Barack Obama on Wednesday announced an agreement with Cuba to reopen embassies in Washington DC and Havana for the first time in more than 50 years, hailing it as a “historic step” toward restoring diplomatic ties between the United States and the island nation.
“This is what change looks like,” Obama said in an address from the White House Rose Garden with vice-president Joe Biden by his side. “I strongly believe that the best way for America to support our values is through engagement.”
The president added that John Kerry, the secretary of state, will travel to Havana later this summer to “formally, proudly, raise the American flag over our embassy once more”.
The move follows the Obama administration’s landmark decision last year to normalize relations with Cuba, bringing to an end an estrangement that has spanned more than half a century.
Since then, the White House has made several key moves in advancing the process, such as removing Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism in April. That decision followed a meeting between Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, which marked the first official talks between the two countries’ leaders in more than 50 years.
The White House has also lifted some US travel restrictions to Cuba to provide for more business opportunities, but ordinary tourism remains prohibited by law.
Obama on Wednesday reiterated a call for Congress to lift the US trade embargo against Cuba, citing “broad support” for doing so among the public in both countries and positioning the issue as “a choice between the future and the past”.
“It hasn’t worked for 50 years,” Obama said. “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same.”
Republicans, who control both majorities in Congress, have remained steadfast in their opposition to reversing US policy toward Cuba and showed no signs of relenting anytime soon.
John Boehner, the House speaker, accused the Obama administration of “handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship.”
“As I’ve said before, relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until Cubans enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner,” Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said in a statement after Obama’s speech.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, one of the most vocal critics of Obama’s Cuba policy, also lambasted the president’s decision and said he would oppose the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba unless human rights concerns were addressed.
“Throughout this entire negotiation, as the Castro regime has stepped up its repression of the Cuban people, the Obama administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession.The administration’s reported plan to restore diplomatic relations is one such prized concession to the Castro regime,” Rubio, a senator from Florida and the son of Cuban immigrants, said in a statement.
“It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the president’s December 17 announcement in terms of securing the return of US fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to US citizens for properties confiscated by the regime, and in obtaining the unequivocal right of our diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba and meet with any dissidents, and most importantly, securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people.”
Ambassadors can be confirmed with just a simple majority vote in the US Senate, but in order to block Obama from securing a Cuba ambassador Republican leaders can refuse to hold a vote on any nominee.
Obama urged Congress to “listen to the Cuban people, the American people”, while acknowledging that change among the tactics employed by Cuban leaders would take time.
“I’ve been clear that we will also continue to have some very serious differences,” Obama said. “That will include America’s enduring support for universal values, like freedom of speech and assembly, and the ability to access information. And we will not hesitate to speak out when we see actions that contradict those values.”
“Nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight,” he added. “But I believe that American engagement through our embassy, our businesses and most of all through our people, is our best way to advance our interests and support for democracy and human rights.”
Defense secretary Ashton Carter said there was “no anticipation and no plan” of the Navy giving up the naval station at Guantanamo Bay under the Cuba rapprochement.
Polls have shown that the majorities in both the US and Cuba support re-establishing ties between the two countries. A December survey found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are in favor of the move, while a separate poll in April disclosed that the majority of Cubans support improving relations with the US.
A pivotal role was also played by Pope Francis, who urged both countries to reach a compromise and helped broker negotiations over a prisoner swap that freed American Alan Gross and prompted Obama’s announcement in December relations between the US and Cuba were being revisited.
The US first imposed sanctions against Cuba after Fidel Castro took control from the American-backed government in 1959. Sanctions were further expanded in the subsequent two years, culminating in the closure of the US embassy in Havana by president Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 and declaration of the Cuba embargo in 1962 by his successor, president John F Kennedy.
Source: The Guardian