HAVANA — US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Cuba on Friday to raise the American flag over the newly reopened US embassy, a symbolic capstone on Washington's historic rapprochement with Havana.
The Stars and Stripes have not flown over the glass-and-concrete building on the Havana waterfront since January 3, 1961, the day the United States severed ties with Cuba at the height of the Cold War.
Accompanying Kerry on the whirlwind one-day trip – the first visit to the island by a US secretary of state since 1945 – will be three septuagenarian former Marines who lowered the flag for the last time 54 years ago.
"I'm gonna love seeing that flag go back up," said 78-year-old Jim Tracy in a video posted on the State Department website.
The flag-raising ceremony will put a coda on the historic rapprochement announced on December 17 by US President Barack Obama and Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, which paved the way for the two countries to reopen their embassies on July 20.
Besides the key photo-op with the flag, Kerry will meet with Cuban officials, the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba and dissidents opposed to the communist regime.
He will not, however, meet with either Castro or his big brother Fidel, who led Cuba from its 1959 revolution until his retirement in 2006.
Underlining the sticking points still complicating relations between the two countries, Fidel Castro said in an essay published in Cuban state media on Thursday that the United States owes Cuba "many millions of dollars" because of the US trade embargo on the island.
He did not detail exactly how much money he believed was due, but Cuba said in September the half-century-old embargo had cost it $116 billion. The United States for its part says Cuba owes $7 billion to American citizens and companies whose property was seized after Castro came to power.
Obama has called for an end to the embargo, but faces an uphill battle with both houses of Congress controlled by his Republican opponents.
"Normalisation is a process. We've been very clear about that," emphasised State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner.
The two sides have made progress on a number of other divisive issues, most notably the removal of Cuba from the United States' list of "state sponsors of terrorism."
But unresolved sources of tension include the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay and Cuba's treatment of the media, activists and dissidents. — AFP