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High-Level U.S. Delegation To Make First Trip To Cuba Since 1961

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Secretary of State John Kerry leads a high-level delegation to Cuba this morning, the first of its kind in decades. He's there to raise a flag over America's newly opened embassy in Havana. Among the guests are former Marines who took down the U.S. flag back in 1961, when the two countries broke relations. It's a highly symbolic moment, an event that reflects how much the U.S.-Cuba relationship is changing. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Geoff Thale has been working to improve ties with Cuba for the past two decades and says at times, he felt like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

GEOFF THALE: There are points where you saw you made progress. Things slipped back. You pushed up the hill again, and here we are today. I wouldn't say we've pushed over the top, obviously, because we still have an embargo. But we are in a totally different place.

KELEMEN: The U.S. and Cuba have restored diplomatic ties and started high-level discussions about law enforcement, property claims and many other issues. And Thale, who's with the advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America, says he's getting more meetings with Republicans in Congress to talk about lifting the travel and trade restrictions still on the books.

THALE: When we talked to Republican offices in the House a year ago, their response tended to be, we don't necessarily have the hardline views of a decade ago, but it's not an issue. We don't even need to talk about it. Thank you very much for your visit. And now that - it's the sort of come in; sit down; let's talk. I think that it's clearly on the agenda.

KELEMEN: Thale doesn't see the embargo being lifted soon but says there are various bills working their way through Congress now. And some lawmakers who are pushing them are taking part in today's ceremony in Havana, as is Thale.

THALE: What we saw with the opening of the Cuban embassy here in Washington, and now the U.S. embassy there, is kind of like popping the cork on the champagne right after the contract has been signed. So it's a nice moment.

KELEMEN: That moment won't be shared with Cuban dissidents though, who are routinely arrested, including many in recent days. Ana Quintana of The Heritage Foundation is frustrated that the State Department decided only to invite activists to a reception at the ambassador's residence, not to the embassy event, which U.S. officials describe as a government-to-government affair.

ANA QUINTANA: That's extremely offensive, to say, you know, we're not going to have them at the one where the Cuban government's going to be there. We're only going to have them at the one at the ambassador's residence. For that one, why even invite them?

KELEMEN: The daughter of Cuban exiles, Quintana thinks the U.S. Embassy in Havana is a sham.

QUINTANA: We've allowed the Cuban government to really dictate the terms of this, kind of, like, how our diplomats are going to operate on the island. You know, our diplomats are not going to have unrestricted travel throughout the island.

KELEMEN: State Department officials insist that at least it's better than before. Diplomats won't have to get permission to travel. They'll just have to notify Cuban government officials ahead of time. And businesses are increasingly looking to the reopened embassy to see what kind of opportunities they might have. Miami lawyer Milton Vescovacci runs seminars about Cuba.

MILTON VESCOVACCI: They're calling. They're going to seminars. They're attending receptions that we have, all related, you know, to Cuba. There's definitely a lot of interest in it statewide. It's not just down in Miami.

KELEMEN: But Americans hoping to sell building materials or other supplies to Cuba still have to go through a bureaucratic maze.

VESCOVACCI: It's slow. It's slow to progress (laughter). It's not happening like gangbusters.

KELEMEN: Vescovacci plans to return to Cuba in September and is glad to have a fully functioning U.S. Embassy there now. He hopes officials based there will do more to promote business connections, as they do in embassies in other countries around the world. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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