On September 11, in Havana, the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission held its first meeting. It decided on an agenda for the future discussions and hoped-for resolution of remaining issues regarding normalization of relations. The commission agreed to meet again in November in Washington, D.C. to review progress in these areas and to chart areas of cooperation for 2016.
The agenda has been divided into three tracks, with the first encompassing issues where there is significant agreement and the possibility of short-term progress. These include re-establishing regularly scheduled flights, environmental protection, natural disaster response, health and combatting drug trafficking. A second track includes more difficult topics such as human rights, human trafficking, climate change and epidemics. The third includes complex, longer-term issues like the return of the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. damage claims over properties nationalized in Cuba after the 1959 revolution and Cuba’s damage claims for more than $300 billion in alleged economic damages from the U.S. embargo and for what it says are other acts of aggression.
Cuba reiterated its opposition to the comprehensive U.S. economic embargo, the U.S. occupation of Guantanamo and anti-communist radio and television broadcasts beamed into Cuba, but did not seek to place them on the agenda because they were measures unilaterally imposed by the United States.
Both sides agreed the discussions were full and frank, extensive, and conducted in a courteous and respectful manner.
Cuba’s delegation was led by Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Foreign Ministry’s director general for the United States, The U.S.’ by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba, Edward Alex Lee, accompanied by the Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff, David McKean; and Charge d’affaires ad interim Jeffery DeLaurentis. Below to the left is a photograph of the Cuban delegation; below to the right is a photograph of the U.S. delegation.
Vidal indicated that the both sides saw the start of the process as opening at least the possibility of an Obama visit to Cuba, saying that it is natural for countries with normal relations to receive visits from each other’s leaders.
On August 14, 2015, the U.S. formally opened its Embassy in Havana, Cuba with the raising of the American flag and a program featuring remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that were telecast and broadcast live throughout the island. Thus, his message, in one sense, was directed to the Cuban people, and the words in bold in the following remarks were especially addressed to them.
Kerry started by recognizing that “this is truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities” and that Presidents Obama and Castro had made “a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow.”
The U.S. needs to recognize that “U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged. Decades of good intentions aside, the policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition in Cuba. It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have, in a short term, a transformational impact. After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape. Responsibility for the nature and quality of governance and accountability rests, as it should, not with any outside entity; but solely within the citizens of this country.”
“But the leaders in Havana – and the Cuban people – should also know that the United States will always remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms. . . .[We] will continue to urge the Cuban Government to fulfill its obligations under the UN and inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas.”
“And indeed, we remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; 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.”
We “believe it’s helpful for the people of our nations to learn more about each other, to meet each other. That is why we are encouraged that travel from the United States to Cuba has already increased by 35 percent since January and is continuing to go up. We are encouraged that more and more U.S. companies are exploring commercial ventures here that would create opportunities for Cuba’s own rising number of entrepreneurs, and we are encouraged that U.S. firms are interested in helping Cuba expand its telecommunications and internet links, and that the government here recently pledged to create dozens of new and more affordable Wi-Fi hotspots.”
“The restoration of diplomatic ties will also make it easier for our governments to engage. After all, we are neighbors, and neighbors will always have much to discuss in such areas as civil aviation, migration policy, disaster preparedness, protecting marine environment, global climate change, and other tougher and more complicated issues. Having normal relations makes it easier for us to talk, and talk can deepen understanding even when we know full well we will not see eye to eye on everything.”
“We are all aware that . . . the overall U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba remains in place and can only be lifted by congressional action – a step that we strongly favor. For now, the President has taken steps to ease restrictions on remittances, on exports and imports to help Cuban private entrepreneurs, on telecommunications, on family travel, but we want to go further. The goal of all of these changes is to help Cubans connect to the world and to improve their lives. And just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban Government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade, access information online. The embargo has always been something of a two-way street – both sides need to remove restrictions that have been holding Cubans back.”
Kerry also thanked “leaders throughout the Americas who have long urged the United States and Cuba to restore normal ties [and] the Holy Father Pope Francis and the Vatican for supporting the start of a new chapter in relations between our countries.”
He then paid “tribute to the people of Cuba and to the Cuban American community in the United States. Jose Marti once said that ‘everything that divides men…is a sin against humanity.’ Clearly, the events of the past – the harsh words, the provocative and retaliatory actions, the human tragedies – all have been a source of deep division that has diminished our common humanity. There have been too many days of sacrifice and sorrow; too many decades of suspicion and fear. That is why I am heartened by the many on both sides of the Straits who . . . have endorsed this search for a better path.”
“We have begun to move down that path without any illusions about how difficult it may be. But we are each confident in our intentions, confident in the contacts that we have made, and pleased with the friendships that we have begun to forge. And we are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors – time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”
In attendance at the ceremony were Embassy staff, including Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the charge d’affaires; other U.S. federal government officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in recent negotiations with Cuba; other countries’ diplomats; U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Barbara Boxer (Dem., CA), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ);  U.S. Representatives Karen Bass (Dem., CA), Steve Cohen (Dem., TN), Barbara Lee (Dem., CA) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA);  and James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, and Zane Kerby, President & CEO of American Society of Travel Agents.
Also in attendance was a Cuban delegation, including Josafina Vidal, who led the Cuban team in those negotiations; and Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the new Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. 
Another highlight of the ceremony was the beautiful reading of a beautiful poem, “Matters of the Sea” or “Cosas del Mar,” by the Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. Afterwards Kerry walked around old Havana, met privately with Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, participated in a joint press conference with Rodriguez and met with Cuban dissidents at the official Havana residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires These other events of the day will be discussed in subsequent posts.
 Separate press releases celebrating the formal opening of the U.S. Embassy were issued by Senators Leahy, Boxer, Klobuchar and Flake. Back in the U.S. Senator Marco Rubio denounced the opening of the Embassy.
 Representatives Cohen, Lee and McGovern issued press releases welcoming the reopening of the Embassy in Havana.
 Dr.Cabañas visited Minnesota last October and was mentioned in a prior post.