HAVANA • US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday attended the raising of the US flag at the recently restored American embassy in Cuba - another symbolic step in the thawing of relations between the Cold War-era foes.
The ceremony to raise the flag over the building for the first time in 54 years came nearly four weeks after the US 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 Mr Kerry could travel to Havana. Overnight, workers had attached a sign reading "Embassy of the United States of America" above the entrance to the seaside building.
Three classic American cars such as those that still ply the streets of Havana were parked on the street behind the podium where Mr Kerry was to speak: a 1955 and 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 1959 Chevrolet Impala, from the year of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
The restoration of diplomatic ties sets up the more complex task of normalising overall relations.
Cuba wants the US to end its economic embargo of the island, return the US 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 nationalised by the Castro government.
Mr Kerry, the first US secretary of state to visit Cuba in 70 years, is being accompanied by congressmen and three US marines who last lowered the flag there in January 1961 and raised it again yesterday.
"I'm gonna love seeing that flag go back up," said 78-year-old Jim Tracy, one of the marines, in a video posted on the State Department website.
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 that they would restore diplomatic ties, reopen embassies and work to normalise relations.
Mr Obama has also used his 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.
Mr Kerry told Univision television ahead of his trip that 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," he said.