hostilities, Cuban President Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama announced last December they would restore diplomatic ties, reopen embassies and work to normalize relations.

Mr Obama also has used executive power to relax some US travel and trade restrictions but the Republican-controlled Congress has resisted his call to end America's wider economic embargo.

The Obama administration says Washington's long policy of trying to force change in Communist-governed Cuba through isolation did not work.

Mr Kerry told Univision television ahead of his trip he hoped to see a "transformation" begin to take place.

"More people will travel. There will be more exchange. More families will be reconnected. And hopefully, the government of Cuba will itself make decisions that will begin to change things."

Mr Kerry will meet Cuban dissidents at the US embassy residence in Havana on Friday afternoon. Dissidents were not invited to the morning flag-raising in deference to the Cuban government, which sees dissidents as US-sponsored mercenaries.

Restored diplomatic ties mean US diplomats can travel more freely and increase staff. Cuba has also reduced the number of security guards who keep on eye on Cubans going in and out.