Casting aside more than a half century of hostilities, President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the United States and Cuba would restore full diplomatic relations and open respective embassies on July 20.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, he called the rapprochement “a historic step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and people, and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas.”
The president said Secretary of State John Kerry would soon travel to Havana to “proudly raise the U.S. flag over our embassy.” No date has been set yet for the ceremony marking the opening of the embassy.
Kerry, who was in Vienna for talks about Iran’s nuclear program, said he was looking forward to the Havana trip because it would officially mark the end of a Cuba “policy that didn’t work and had been in place for far too long.”
On Wednesday, as required, a 15-day notification of the plan to change the status of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to an American Embassy was sent to Congress, but a senior State Department official said the resumption of diplomatic ties wouldn’t start until five days after that.
The United States and Cuba held four rounds of talks — two in Havana and two in Washington — to reach agreement on the terms for opening embassies and renewing diplomatic ties after Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro jointly announced on Dec. 17 that the two countries planned to work toward normalization.
Obama said that since then he was seen “enormous enthusiasm for this new approach.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Cuban government, but a diplomat from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana met with acting Foreign Minister Marcelino Medina Wednesday morning to deliver a letter from Obama about the opening of the embassies and resumption of diplomatic ties. Castro conveyed a similar letter to Obama confirming the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States.
Among the final sticking points had been the United States’ desire for its diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba to talk with a wide variety of Cubans. The Cuban government agreed to allow such travel but said that U.S. diplomats must inform the Ministry of Foreign Relations (Minrex) 24 hours in advance of such travel.
The United States broke off relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961 after the relationship between the two countries had steadily deteriorated since the 1959 Cuban revolution. The day before, Cuban Foreign Minister Raúl Roa, speaking before the U.N. Security Council, said the United States was planning to invade Cuba and was engaging in espionage from its embassy in Havana.
The invasion didn’t actually come until April of that year when the CIA-sponsored Brigade 2506 failed in its attempt to invade Cuba and topple the Castro government. In 1960, the United States began phasing in the trade embargo against Cuba.
Noting that the U.S. shuttered its embassy at the height of the Cold War, Obama said, “I don’t think anyone expected it would be more than a half a century before it reopened.”
Opening the embassies and renewing diplomatic ties are just the beginning steps in a long process of normalization that includes issues both big and small that separate the two countries that are only 90 miles apart.
Among the major issues still to be dealt with are the embargo, compensation for properties taken from U.S. citizens after the revolution, the U.S. base at Guantanamo, migration policy and the return of U.S. criminals who have been given safe harbor in Cuba.
“While there are still many issues to be resolved in the full normalization of relations between the two countries and its peoples, today’s announcement gives us another reason to be optimistic,” the Cuba Study Group, which supports engagement with Cuba, said in a statement. “It is further evidence that engagement rather than isolation is the best way to advance U.S. interests and the interests of the Cuban people.”
In Havana, retired Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray said there are so many issues between the two countries that “you need a very tall building, a 50-story building’’ to house them all. “But we have to construct that building on very shaky ground — so the foundations have to be very strong.”
Alzugaray, who wrote his first paper advocating normalization of relations with the United States in 1999, said that he didn’t think a U.S. flag flying above an American Embassy in Havana was anything that he would see in his lifetime.
Now his hope is for “a civilized relationship where both countries respect each other.”
Dany Hernandez, 39, a former baseball player who now runs two bed-and-breakfast properties in Havana, said he started learning Russian when he was in elementary school and was taught the United States was the enemy. “That’s crazy. From my point of view, it’s not true,” he said. “I think people are very content with the opening. I’m an optimist.”
On her Twitter account, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now a Democratic presidential hopeful, wrote: “New US Embassy in Havana helps us engage Cuban people & build on efforts to support positive change. Good step for US & Cuban people.”’
But former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said he opposes opening a Havana embassy.
“The real test of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with the Castro regime in Cuba is not whether President Obama’s legacy is burnished with dubious diplomatic achievements and photo-ops, but whether improved relations between Havana and Washington advance the cause of human rights and freedom for the Cuban people,” he said. “The ongoing detention of dissidents and continued human rights abuses suggest the administration’s policy is failing this test.”
Although many in the United States hailed the embassy announcement as long overdue and recent polls have shown the majority of Americans support better relations with Cuba, critics say the United States has made too many concessions in its effort to begin a new chapter in its relationship with Cuba.
South Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo was among those. “This deplorable move adds to the long list of unilateral concessions the Cuban government has received from the Obama Administration as a reward for cruelly holding an American hostage for five years.”
He was referring to USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who was convicted of smuggling military-grade telecommunications equipment into Cuba. The new U.S.-Cuba relationship was an outgrowth of secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba that began in mid-2013 to free Gross and three Cuban spies who were serving time in U.S. jails.
On Dec. 17, Cuba freed Gross and the United States swapped the three spies for a CIA agent who had been imprisoned in Cuba. The United States also announced a limited commercial opening toward Cuba that would allow U.S. companies to trade with private Cuban entrepreneurs and U.S. telecom and Internet companies to try to strike deals with the Cuban government to improve Internet connectivity and telecommunications on the island.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called opening an American Embassy “just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping” and said it did “nothing to help the Cuban people.”
Andy Gomez, a retired University of Miami academic who studies Cuba said he had mixed feelings about the opening of the embassies. “It’s bittersweet because while I anticipated some change on Cuba during this administration, I really didn’t think it would move this fast without pushing Cuba more on political prisoners and human rights.”
Obama renewed his call for Congress to take steps to lift the embargo. “That's what this is about: a choice between the future and the past. Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it's time for Congress to do the same,” the president said.