By Daniel Trotta and Lesley Wroughton
HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared a new era in relations as he celebrated restored diplomatic ties in Havana on Friday, but he also urged political change in Cuba, telling Cubans they should be free to choose their own leaders.
The first U.S. secretary of state to visit the Caribbean island in 70 years, Kerry presided over a ceremony to raise the U.S. flag over the newly reopened American embassy.
"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 fulfill its obligations under U.N. and Inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas," Kerry said, his words accurately translated into Spanish and broadcast live on Cuban state television.
His comments drew a firm riposte from Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who defended his Communist government at a joint news conference and criticized the United States' own record on rights, referring to racial strife and police brutality in America.
Speaking later with reporters, Kerry said the U.S. Congress was unlikely to ever lift a punishing economic embargo on Cuba unless the Communist government improved its human rights record.
"There is no way congress is going to vote to lift the embargo if they're not moving with respect to issues of conscience," Kerry said.
Cuba fiercely rejects such conditions.
Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry director of U.S. affairs and lead negotiator in talks on restoring diplomatic relations, told Reuters in an interview that Cuba's internal affairs were not negotiable and Cuba would never seek to placate those who have been trying to undermine the government from the United States.
"We are not going to make a decision to try to please or respond to people who don't want our well-being," Vidal said in an interview. "Cuba will never do anything, nor will it move its position one millimeter to try to respond."
The two countries were locked for decades in hostilities that outlived the Cold War. On Friday, both sides made clear the rapprochement would be slow and incremental, with less challenging issues being tackled first.
The sunlit ceremony at the embassy overlooking the Malecon, the broad esplanade along Havana's seafront, was a symbolic step in a path that opened last December when President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro announced they would seek to restore diplomatic ties, reopen embassies and work to normalize ties.
Speaking at a podium outside the embassy before U.S. Marines raised the American flag there for the first time in 54 years, Kerry made plain that despite the historic opening, Washington would continue to push for democratic reforms.
Cuba has long defended its style of government in the face of U.S. hostility and pressure to change since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Obama, a Democrat who has come under heavy criticism from Republican opponents and some in his own party over the policy shift toward Cuba, has said the rapprochement is partly because the attempt to force change by isolating the island did not work.
Three retired Marines who last lowered the flag in 1961 took part in Friday's ceremony, handing a new flag to the Marine Color Guard. As the flag was raised, there were loud cheers and applause from the crowd of U.S. and Cuban dignitaries and longtime proponents of U.S.-Cuban engagement, and from people watching from neighboring balconies.
The event took place nearly four weeks after the United States and Cuba formally renewed diplomatic 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.
CRITICISM OVER DISSIDENTS
Kerry was due to meet Cuban dissidents at the U.S. embassy residence in Havana later on Friday. But dissidents were not invited to the flag-raising in deference to the Cuban government. That drew complaints from opponents of the opening to Cuba, who say Havana has made no concessions in exchange for diplomatic ties.
"Secretary Kerry's visit is especially insulting for Cuba's dissidents," said Jeb Bush, a Republican candidate for next year's U.S. presidential election. He is also a former governor of Florida, home to the biggest Cuban emigre population.
"That courageous Cubans whose only crime is to speak out for freedom and democracy will be kept away from the official ceremony opening the U.S. Embassy is yet another concession to the Castros," Bush said.
With ties now restored, there are plenty of hurdles along the way to normal relations between the two neighbors.
Cuba wants the United States to end its economic embargo of the island, return the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba and halt radio and television signals beamed into Cuba. "Lifting of the blockade is essential to be able to have normal relations," said Rodriguez, the foreign minister.
At their news conference, Rodriguez said Havana also had concerns about human rights in the United States. "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," he said.
The Americans will press Cuba on human rights, the return of fugitives granted asylum and the claims of Americans whose property was nationalized by Fidel Castro's government.
Obama has used his executive power to relax some U.S. travel and trade restrictions, but the Republican-controlled Congress has resisted his call to end America's wider economic embargo.
"We are going to move in a very thoughtful and strategic way, build confidence and see how the transformation is working, and hopefully lay the groundwork for people to be able to see that it makes sense to lift the embargo," Kerry said.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Marc Frank; Writing by Daniel Trotta and David Storey; Editing by Frances Kerry and Ken Wills)