Their powerful, unexpected words were accompanied by the release of the remaining three prisoners of the Cuban Five, Gerardo Hernandez, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero, who had been unjustly incarcerated for more than 16 years in the United States.
Alan Gross, a USAID contractor detained in Cuba on charges of subversion, was also released in the exchange, along with Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban double agent who worked for the CIA.
During his State of the Union address, he called for the 53-year old blockade against Cuba to end and reiterated the concrete steps his government was taking to reestablish relations with the Castro administration. In March, the first direct flight in decades from New York’s JFK airport to Havana began operating and soon not an unoccupied hotel room could be found in Cuba’s capital.
Unprecedented, ongoing discussions between high-level officials from Washington and Havana continued through the spring and details were agreed upon for the next major stage of the thaw: re-opening embassies and formalizing renewed diplomatic relations.
Although major discrepancies and key differences threatened to impede progress, both sides were determined to move forward. A date was confirmed for the Cuban and US embassies to open in Washington and Havana, and preparations were set into motion.
At the stroke of midnight on July 20, Cuba and the US officially restored diplomatic relations and their respective embassies began to function. Conrad Tribble, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Havana tweeted just after midnight, “Just made first phone call to State Dept. Ops Center from United States Embassy Havana ever. It didn’t exist in Jan 1961.”
But it was hours later that the real celebrations began, more than one thousand miles north of Cuba’s capital, in Washington, DC.
The crowds began to gather just after dawn in front of the landmarked building on 16th Street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of the US capital. Journalists were staking out the best spots to snag exclusive coverage of one of the most anticipated events in decades, as DC police and Secret Service officers placed barrier gates around the entrance to 2630 16th Street NW. Lines of distinguished guests began to form on either side of the building, everyone trying to hustle their way in early to escape the blaring sun and tropical humidity that gave the day a real Cuban feel.
Minutes after 10am, more than 500 invited guests were allowed inside the grounds. As many of us as possible made our way up the steps to the doorway, framing the entrance in preparation of the inaugural ceremony. At precisely 10:33am, the large doors flung open and Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, led the modest delegation down the aisle to the basin of the steel flagpole that stood defiant and barren as a glaring reminder of the Cold War. But on that morning, it wasn’t just the intense sun generating warmth, shining down on the crowd below staring intently at the flagpole. The thaw had come as quick as ice melting in the hot Havana sun.
Three Cuban soldiers marched down the path, drums guiding their patriotic rhythm, and soon the colors of the blue and white with a solitary beaming star encased in revolutionary red were raised above in a glorious proclamation of victory. It was a moment frozen in time, a day many fought for but few believed they would witness. Tears accompanied by cheers of joy, “Viva Cuba! Viva Fidel” echoed in chorus throughout the streets surrounding the now-official Cuban Embassy. As the Cuban National anthem began, emotions peaked and the voice of Cuba silenced for so long by the powers seated just blocks away, took center stage, loud and clear. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution over U.S. imperialism was here and now. Cuba prevailed.
Foreign Minister Rodriguez addressed the multitude piled into the majestic ballroom on the second floor, which included State Department officials, members of Congress and friends of Cuba. “This ceremony has been possible thanks to the free and unshakable will, unity, sacrifice, selflessness, heroic resistance and work of our people and also the strength of the Cuban Nation and its culture”, he affirmed, also thanking the “firm and wise leadership of Fidel Castro”, who once visited this site in 1959 in the hopes of advancing bilateral relations.
As Cuba’s top diplomat reminded all of those present that while this moment deserves celebration and rejoicing, there is still much to be overcome. The US blockade against Cuba remains in place, as does the US military base in Cuba’s sovereign territory in Guantanamo. Nevertheless, mojitos were served from the Hemmingway Bar on the second floor of Cuba’s restored Embassy and lawyers, journalists, activists and other long-time friends of Cuba toasted victory. Silvio Rodriguez, Cuba’s most prolific singer-songwriter, who formed part of the delegation for this event, remarked that even he found it difficult to express his feelings about this day.
Outside the Embassy, the celebrations continued. Salsa music reverberated in the streets and friendly faces danced and hugged joyfully well into the night. Just over a thousand miles south in Havana, the US Embassy also opened its doors, but there was no celebration and no flag raised. The other red, white and blue flag with its 50 stars won’t be visible until Kerry goes to Cuba in August for the inaugural ceremony. Even so, this day was symbolic of what these events really mean.
Cuba has defeated more than a half-century of US aggression without ever once bowing down. Cuba has shown that no matter how small you are, it’s possible to stand strong against the most powerful obstacles, resisting even in the face of the greatest difficulties. The Cuban flag deserves to be the first to fly high, because this victory belongs to Cuba.
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