In a historic moment in US-Cuba relations, the Stars and Stripes flag has been raised over the restored American embassy in Havana.

Secretary of State John Kerry had travelled to Havana to lead the ceremony, along with three retired members of the US Marine Corps, who had originally lowered the flag at the embassy in Cuba in 1961.

Hundreds of Cubans gathered on the embassy grounds, clapping and cheering as the flag went up.

Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from the ceremony, said the atmosphere was festive and emotional, with many having tears in their eyes as a brass band played Cuban and American songs.

Addressing the crowds, partly in Spanish, Kerry spoke of future opportunities of exchanges between the Cuban and American people, as well as business prospects.

He also urged Cuba to pursue true democracy, warning that Washington would not stop pressing for change on the island.

“The people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders,” he said.

In a joint news conference with Kerry, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez later defended Cuba’s human rights record, saying he also was concerned about the state of human rights in the United States – and in the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Meeting dissidents

Landing in Havana on Friday, Kerry became the first head of US diplomacy to visit Cuba in 70 years.

He was scheduled to meet with Cuba’s foreign minister, the country’s Roman Catholic archbishop and, separately, a hand-picked group of dissidents.

Cuban dissidents were not invited to the embassy ceremony, avoiding tensions with Cuban officials who typically boycott events attended by the country’s small political opposition. The State Department said it had invited dissidents to a separate afternoon flag-raising at the home of the embassy’s chief of mission.

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