Cuban dissidents not invited to US embassy ceremonial opening in Havana

The Guardian – by Paul Lewis

Political dissidents in Cuba will not be permitted to attend the ceremonial opening of the US embassy in Havana on Friday, a move that signals the lengths Washington is prepared to go to nurture its emerging rapprochement with the communist state.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, is to raise the flag over the building for the first time in 54 years. He conceded that Cuban dissidents, who for decades have been at the heart of US foreign policy toward Cuba, have not been invited.  

Kerry told the Telemundo TV network that it was a “government to government moment, with very limited space”.

Under pressure to show how the diplomatic thaw will lead to improvements in human rights standards in Cuba, Kerry said he would still meet dissidents at a gathering later in the day at the chief of mission’s residence. He also said he would have an “open, free walk” in Old Havana. “I look forward to meeting whoever I meet and listening to them and having, you know, whatever views come at me,” he said.

Kerry insisted that Cubans should be reassured that a return to diplomatic relations with Washington would result in the country’s leaders being held to account over their human rights record. “The message is … that we believe our engaging in direct diplomatic relations with the Cuban government, being there, being able to interact with the people of Cuba, will in fact, help the people of Cuba,” he said. “It will shed light on what is happening.”

However, the state department, which is refusing to release a complete list of invitees, later acknowledged that the event would not be exclusively composed of government dignitaries, as other private Cuban citizens – who are presumably supportive of the Castro government – will be in attendance.

Cuban government officials are understood to have signalled they would not attend the ceremony if vocal critics of the government were in attendance. “The right thing to do would be to invite us and hear us out despite the fact that we don’t agree with the new US policy,” Antonio Rodiles, head of the dissident group Estado de SATS, told the Associated Press.

Florida senator Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential contender of Cuban descent and a leading critic of the detente with Cuba, said in a statement that the embassy’s omission was “a slap in the face” to Cuba’s democracy activists. “Cuban dissidents are the legitimate representatives of the Cuban people and it is they who deserve America’s red carpet treatment, not Castro regime officials,” Rubio said.

In a speech at the Foreign Policy Initiative, Rubio pledged to invite “Cuban dissidents, Iranian dissidents, Chinese dissidents, and freedom fighters from around the world to be honoured guests at my inauguration.”

“President Obama has made no such effort to stand on the side of freedom,” Rubio added.

Although no flag has been raised at the US embassy in Havana, it formally opened last month, in tandem with the Cuban mission in Washington, heralding the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries after 54 years.

The Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, flew to Washington to witness his country’s flag raised above the buildings that had for decades operated as an interests section, and later met at the state department with Kerry.

Friday’s event in Cuba is expected to involve a similar itinerary. Kerry, the first US secretary of state to visit the Caribbean island in more than 70 years, will be accompanied by dozens of diplomats, government officials, lawmakers and other VIPs. They will include the three marines who took down the US flag in 1961, when Washington’s diplomats were effectively expelled from the country by then president Fidel Castro.

Although imbued with symbolism, few expect Kerry’s trip to Havana to lead to progress on the significant issues which still divide the countries, including the economic embargo that has suffocated the Cuban economy, and the Guantánamo Bay naval facility, which the US uses to indefinitely detain terror suspects without due legal process.

Kerry is expected to meet with Rodríguez again in Havana, but there are no plans for him to meet the Cuban president, Raúl Castro. US officials also hope that images of a US secretary of state walking freely around Havana – to the extent to which that can or will happen – will make for a potent image.

The negotiations that led to the two countries normalising diplomatic relations included an insistence, on the US side, on being able to travel around Cuba unimpeded.

“After 54 years of seeing zero progress, one of the things we negotiated is the ability of our diplomats to be able to meet with people in Cuba and not to be restrained,” Kerry said. “And I believe the people of Cuba benefit by the virtue of that presence and that ability.”

Nonetheless, both the Cuban government and state department will be tightly managing events in Havana over the next 24 hours.

The reception at the US chief of mission’s residence is expected to include dissidents, along with what a senior US official said would be “a broad swath of Cuban civil society” also including entrepreneurs, human rights activists and artists.

Journalists traveling with Kerry, however, will be excluded. “It was largely for space reasons,” the senior US official told reporters during a telephone briefing given on the condition of anonymity. “There’s nothing secret or high policy necessarily that will be going on in the event itself.”

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