Putting a symbolic capstone on the United States’ historic rapprochement with Cuba, Kerry gave the cue to hoist the Stars and Stripes over the glass-and-concrete building on the Havana waterfront.
Three retired Marines who lowered the flag that day, as Washington severed ties with Havana at the height of the Cold War, were on hand to give the new flag to the Marine guard now charged with security at the embassy.
The historically charged photo-op put a coda on the historic rapprochement announced on December 17 by US President Barack Obama and Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, which paved the way for the two countries to reopen their embassies on July 20.
Kerry, the first secretary of state to visit Cuba since 1945, said the shift in US policy did not mean Washington would stop pressing for change on the communist island.
“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,” he said.
“We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy where people are free to choose their leaders with commitment, economic and social justice.”
The thawing in the Cold War conflict has been criticized by Obama’s conservative opponents.
Kerry’s visit drew barbed comments from leading Republicans, including 2016 presidential contenders Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
Rubio, a Cuban-American senator from Florida, slammed the Obama administration for the absence of Cuban dissidents from the flag-raising ceremony.
“All the people in Cuba fighting for democracy, when they protest, they are rounded up, arrested and beaten. None of them were invited to this event,” he told Fox News.
Cuban dissidents have expressed concern that the thaw between the two governments will leave them out in the cold.
But Kerry insisted the breakdown in ties and the US trade embargo on the island had failed to force Cuba to reform — and that a new path must be sought.
“There will be hiccups along the way but it’s a start,” he told reporters travelling with him on the whirlwind one-day trip.
He planned to meet with dissidents at a private reception later in the day.
Kerry was also due to take a stroll through Old Havana and meet ordinary Cubans in the historic colonial district.
He will not, however, meet with either Castro or his elder brother Fidel, the icon who led Cuba from its 1959 revolution until his retirement in 2006.