The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cuban flag over the new embassy in Washington signals a victory shared by American advocates

The Cuban flag is raised over the re-established embassy in Washington Monday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

It was remarkable how many non-Cubans knew the Cuban national anthem well enough to sing along Monday as the flag was raised over the newly re-established embassy on 16th Street NW. Then they joined in the delirious shouts of “Viva Cuba!”

But not so surprising really, when you grasp that for many of the several hundred packed into the diplomatic mansion and filling the sidewalk outside, seeing the red, white and blue banner with the single star flapping again in Washington was the culmination of a life’s work and a life’s wait.

“It’s an amazing moment,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow with the progressive think tank, Institute for Policy Studies. “In the decades-long effort to normalize relations with Cuba, to stop the U.S. attacks and hostility toward Cuba, we have not had so many victories. Suddenly we have a victory. The flag going up — that’s huge.”

[Mojitos on the house at the Cuban Embassy’s first party]

So it was a victory party then, that mojito-soaked affair that followed the triumphant and somewhat defiant address by Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez. And yet, for many people drinking before noon, the conversations were rather earnest and sober. That is the nature of these quixotic policy idealists who never gave up. They are so used to the patronizing impatience of the old Cold War realists, not to mention the outright hostility of the Cuba-haters, that their thoughts naturally channel into a hard-shell patois of heavily footnoted emotion.

“For those of us who were committed to the values and the aspirations of the Cuban revolution, the flag, as Fidel said in April 1959 when he was in this building, was a reflection of Operation Truth,” said James Early, a Cuba specialist who recently retired from the Smithsonian. Raising that flag again “is a recognition of Cuba’s right to sovereignty and self-determination…and to more freely deal with its own internal self-criticism, its failures, its errors, in the context of its extraordinary achievements.”

Peter Kornbluh, who runs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, was carrying around a book he co-authored, “Back Channel to Cuba,” about the twisted secret history of outreach between the nations.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he said. “It’s a flag flying in the winds of change.”

[Full diplomatic ties after five decades]

Not that there wasn’t plenty unfiltered emotion. Standing near Bennis was Valerie Landau, daughter of the late documentary filmmaker and activist Saul Landau. The elder Landau spent the better part of his life working toward this moment, before cancer cut his work short in the middle of another documentary on Cuba, in 2013. Traveling with Castro through Cuba in the late 1960s, he memorably filmed the revolutionary leader shedding his uniform and playing baseball, shirtless, with peasants. At the embassy Monday, more than one veteran of the struggle for Cuban engagement choked up at the absence of Landau and his camera at such a milestone.

“We’re continuing his work in our own way,” said Valerie Landau, who leads tours to Cuba and also works with the Cuban health ministry on education programs. “I think this is a real crossroads, and there’s going to be a lot of change in Cuba. Some of it at their own speed and choice, and some of it as a result of an avalanche of interest on the part of Americans who are hungry to know and see Cuba.”

The limestone and marble mansion opened as the Cuban Embassy in 1919 and quickly established itself as a delightful society party venue. Diplomatic relations were broken in 1961, two years after Castro took power. The mansion was shuttered. It re-opened in 1977 as the Cuban Interests Section, parallel with a U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The move to have full-fledged embassies again came after President Obama and President Raúl Castro resolved in December to normalize relations.

As they return to their place in Washington’s embassy society, the Cubans will have to learn from the Venezuelans or the British about efficient crowd management. Hundreds were stuck on the sidewalk in a slow-moving line under a Havana-harsh sun without the grace of a breeze from the Malecón. They amused themselves with inside jokes about life in Cuba.

“This is Cuban style: always a long line!” one called out in Spanish. Everyone laughed.

Code Pink provided entertainment with chants and signs that said, “Salsa sí! Embargo no!”

The trade embargo and travel restrictions remain in effect unless Congress votes for a change.

“I didn’t know if I’d live to see this day,” said Code Pink organizer Medea Benjamin, who lived in Cuba from 1979 to 1983.

She said she was deported for being so outspoken — hence her “love-hate relationship” with Cuba. Lately it’s been more love. She leads large tours of activists to the island and is planning an upcoming teach-in in the city of Guantanamo against continued U.S. control of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

“We could learn so much from each other,” Benjamin said.

Inside the embassy, actor Danny Glover drifted from room to room. A regular visitor, his ties to Cuba run so deep than when the remaining Cuban Five prisoners were released by the United States in December, one of the first phone calls made by their informal leader Gerardo Hernandez as a free man was to Glover.

“I’m excited,” Glover said. “This is the beginning of another narrative….What’s happened in the last 54 years is an insult to our intelligence as human beings and citizens.”

Glover found his way over to celebrated Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodríguez, who was one of the bold-faced names from the island included in the Cuban delegation.

“There was a time when this confrontation [between the two nations] was so strong that many of us came to think that there was no remedy,” Rodríguez said in Spanish after posing for pictures with Glover and Benjamin. “One of the most curious things I realize today is that yes, there is a remedy. And that now we can begin to work in that direction.”

The reception was liberally sprinkled with Democratic senators and members of Congress — bipartisan exception: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — some of whom have been toiling at reaching out to Cuba for as long and as hard as the activists and the policy wonks.

“I’ve spent 25 years in Congress trying to change this policy,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who hosted Castro in the Bronx in 1995, and was criticized for it by some. “We gave him a party at a place called Jimmy’s Bronx Café. People who went to that event are texting me now saying, ‘Don’t you feel vindicated?'”

Soon it was time for everyone to head back into the blazing sun and the certain knowledge that some of the hardest work is yet to be done.

The day before he died in 1895 in the war for independence against Spain, Cuban poet and nationalist José Martí wrote a letter to a friend. He said that he was risking his life for Cuban independence in order to prevent the United States from dominating the region.

The wariness of Martí, as well as the poet’s admiration for the United States, were both cited by Rodríguez, the foreign minister, in his remarks at the embassy. You could look at the mojito party as, most of all, a celebration of the original vision of Martí, who imagined the nation where he was born and the one where he sojourned in exile co-existing as equals diplomatically, if not in military and economic might. Accepting the other’s flag, could be a starting point.

“There was a war for 56 years, and the war is over,” said Philip J. Brenner, a professor in the School of International Service at American University. “Both Americans and Cubans won….Now the two countries can deal with their disagreements with mutual respect.”