Cubans stunned by Kerry speech, but skeptical of change

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Kerry: 'Cuba's Future Is for Cubans to Shape'

The sight was so unlikely that some Cubans could scarcely believe it: a U.S. secretary of state lecturing their Communist government about democracy and human rights on state television.

As the U.S. flag was raised at America's embassy in Havana for the first time in 54 years, John Kerry called for a "genuine democracy" in Cuba and his comments were broadcast across the country in full, translated accurately into Spanish so everyone could understand.

Cubans should be free to choose their own leaders, Kerry said, telling the government to respect international norms of human rights.

Cuba's government hit back by criticizing the United States' own record on rights, but it did let its people hear Kerry.

Even so, many doubt it will lead to major changes.

"It would be great if everything said were actually accomplished. We'll see if it's more than just talk," said Leyania Martinez, 44, a neighbor of the U.S. embassy who watched the ceremony on television.

U.S.-Cuban relations took a dramatic turn in December when Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced an end to decades of hostility.

SEE ALSO: Kerry in Cuba as flag raised over US Embassy

Since then, Obama has eased restrictions on travel and trade, believing engagement withCuba will do more to encourage personal freedoms on the island than Cold War-era rhetoric and a economic embargo.

Cuban dissidents believe Obama is making a real attempt at change but that Castro will hold firm, refusing to loosen the Communist Party's hold on power.

"No, nothing is going to change because the U.S. government shows good intentions but the Cuban regime doesn't, in fact everything to the contrary," said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the largest dissident group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

Like other dissidents, he was not invited to the flag-raising ceremony but he did meet with Kerry at the U.S. embassy residence.

Despite his skepticism, Ferrer was struck by the image of Kerry's message broadcast on tightly controlled Cuban television.

"Yes, that's positive for the cause," he said.

See photos from Cuba's past:

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Cubans stunned by Kerry speech, but skeptical of change
New skyscrapers, multi-million dollar hotels and apartment buildings are rising like magic along Havana's famed Malecon Sea Boulevard bordering the Gulf of Mexico, January 23, 1958. This aerial view shows Hotel Nacional de Cuba, one of first modern hotels erected 27 years ago (left, foreground, whitefaced) the new $6,000,000 Hotel Capri, directly behind the Nacional; a string of new ultra modern apartment buildings, to right of Nacional; the US Embassy (first building at right next to the sea); and new $14,000,000 Hotel Riviera (second building, right, at top of photo.) (AP Photo)
A view of the new U.S. Embassy, in Havana, Cuba, with its garden in the foreground, which has been built on the outskirts of Havana on a hill overlooking the sea, is shown April 24, 1942. The two-story stone mansion, which will be occupied by the new American ambassador to Cuba Spruille Braden when he arrives here, was constructed at a cost of $300,000. It has eight master bedrooms, seven master baths, four dressing rooms, great reception, living and dining rooms, besides three kitchens and service pantries, porches, terraces and servants quarters. (AP Photo/La Prensa)
General view of international Casino in Hotel Nacional De Cuba in Havana, October 1, 1958. This is one of the ten big casinos in Cuba whose operations now are in hands of North American gambling interests. (AP Photo)
Patron's of Havana's gambling rooms are divided about evenly between tourists from the United States and Cubans. Gamblers are shown here tbetting at the Roulette Wheel, February 9, 1956. (AP Photo)
CUBA - JANUARY 01: In the 1960's in Cuba, tractors and agricultural machines harvesting the sugar cane. This modern equipment facilitates the mechanization of Cuban agriculture. In spite of a planned economy installed in 1961, Cuba, number one world exporter of sugar, maintained its agricultural priorities from the previous period. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Fidel Castro is pictured at the front during the Bay of Pigs invasion in this 1961 photo. (AP PHOTO)
Among scores of Cubans trying frantically to obtain a U.S. visa before the American embassy closed was this Cuban-American who brought along a framed World War II certificate with his passport in Havana, Jan. 4, 1961. (AP Photo)
A view from the presidential palace to the entrance to Havana Bay, showing segments of the huge crowd of workers and peasants who heard and cheered Fidel Castro in Havana, Oct. 26, 1959. Crowd estimates ran upward to 400,000 with Cuban radio announcers claiming a million. Statue at top center is that of Maximo Gomez. (AP Photo)
View of 23rd St. in Havana, July 15, 1964. (AP Photo)
An exterior view of the Cran-Casino-Nacional Casino is shown in Havana, Cuba in an undated photo.(AP Photo)
A view of the Hotel National from the Gulf of Mexico side is shown in Havana, Cuba on Sept. 27, 1957.(AP Photo/Harold Valentine)
This aerial view shows downtown Havana, Cuba, Jan. 1958. At left is Central Park, bordering the Prado street and at center, right, is Cuba's Capitol Building. (AP Photo)
View of Malecon Drive as seen from the roof of the Nacional Hotel looking toward the heart of the city, Feb. 15, 1946. (AP Photo/Charles Kenneth Lucas)
Stampeded by Fidel Castro's orders for the U.S. embassy to reduce its staff to 12 officials within 48 hours, scores of Cuban nationals flocked to the American diplomatic mission's headquarters in hopes of obtaining a visa. The visa section was closed as the embassy made preparations to cut its staff in Havana, Jan. 3, 1961. This is but a small portion of the crowd around the embassy. (AP Photo)
Fidel Castro's speech in La Habana. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)
General view of Havana shown in September 1968 with this street scene leading to El Capitolio, now a national museum used as a meeting place for visiting foreign dignitaries to Cuba. (AP Photo)
This is the modernistic, $15 million Hotel Riviera, one of the newest in the string of luxury hotels dotting the Malecon Boulevard skyline in Havana, Cuba, Sept. 24, 1958. This is a view of the front entrance of the hotel, built by U.S. interests. The dome-shaped structure at the right is the Riviera's gold-leafed gambling casino. (AP Photo)
(GERMANY OUT) Cuba : Hemingway, Ernest *21.07.1899-02.07.1961+ Writer, USA Winner of the nobel prize for literature 1954 - Hemingway's former house 'Finca Vigia' in San Francisco de Paula near Havana, Cuba, today a museum; exterior view - 1971 - Photographer: ullstein - Kanus (Photo by Kanus/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
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A few hundred Cubans and tourists braved the intense August heat and tight security around the embassy to watch the U.S. flag go up while a U.S. Army band played the national anthem.

