President Obama on Wednesday announced his plans to formally re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba this month, declaring that the two nations were ready to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals and to start a “new chapter” of engagement after more than a half-century of estrangement.
“Our nations are separated by only 90 miles, and there are deep bonds of family and friendship between our people, but there have been very real, profound differences between our governments, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be trapped by a certain way of doing things,” Mr. Obama said in the Rose Garden at the White House, taking note of the decades of hostility born of the Cold War that prompted the United States to isolate its neighbor to the south, a strategy he said had failed.
The diplomatic breakthrough is the most concrete progress to date in Mr. Obama’s push, announced in December after months of secret talks, for an official rapprochement with Cuba. In announcing it, the president was cementing a central element of his foreign policy legacy that has engendered stiff resistance in Congress, particularly among Republicans and Cuban-American lawmakers, and is likely to become a flash point in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr. Obama called on the Republican-led Congress on Wednesday to drop its opposition to reconciling with Cuba, renewing calls for the lifting of a travel and trade embargo that has grown stricter over the years as successive administrations and members of Congress have taken a hard line against Havana.
“We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” said Mr. Obama, who made history in April when he met and shook hands with President Raúl Castro at a summit gathering in Panama. “When something isn’t working, we can and should change.”
But Republicans, including several presidential candidates, quickly denounced the diplomatic reopening as appeasement of a dictatorial regime, and vowed to try to thwart the détente Mr. Obama is seeking by blocking the confirmation of a new ambassador, denying any funding needed for embassies and keeping in place strict limits on commerce between Cuba and the United States.
“It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate of Cuban descent, said in a written statement.
He said he would halt the confirmation of a permanent United States envoy until the two governments struck agreements on several issues, including the return of American fugitives being harbored in Cuba, the resolution of legal claims of American citizens whose property was confiscated by the Castro regime, and the enhancement of political freedoms for Cubans.
“The Obama administration is handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship,” said Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio. He added, “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until Cubans enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner.”
Diplomatic relations will be officially restored on July 20, according to letters exchanged by top American and Cuban officials at the State Department on Wednesday. Secretary of State John Kerry is to travel to Havana in the coming weeks, Mr. Obama said, “to proudly raise the American flag over our embassy once more.”
Mr. Kerry, who is in Vienna for talks with Iranian officials on a potential nuclear accord, said he looked forward to making the first visit to Cuba by a secretary of state since 1945.
Acknowledging that the United States and Cuba continued to have “sharp differences” over human rights, Mr. Kerry said that reopening the embassy would enable American officials to “engage the Cuban government more often and at a higher level.”
“This step has been long overdue,” Mr. Kerry added, declining to take questions.
Asked if the American diplomats in Cuba would have free access to talk to Cuban citizens, he said, “We’ll talk about all those details later.”
Obama administration officials said the re-establishment of an embassy would allow American diplomats to travel much more freely around the island — they will have to notify the Cuban government of their movements, but will no longer need to seek its permission — and talk to many more Cubans, in Havana and elsewhere.
The United States already has a limited diplomatic outpost in Havana, called an interests section, in the same seven-story building on the Malecón waterfront that served as the embassy until 1961, the year President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in response to tensions with the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro.
Senior administration officials said on Wednesday that they did not believe they needed Congress to approve new money for the building and that they were in no rush to install a new ambassador to replace the career diplomat currently running the interests section.
The diplomat, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, was selected expressly because he is seen as someone who could serve as the acting ambassador pending a permanent appointment, one of the officials said on Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the release of details by the State Department.
Mr. DeLaurentis, who holds the rank of ambassador, has served at the United Nations, as a deputy assistant secretary of state and in Havana as the political-economic section chief. He will be named the chargé d’affaires of the new American Embassy, a senior State Department official said, and will serve as its head of mission until a permanent ambassador can be installed.
Cuba has an interests section in a stately manor in the Adams Morgan section of Washington that could be upgraded. In May, Cuba announced that its banking services for that office had been restored, a precondition to reopening a full embassy. In recent weeks, Cuba also repaved the driveway, repainted the fence and erected a large flagpole on the front lawn to await the formal raising of its flag.
A senior administration official said that would happen on July 20, but it was not yet clear when Mr. Kerry would make the trip to Havana to cut the ribbon on the American Embassy there.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have collaborated on legislation to relax the most onerous elements of the embargo, starting with a travel ban. They have been backed by a coalition including business, agriculture and religious groups and have had behind-the-scenes support from the White House.
“We think that having different pieces of it taken apart is a good approach, and an obvious place to start is the travel ban,” a senior administration official said of the embargo on Wednesday, adding that outside organizations were likely to have a far easier time influencing Congress on the matter than Mr. Obama would.
Still, Republican leaders are unlikely to be receptive to such efforts. In recent weeks, they have used the government’s annual must-pass spending bills as vehicles for a number of measures to tighten restrictions on Cuba, including language limiting American exports and barring American vessels from Cuban airports and seaports. Mr. Obama’s top advisers have cited those provisions on a lengthy list of grounds for recommending his veto.
Source: NY Times