In ‘historic step,’ Obama announces full diplomatic relations with Cuba
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
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 — the first visit to Cuba by a
U.S. secretary of state since 1945. “This transition, this moment in
history, is taking place because President Obama made a personal,
fundamental decision to change a policy that didn’t work and that had
been in place not working for far too long,” he said.
The Cuban government said that it planned to hold a ceremony marking its
embassy opening in Washington on July 20. Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno
Rodríguez will lead a Cuban delegation, which will include members of
Cuban civil society. New landscaping and a pole for the Cuban flag that
will wave from the new embassy have already been installed.
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 July 20.
As part of the process, a diplomat from the U.S. Interests Section in
Havana met with acting Cuban 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.
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.
“This was not an easy task given the long history of mistrust between
the two countries,” said the State Deparment official.
But since the December announcement, Obama said there has been “enormous
enthusiasm” for the new approach toward Cuba.
Among the final sticking points in the talks had been the United States’
desire for its diplomats to travel freely throughout the island to talk
with a wide variety of Cubans. The Cuban government agreed to allow such
travel but said that U.S. diplomats must notify the Ministry of Foreign
Relations 24 hours in advance of such travel. They currently must ask
“We are satisfied with the conditions agreed to,” said the State
Department official, who added that diplomatic travel, staffing and
access to the mission will be “considerably better than we have now.”
Some Republican members of Congress say they will attempt to block
funding for the new embassy as well as block the appointment of an
ambassador. Obama hasn’t announced his choice for the ambassador post,
but Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the current chief of the Interests Section, is
expected to become chargé d’affaires.
The senior State Department official called him “one of the most
outstanding diplomats I can imagine” and noted that “we already have a
very robust Interests Section now that I believe is the largest
diplomatic mission in Havana.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, also a Republican presidential
hopeful, reinterated Wednesday his intention to “oppose the confirmation
of an ambassador to Cuba” until issues such as U.S. fugitives in Cuba,
U.S. property claims and “securiing greater political freedom for the
Cuban people” are addresssed.
The United States broke off diplomatic ties 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 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 Guantánamo, 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.”
The Cuban government wasted no time in expressing what it thinks needs
to be done.
“There could be no normal relations between Cuba and the United States
as long as the economic, commercial and financial blockade [the Cuban
term for the embargo] continues to be fully implemented, causing damage
and scarcities to the Cuban people,” the government said.
In order to fully normalize relations, Cuba said it also would be
“indispensable for the United States government to return to Cuba the
territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo Naval Base; cease the
radio and television broadcasts, which violate international regulations
and are harmful to our sovereignty; stop the implementation of programs
aimed at promoting internal subversion and destabilization and
compensate the Cuban people for all the human and economic damages
caused by the United States policies.”
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.”
In his remarks Wednesday, Obama also recalled growing up in the Cold War
era. He was born in 1961, the year U.S.-Cuba relations were terminted.
But at the time even President Dwight Eisenhower expressed hope “in the
not-too-distant future” for normal relations.
“Well, it took a while, but I believe that time has come. And a better
future lies ahead,” said Obama.
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
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.”
For Rey Anthony, a 19-year-old third generation Cuban-American,
Wednesday was a time of reflection about his grandparents’ sacrifices.
“I think about what my life would be like if my grandparents would have
stayed in Cuba. What if they would not have found a way to leave? … I
think about the 2.5 million Cubans who live outside the island.
“I think about Cuba, and I think about millions of lost dreams,” said
Anthony who is the youngest member of the Miami-Dade Republican
But in renewing his call for Congress to take steps to lift the embargo,
Obama said it was time to make “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.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT THE OPENING OF EMBASSIES
“Opening embassies in Washington and Havana is an important step toward
the day when Americans can make their own decisions on where they
travel, and our businesses can compete with the rest of the world.”
–James Williams, president of Engage Cuba
“The announcement comes just a few days after the latest roundup of 226
dissidents who were detained last weekend. In order to be able to
normalize diplomatic relations, the administration, in fact, plays an
important role in the smokescreen covering up the increase of repression
–Center for a Free Cuba
“The United States and Cuba continue to have sharp differences over
democracy, human rights, and related issues, but we also have identified
areas for cooperation that include law enforcement, safe transportation,
emergency response, environmental protection, telecommunications, and
–Secretary of State John Kerry
The opening of an American Embassy in Havana is “just another trivial
attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”
–South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
“I suspect this sign of a ‘new normal’ between the two countries will
increase growing interest in the U.S. and abroad in preparing for
current and future business possibilities on the island.”
–Miami attorney Augusto Maxwell
“Once again the regime is being rewarded while they jail dissidents,
silence political opponents, and harbor American fugitives and cop
killers. Our demands for freedoms and liberty on the island will
continue to be ignored and we are incentivizing a police state to uphold
a policy of brutality.”
–Sen. Bob Menéndez, D-N.J.
–“New US Embassy in Havana helps us engage Cuban people & build on
efforts to support positive change. Good step for US & Cuban people.”
–Twitter account of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now a
Democratic presidential hopeful
“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.”
–Andy Gomez, a retired University of Miami academic and Cuba scholar
Source: In ‘historic step,’ Obama announces full diplomatic relations
with Cuba | Miami Herald Miami Herald –