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US Embassy Flag Raised in Cuba: Secretary of State John Kerry Criticized By 2016 GOP Candidates

First Posted: Aug 14, 2015 02:02 PM EDT

In Cuba, United States marines raised the U.S. embassy's flag for the first time since 1961, in a small ceremony that has been criticized by politicians in mainland U.S.

On Friday morning, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed a small crowd of guests and supporters, which included the three marines who originally lowered the U.S. flag more than 50 years ago. The three marines, Larry Morris, Mike East and James Tracy, were on hand to pass the U.S. flag to new on-duty marines.

According to Kerry, Friday's event was the diplomatic step in normalizing relations between the two countries separated by 90 miles of water.

"The restoration of diplomatic ties will also make it easier for our governments to engage," said Kerry. "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 more complex issues."

Kerry acknowledged the Cuba embargo is still in place, and it can only be lifted by congressional action -- which drew applause from audience members.

"The embargo has always been something of a two-way street -- both sides needs to remove restrictions that have been holding Cubans back," the secretary of state later added. He said lifting the Cuban embargo is "a step we strongly favor."

The Obama administration has taken steps without the need for Congress. As Kerry mentioned, Obama has taken steps on exports, imports, telecommunications and family travel but "we want to go further." Kerry called for the Castro government to make things easier for Cubans to start a business.

Kerry also thanks Pope Francis for his contribution in brokering diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state, was also thanked as she has played the pivotal role in embassy negotiations since early this year.

In mainland U.S., bipartisan opposition to the event was inevitable.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the significance and history of the U.S. flag was raised in a country "ruled by a repressive regime that denies its people democracy and basic human rights." Menendez noted that "heavy-handed police" arrested more than 90 protesters in Cuba last Sunday. He also criticized the absence of Cuban dissidents from the ceremony.

"It is shameful that on the grounds of our embassy in Havana, the Cuban regime can dictate to the United States government who may or may not attend this ceremony. If dissent is denied in the courtyard of the U.S. Embassy, it will never be allowed anywhere in Cuba. These are not values I associate with the United States," Menendez shared in a statement.

The Democratic senator added, "This is a one-sided deal that is a win for the Cuban regime and a loss for the Cuban people. The U.S. Embassy in Havana will be a hollow one, with the Cuban government limiting our diplomats the freedom of movement. It will be diplomacy for show, not in practice."

On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also criticized the Obama administration for not inviting dissidents, stating the decision is a "slap in the face" to Cuba's democracy activists. The Cuban-American Republican presidential candidate said Obama has embarked on "a pathetic policy" that welcomes the Castro government ahead of Cuban dissidents.

Fellow Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said Kerry's visit to Havana served as a birthday president to Fidel Castro, who turned 89 years old on Aug. 13. Bush recognized that U.S. policy has changed, but Cuba has not made its own policy adjustments. The former Florida governor said Cuba remains a dictatorship.

"The accommodation of the Castro regime comes at the expense of the freedom and democracy that all Cubans deserve, but Secretary Kerry's visit is especially insulting for Cuba's dissidents. That outrageous Cubans whose only crime is to speak out for freedom and democracy will be kept away from the official ceremony opening the U.S. Embassy is yet another concession to the Castros," said Bush, adding that if he's elected president, he would reverse Obama's policy.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said the reopening of the U.S. embassy rewards the Castro government while undermining the Cuban population. In a statement released from his campaign, Walker also criticized Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

"Secretary Clinton's support for President Obama's misguided Cuba policy further demonstrates why she is unfit to be commander-in-chief. As president, I would not make sweetheart deals with dictators. Instead, I would focus on facilitating greater freedoms for the Cuban people and securing relief for those harmed by the Castro regime's oppression," said Walker.

In a tweet, Clinton wrote her support of the Obama administration's renewed diplomatic efforts.

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