August 15, 2015 at 1:54 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Richard Blanco reads poem at reopening of U.S. Embassy in Cuba

Richard Blanco reads a poem at the official reopening at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in Aug. 15, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Paloma Rodriguez)

Richard Blanco reads a poem at the official reopening at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in Aug. 15, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Paloma Rodriguez)

A gay Cuban American poet who took part in President Obama’s second inauguration ceremony on Friday participated in a ceremony that commemorated the official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.

Richard Blanco recited a new poem, “Matters of the Sea” or “Cosas del Mar” in Spanish, before Secretary of State John Kerry presided over the raising of the American flag over the embassy that overlooks Havana’s oceanfront promenade.

“This has been an extraordinary day, and I am honored to have been part of this historic ceremony,” said Blanco in a statement after the ceremony. “The inspiration for ‘Matters of the Sea’ came to me because I believe the sea that separates us is also the sea that unites us.”

Blanco, 47, was born in Madrid to Cuban exiles who had fled the island after the 1959 Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Blanco and his family later settled in Miami where he grew up.

“My inspiration is thinking about 90 miles separating the two countries and the two people,” Blanco told the Washington Blade earlier this week during a telephone interview, referring to the Florida Straits that separate Cuba and the U.S. “90 miles is the sea between us.”

Human rights concerns overshadow normalization of relations

The official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana took place against the backdrop of lingering concerns over Cuba’s human rights record, including ongoing harassment of independent LGBT activists who publicly criticize the island’s Communist government.

Cuban authorities on Aug. 9 arrested dozens of people — including some who were wearing Obama masks — during an anti-government protest in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood. Kerry faced criticism from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other opponents of normalized relations between Washington and Havana over the decision not to invite critics of the Cuban government to Friday’s ceremony.

“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,” said Kerry during the ceremony.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla during a press conference at Havana’s Hotel Nacional urged the U.S. not to interfere in his country’s “internal affairs.” He also reiterated the Cuban government’s calls for an end to the decades-long American embargo against the island and the closure of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Kerry on Friday met with prominent critics of the Cuban government before returning to the U.S.

Yoani Sánchez, a prominent Cuban blogger, on her Twitter page wrote that those who attended the meting discussed human rights and democracy with the former Massachusetts senator. Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates with whom the Blade spoke earlier this week said they had not been invited to meet with Kerry.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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