Cuban Embassy Reopens In Washington, D.C., After More Than 50 Years The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., became a full-fledged embassy on Monday, marking a major turning point in diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.

Cuban Embassy Reopens In Washington, D.C., After More Than 50 Years

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After more than half a century, the U.S. and Cuba have resumed diplomatic ties.


JOHN KERRY: So it's an historic day, a day for removing barriers.

BLOCK: Secretary of state John Kerry hosted his Cuban counterpart at the State Department today, the first meeting of its kind since 1958. Kerry plans to go to Havana next month to raise the flag over the U.S. Embassy there. The Cuban flag is already flying in Washington, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Cuban-American Silvia Wilhelm flew here from Miami and arrived early to celebrate this moment with many of her friends and colleagues.

SILVIA WILHELM: I see many, many Cuban-Americans that have worked for so many years to make this happen. I see so many Americans that have worked for so many years. I see members of the business community. I see everyone.

KELEMEN: She didn't seem to mind the D.C. heat or the crowd of people all clutching their invitations to watch the Cuban flag go up outside the newly reopened embassy in Northwest Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Spanish).

KELEMEN: After the flag raising, top State Department officials, diplomats, members of Congress and many friends of Cuba moved inside the elegant mansion to hear from foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez.


BRUNO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KELEMEN: "Our lone star flag is flying once again," he says, explaining that it embodies, in his words, the generous blood that was shed and the sacrifices Cubans made for their national independence.


RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KELEMEN: He says, "we made it to this stage thanks to," quote, "the firm and wise leadership of Fidel Castro," the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution. Just the mention of Fidel's name won loud applause at the embassy.


KELEMEN: The foreign minister also raised other irritants, including the fact that the U.S. still holds onto a naval base at Guantanamo Bay. The mood, though, was festive at this Beaux-Art mansion which has long served as Cuba's diplomatic post in Washington. For a bit of history, we turned into American University professor Philip Brenner, who's been to many cultural events there over the years.

PHILIP BRENNER: They'd have concerts there. If there was a prominent Cuban visiting the United States, they'd have a reception. Sometimes, they'd have a film that they'd show. It's a beautiful building great for receptions.

KELEMEN: Sometimes, the Cubans would hand out cigars at press conferences or servo mojitos at the Ernest Hemingway Bar, a room that was named for the American writer a few years ago. But Brenner also remembers tight financial times in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its major financial backer.

BRENNER: There were New Years Eve parties there, potluck parties where they couldn't afford to feed people. But nonetheless, it was treated as an open house for people who were in solidarity with Cuba.

KELEMEN: In recent years, Cuban Embassy officials had trouble getting a bank account and had to stop issuing visas and do all of the business in cash. The U.S. resolved that problem by taking Cuba off a terrorism blacklist. Now it's a full-blown embassy, and today, the mojitos were flowing again at the Hemingway Bar. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont was there, saying he's thrilled that the two countries are opening a new chapter in relations.

PATRICK LEAHY: It's long overdue. We had over 50 years of policy that didn't work. Anybody who thinks about it knows that policy had to change.

KELEMEN: That was echoed by another Democrat in the room - Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: This is a day to celebrate, but it is just the beginning. The hard work is before us, the work of lifting the travel embargo but mostly lifting the embargo on American goods.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has gone about as far as it can go to ease travel and trade restrictions with Cuba. Congress would have to vote to actually lift the embargo. Though, Klobuchar knows that will be a tough political battle. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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