In 1961, three U.S. Marines lowered the American flag at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Today, they've returned to Cuba to raise the flag once more.
Fifty-four years ago, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba, and three young Marine guards volunteered for one final act of duty: lowering their country's flag before returning home. Today in Havana, I will watch proudly as those same Marines -- Larry Morris, Mike East and Jim Tracy -- help raise the flag over our newly re-opened U.S. Embassy.
My visit to Havana, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 years, comes nine months after President Obama announced a new approach to relations with Cuba. It is an approach based on the ties that bind our people, the interests shared by our governments, and the mutual respect that should characterize relations between two proud nations -- even when our policies collide.
Since the President's announcement last December, we have achieved significant progress. Three weeks ago, the U.S. and Cuba reestablished formal relations, and beginning today the Stars and Stripes will fly over the Malecón for the first time in more than half a century. Our diplomats in Havana are now able to do what they do around the world: travel the country, talk to Cubans and represent the values and interests of the United States. In addition, our diplomats will be able to more effectively help Americans citizens in need.
In Cuba and throughout Latin America, we are seeing the diplomatic benefits of reversing a policy that divided us from the Cuban people and isolated us in the hemisphere and the world. Whether we are working to prevent oil spills off the coast of Florida, interdict narcotics flows in the Caribbean, or champion democratic values, an engaged America will be a stronger and more influential America.
Just as crucial, American and Cuban citizens are benefiting from the Administration's policy changes. Visits from the U.S. to Cuba, which now number in the hundreds of thousands per year, have increased 35 percent in 2015. These Americans, many of them Cuban-Americans, are the best ambassadors of our ideals. They carry to Cuba new perspectives, a diversity of ideas and examples of political and economic liberty.
They also support self-employed Cubans, the fastest-growing sector of Cuba's economy, some half a million strong, who will be so important to the country's future. Americans rent rooms in Cubans' homes, eat in their paladares, purchase their art, ride in their vintage Chevys, help grow their churches, and provide the remittances that are enabling a new generation of Cubans to open small businesses and become economically independent of the Cuban state.
American companies have long clamored to pursue commerce with Cuba, and the major business and agriculture coalitions have been some of the strongest supporters of our new policy. Already, companies such as Airbnb are doing business on the island, with benefits flowing directly to Cuban entrepreneurs. U.S. firms are exploring ways to expand telecommunications and Internet links, and Cuba acknowledged the tremendous hunger on the island for Internet connectivity by announcing the creation of dozens of new Wi-Fi hot spots with lower prices.
After 50 years of stagnation, the sense of progress and potential is real. We are under no illusions that Cuba will be transformed overnight, and we are clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. Among these is Cuba's continued denial of universal human rights. Dissidents are still being detained and beaten. In Cuba, as elsewhere, we must remain steadfast in championing the rights of all citizens to speak freely, assemble peacefully, and think differently. I will take this message to Havana.
Twenty years ago, I helped normalize relations with another erstwhile adversary, Vietnam. Last week, I returned there to find a country that is market-oriented, economically vibrant and friendly to the United States. Its people are also freer -- with greater access to information and more autonomy over their lives -- though they still live in a one-party state with a long way to go on human rights.
Cuba will follow its own path based on its unique circumstances, including its proximity to the United States and a diaspora community that can play an important role in supporting its development. But Cuba's future is for the Cuban people to decide. Our commitment to a new approach acknowledges that there are many issues on which we do not see eye to eye. It is based on an honest reckoning with what hasn't worked -- a history of intervention and a Cold War policy of isolation -- and a conviction that engagement is a more fertile path to advancing our national interests and empowering Cubans who aspire to something better for their families and their country.
We desire liberty and prosperity for Cubans, as we do for people everywhere. We are convinced that Cubans will be most free to chart their own future when the United States serves not as a ready excuse for repression, but as a friend to the Cuban people -- supporting their aspirations for prosperity, facilitating their engagement with a world of ideas and information, and exemplifying the power and possibility of government by the people.