In a historic moment in US-Cuba relations, the Stars and Stripes flag has been raised over the restored American embassy in Havana.
Secretary of State John Kerry had travelled to Havana to lead the ceremony, along with three retired members of the US Marine Corps, who had originally lowered the flag at the embassy in Cuba in 1961.
Hundreds of Cubans gathered on the embassy grounds, clapping and cheering as the flag went up.
Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from the ceremony, said the atmosphere was festive and emotional, with many having tears in their eyes as a brass band played Cuban and American songs.
Addressing the crowds, partly in Spanish, Kerry spoke of future opportunities of exchanges between the Cuban and American people, as well as business prospects.
He also urged Cuba to pursue true democracy, warning that Washington would not stop pressing for change on the island.
“The people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders,” he said.
In a joint news conference with Kerry, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez later defended Cuba’s human rights record, saying he also was concerned about the state of human rights in the United States – and in the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
Landing in Havana on Friday, Kerry became the first head of US diplomacy to visit Cuba in 70 years.
He was scheduled to meet with Cuba’s foreign minister, the country’s Roman Catholic archbishop and, separately, a hand-picked group of dissidents.
Cuban dissidents were not invited to the embassy ceremony, avoiding tensions with Cuban officials who typically boycott events attended by the country’s small political opposition. The State Department said it had invited dissidents to a separate afternoon flag-raising at the home of the embassy’s chief of mission.
Kerry’s visit comes nearly four weeks after the US and Cuba formally renewed relations and upgraded their diplomatic missions to embassies.
While the Cubans celebrated with a flag-raising in Washington on July 20, the Americans waited until Kerry could travel to Havana.
Washington severed diplomatic ties with Havana as relations soured soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
The seven-storey seafront building in Havana, and Cuba’s mansion in Washington, were closed from 1961 until 1977, when they reopened as interests sections.
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.
Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 following the revolution. He and fellow revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara then led Cuba rapidly into a socialist model allied with the Soviet Union.