US and Cuba reach agreement to reopen embassies

Barack Obama made the announcement, which is another significant step in US/Cuba relations. Picture: AFP/Getty
Barack Obama made the announcement, which is another significant step in US/Cuba relations. Picture: AFP/Getty
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PRESIDENT Barack Obama announced yesterday that the US 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 normalising 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 on 20 July, Cuba’s foreign ministry said.

We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past

Barack Obama

“We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” Mr Obama said at the White House. “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward.”

Cuban television broadcast Mr Obama’s statement live, underscoring the new spirit.

Secretary of state John Kerry will travel to Cuba for the opening of the US embassy.

For Mr Obama, ending the US freeze with Cuba is central to his foreign policy legacy as he nears the end of his presidency. Mr Obama has long touted the value of direct engagement with global foes and has argued that the US economic embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective.

The president yesterday 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 opening a US 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 will also face strong opposition in Congress to spending any of taxpayers’ money on building or refurbishing an embassy in Havana. Congress would have to approve any administration request to spend money on an embassy.

The US cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the year Mr Obama was born, after Fidel Castro’s revolution. The US 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 US and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interest 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 Mr Obama’s remarks, the top US diplomat in Havana delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries’ respective capitals. US interests section chief Jeffrey DeLaurentis arrived at the Cuban foreign ministry in Havana yesterday morning to hand-deliver the message.