Others watched it all at home or at work.

Cubans are generally pleased with the rapprochement between Havana and Washington but hold mixed opinions about the extent to which it might improve their lives.

Many hope an influx of American tourists and businesses will perk up the Cuban economy, though for now the U.S. trade embargo of Cuban remains in place and the economy is weak.

"With a salary, I can't sustain myself. I just want to be able to earn enough money to live, not even to be rich or anything," said Isabel Valencia, 44, who has her own pastry business in Havana and has stayed in Cuba while most of her family has moved to the United States.

In the eastern city of Camaguey, Anaida Morales stumbled upon broadcasts of the fanfare, and said it was a popular topic of conversation while walking the streets.

"The Cuban government needs to act accordingly and be a little more flexible so the population can see more benefits," Morales said.

While some Cubans wondered about their own government, others doubted the United States was ready to change and said it had little credibility on human rights issues.

"The U.S. wants to show that they practice 'real' democracy. But who has committed more atrocities in the world than the United States? Who has invaded all of the countries of Latin America, including Cuba? The United States," said Melanio Martinez, 79.

Both the U.S. and Cuban governments say there will be many obstacles and disputes ahead. Castro, who has made modest market-style reforms since taking over from his elder brother Fidel Castro in 2008, has made clear he has no intention of allowing rapid political changes.

Felix Lopez, a locksmith from Havana, leaned on the security gate outside the embassy to get a view of the ceremony. He openly wondered how much more progress he might see.

"They say it will happen over the long term, but if the term is really long, I'm not going to see it. I'm 65 years old," Lopez said. "This is a population of seniors. Both sides need to hurry up because every day there is greater need."

(Reporting By Jaime Hamre and Marc Frank; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Kieran Murray)

See the U.S. flag raised at the U.S. embassy in Cuba:

U.S. Flag Raised at U.S. Embassy in Cuba

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