ASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba will reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington, heralding a “new chapter” in relations after a half-century of hostility.
The embassy agreement marks the biggest tangible step toward normalizing relations since the surprise announcement in December that the two countries were restarting diplomatic ties. The posts in Washington and Havana are scheduled to open July 20, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said.
“We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said at the White House. “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward.”
In a highly unusual move, Cuban state television broadcast Obama’s remarks live with translation in Spanish, underscoring the new spirit. A state television anchor read a letter from Cuban President Raul Castro to Obama in which he wrote that Cuba is “encouraged by the reciprocal intention to develop respectful relations and co-operation between our people and governments.”
Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba for the opening of the U.S. Embassy.
For Obama, ending the U.S. freeze with Cuba is central to his foreign policy legacy as he nears the end of his presidency. Obama has long touted the value of direct engagement with global foes and has argued that the U.S. economic embargo on the communist island just 90 miles (145 kilometres) south of Florida was ineffective. Besides Cuba, in recent years, Obama has broken the ice with several long-standing adversaries, like Iran and Myanmar.
The president on Wednesday reiterated his call for Congress to lift the embargo, which he said has failed to bring political change in Cuba. However, he faces stiff resistance from Republicans, as well as some Democrats, who say he is prematurely rewarding a government that engages in serious human rights abuses.
Republican Congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that opening a U.S. Embassy in Cuba “will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”
The president also will face strong opposition in Congress to spending any taxpayer dollars for building or refurbishing an embassy in Havana. Congress would have to approve any administration request to spend money on an embassy.
The U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the year Obama was born, after Fidel Castro’s revolution. The U.S. spent decades trying to either actively overthrow the Cuban government or isolate the island, including toughening the economic embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Since the late 1970s, the United States and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interests sections in each other’s capitals. The missions are technically under the protection of Switzerland, and do not enjoy the same status as embassies.
Ahead of Obama’s remarks, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries’ respective capitals. U.S. Interests Section chief Jeffrey DeLaurentis arrived at the Cuban Foreign Ministry in Havana on Wednesday morning to hand-deliver the message.
While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalize relations. Among them: talks on human rights; demands for compensation for confiscated American properties in Havana and damages to Cuba from the embargo; and possible co-operation on law enforcement, including the touchy topic of U.S. fugitives sheltering in Havana.
Democratic Congressman Ben Cardin said the opening of embassies was part of the administration’s “common sense approach to Cuba.” However, he called for Cuba to recognize that it is out of step with the international community on human rights.
“Arrests and detentions of dissidents must cease and genuine political pluralism is long overdue,” Cardin said in a statement.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met in April during a regional summit, marking the first time U.S. and Cuban leaders have met in person since 1958.