US Secretary of State John Kerry declared a new era in relations with Cuba as the Stars and Stripes flag was raised on the island, but stark differences remain between the two countries over issues such as democracy and human rights.

Kerry led a ceremony to raise the US flag over the newly reopened American embassy on Friday, becoming the first US top diplomat to visit Cuba in 70 years..

"We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders," he said in a country where the Communist Party is the only legal political party, the media is tightly controlled, and political dissent is repressed.

"We will continue to urge the Cuban government to fulfil its obligations under UN and Inter-American human rights covenants - obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas," Kerry said.

Guantanamo issue

Kerry's comments drew a firm response from Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who defended his government at a joint news conference and criticised the United States' own record on rights, referring to racial strife and police brutality in America.

Rodriguez also repeated Cuba's insistence that the US relinquish the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, but Kerry said that issue is not on the table.

"Cuba is not a place where there are acts of racial discrimination or police brutality that result in deaths; nor is it under Cuban jurisdiction the territory where people are tortured or held in a legal limbo," Rodriguez said.


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The two foreign policy chiefs said diplomats would reconvene in September to continue talks to reach "full normalisation".

Washington severed diplomatic ties with Havana as relations soured soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Seeking to end the long hostilities, Cuban President Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama announced last December they would restore diplomatic ties, reopen embassies and work to normalise relations.

The economic embargo, however, legally remains in effect.

Former president Fidel Castro marked his 89th birthday with a newspaper column on Thursday repeating assertions that the US owes socialist Cuba "numerous millions of dollars" for damages caused by its decades-long embargo.

The thaw in ties has been met with mixed feelings among Cuban Americans. In the neighbourhood known as Little Havana in Miami, some Cuban immigrants demonstrated against the policy shift, denouncing Obama as a traitor who had caved in to the Castro brothers.

In Havana, hundreds of Cubans gathered to witness the raising of the flag, clapping and cheering.

"I felt so much emotion it didn't fit inside me, I give thanks that I can say that I was here to see this," Tatiana Escalona, who had not yet been born when the two countries severed ties, told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies