The newly reopened U.S. embassy stands along the famous Malecon seaside avenue in Havana, Cuba. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

THE AMERICAN flag is a powerful symbol of the country’s long and noble struggle to defend the values of freedom and democracy. When Secretary of State John F. Kerry raises it over the U.S. embassy in Cuba on Friday, the ceremony will mark an end to a half-century of hostility between the two nations. President Obama has gambled that establishing normal relations with Cuba — commerce, information, culture and “soft power” — is the best way to change the isolated island, still in the grip of the Castro brothers and their sclerotic revolution.

What’s unfortunate about the scenario planned for Havana is that Mr. Kerry has decided to omit the very people in Cuba who embody the values that the American flag represents: human dignity, the wisdom of the individual above the state and free access to basic rights of expression in speech, assembly and thought. These people — the dissidents in Cuba who have fought tirelessly for democracy and human rights, and who continue to suffer regular beatings and arrests — will not be witnesses to the flag-raising. They were not invited.

The official U.S. explanation for excluding the dissidents is that the flag-raising ceremony is a government-to-government affair. This is lame. Inviting the dissidents would be a demonstration to Raúl and Fidel Castro of what the flag stands for: people freely choosing their leaders, a pluralism of views and a public engaging in the institutions and traditions of a healthy civil society. Not inviting them is a sorry tip of the hat to what the Castros so vividly stand for: diktat, statism, control and rule by fear.

It would not have been hard to find witnesses to this turning point who have been muzzled and physically injured in their quest to be heard: dissidents Jorge Luis García Pérez and Antonio Rodiles, the blogger Yoani Sánchez, members of the Ladies in White, to name just a few. Mr. Kerry offers to meet with some of them separately, out of public view. It is insulting and acquiesces in the Castros’ desire that the dissidents be hidden away.

In a sense, the “government-to-government” excuse exemplifies what has been wrong in Mr. Obama’s outreach from the start. Engagement could help spark change in Cuba; most Cuban democrats agree. But it won’t happen automatically: Just look at China, with its capitalism and wealth blended with increasingly repressive rule.

Mr. Obama could have designed an engagement policy that made room for human rights and its courageous advocates, as he once promised them he would do. Instead, he’s bestowed all legitimacy on a government that can claim none in its own right — that rules through force, and not the consent of the governed. Maybe Mr. Kerry can at least leave an empty chair at the ceremony to symbolize the people, and the values, that will be kept outside the fence.