John Kerry: Reopening of Cuban Embassy Is 'Long, Overdue Step in the Right Direction'

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomes Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez to his office at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 20. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Updated | For the first time in 54 years, the red, white and blue Cuban flag flew at its embassy in the United States on Monday, marking the official beginning of restoration between the U.S. and the Communist island country.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C., on Monday, the first time someone in his position visited the U.S. Department of State in almost six decades. The U.S. has taken a "historic and long-overdue step in the right direction," Kerry said Monday afternoon.

"The interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement. We have begun a process of full normalization that is sure to take time, but is sure to benefit both the people in Cuba and the United States," Kerry said during a joint press conference with Rodriguez, his Cuban counterpart.

Earlier this month, U.S. and Cuban diplomats agreed to reopen embassies in their capital cities. The historic step signaled the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries after more than five decades of hostility.

To the tune of his country's national anthem, Rodriguez raised the flag in Washington, D.C., in the morning, just hours after the diplomatic missions of each country were upgraded to embassies at midnight. Around 4 a.m. EDT, a worker at the State Department unceremoniously added the Cuban flag inside the main entrance of the agency in D.C.

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Policemen detain protester Danilo Maldonado after he splattered red paint from a pouch hidden in his clothing, outside the flag-raising ceremony at the Cuban Embassy in Washington July 20, 2015. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Kerry and Rodriguez met to discuss the opening of the embassies, as well as what Kerry called "mutual concern" for cooperation in law enforcement, counternarcotics, telecommunications, human rights and the Internet.

"Change is rarely easy, especially when earlier positions have been so deeply ingrained and so profoundly felt," Kerry said. "Nothing is more futile than trying to live in the past."

Through a translator, Rodriguez acknowledged his pleasure in removing barriers between the two countries, and his anticipation to welcome Kerry into his country on August 14 for a ceremonial flag-raising event at the U.S. embassy on the island.

Until Monday, the United States had not maintained an embassy in Havana since January 3, 1961, when President Dwight Eisenhower withdrew diplomatic recognition of the island nation in response to Cuban demands that U.S. embassy staff be reduced. The two countries' diplomats maintained de facto embassies, called "interests sections," since the late 1970s.

A group of protesters gathered in D.C. on Monday, holding signs that read: "No Cuban embassy in U.S.," "Another day of infamy" and "Revoke Obama's policies." At least one protester, who was covered in red paint, was arrested after the flag was raised at the Cuban embassy.

In December, President Barack Obama announced his intent to normalize relations between the two countries. Since then, the United States has removed Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list and has loosened restrictions barring U.S. citizens from traveling to the island nation. Obama has asked Congress to lift the travel embargo that prevents most Americans from visiting Cuba.

"There is nothing to be lost and much to be gained," Kerry said, by encouraging travel and the exchange of ideas between Americans and Cubans.