Secretary of State John F. Kerry ushered in a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations with a flag-raising ceremony in Havana. (Reuters)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry presided over the official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba under a blazing Caribbean sun Friday morning, declaring an end to “too many days of sacrifice and, sorry, too many days of suspicion and fear” during more than half a century of estrangement between the two countries.

As a brass band played the “Star-Spangled Banner,” three now-retired Marines who lowered the flag here in January of 1961 handed a new, folded banner to their young counterparts for it to be raised and saluted.

Before an invited audience of about 300 U.S., Cuban and foreign diplomatic officials, and a crowd of several hundred Cubans gathered outside the embassy’s fenced front courtyard, Kerry praised President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro for what he called “a courageous decision to stop being prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow.”

“The time has come for us to move in a more promising direction,” Kerry said. “In the United States, that means recognizing that U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged.” Instead, he said, it “is for the Cubans to shape.”

Neither country, he said, has “illusions about how difficult our new relationship will be.” But “we are each confident in our intentions, in the contacts we have made, and the friendships we have begun to forge,” Kerry added in an address that quoted the 19th-century Cuban nationalist hero José Marti.

But in both his embassy speech and in comments later in the day, Kerry made clear that full normalization of relations, including an end to the U.S. trade embargo, ultimately depends on improvements in the Cuban government’s 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 told reporters who traveled with him for the one-day visit.

While Kerry praised the progress both countries have made in improving their relationship in the brief eight months since Obama and Castro pledged to restore diplomatic relations severed 54 years ago, he outlined a range of issues on which the two countries plan to work, including a move toward a free and open democracy.

“We remain convinced that the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas and practice their faith,” Kerry said, “where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”

At a joint news conference, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said he appreciated the U.S. outreach and echoed Kerry’s optimism about the future. But Cuba, he said, found equal fault with human rights in the United States, and he insisted that the “reality” of Cuba’s one-party state is not the anti-democratic regime described in Washington.

Noting U.S. gender and racial “discrimination,” police “brutality” and political corruption, Rodriguez said “we also have our own concerns in the area of human rights in the United States.”

More than 50 years after the U.S.-imposed embargo, President Obama has announced an effort to normalize ties with Cuba.

“We are very much willing to talk about any of these issues,” Rodriguez said of human rights and democracy, “except that in some of them, it would be very difficult to reach an agreement.” In addition to lifting the embargo on most trade and financial dealings with Cuba, he demanded that the United States vacate its naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

After a series of meetings over the past several months on issues of common concern, Kerry said he and Rodriguez had agreed on a more formal structure to deal with three “baskets” of issues, ranging from what Kerry descried as the “easy” ones of cooperation on environmental and maritime matters, through “more complicated” matters of civil aviation and Internet connectivity, which the Cuban government has been slow to implement here.

The third package of issues, Kerry said, are the “toughies,” including human rights, law enforcement and compensation claims on both sides. The first round of those talks, he said, would begin in the District on Sept. 10.

Kerry said he hopes to return here for a stay of several days this winter. Obama has also said he would like to visit Cuba before the end of his term.

U.S. opponents of the embassy opening were quick to criticize Kerry’s visit. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush called it “a birthday president for Fidel Castro” — referring to Cuba’s revolutionary leader, who turned 89 on Thursday — and “a symbol of the Obama administration’s acquiescence to his ruthless legacy.”

Fidel Castro turned over the presidency to his brother in 2008 but remains a popular and influential figure in the communist government.

Bush, a former Florida governor, said in a statement that the absence of Cuban political dissidents at the flag-raising ceremony was “especially insulting,” and said that if he becomes president, he would “reverse Obama’s strategy of accommodation and appeasement and commit to helping the Cuban people claim their freedom.”

Kerry said in a series of television interviews earlier in the week that the flag-raising ceremony was a “government to government” event, and that he would meet separately with dissidents.

Late Friday, during a reception at the U.S. diplomatic residence, Kerry met with 10 prominent opposition activists and former political prisoners, most of whom have supported the restoration of relations. Two dissident leaders who have publicly opposed the diplomatic opening declined an invitation to attend.

Opposition activists have grown more bold in the months since the normalization process was begun, with expanding demonstrations and regular nonviolent marches that have in turn sparked an increase in short-term political detentions by the government.

Two official planes carrying the U.S. delegation to the embassy ceremony took off from Washington at dawn Friday. While they were in the air, workers in Havana hung the official U.S. seal and the words “Embassy of the United States of America” on the outside of the building along the capital’s broad seaside boulevard, the Malecón.

The embassy has been open for business since July 20. But the administration postponed the official flag-raising ceremony until Kerry could schedule his visit. The official delegation included eight members of Congress, all of whom were long supporters of restored relations.

During the flight, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) recalled that she had first visited Cuba in 1977. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) wore a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of his personal hero, Cuban slugger Minnie Minoso, the Chicago White Sox great who died this year. In his pocket, Cohen carried a laminated 1961 Minoso baseball card, which he said he hoped to present as a gift to a worthy Cuban during the trip.

Other lawmakers in the delegation, which also included selected Cuban Americans, were Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.); and Democratic Reps. Karen Bass (Calif.),and Jim McGovern (Mass.).

At the embassy ceremony, Obama’s inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, whose family left Cuba shortly before his birth in 1968, read “Matters of the Sea,” a poem he had written for the occasion.

“What matters is this,” it began. “We all belong to the sea between us.”

Before taking off for Washington at sunset, Kerry visited Finca Vigia, the home of Ernest Hemingway outside Havana.

Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.

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