Obama hails 'new chapter' with Cuba

2015-07-01 18:10
President Barack Obama making his Cuba announcement. (AP)

President Barack Obama making his Cuba announcement. (AP)

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Washington - President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday 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 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."

Cuban television broadcast 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 Obama, ending the US 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 US economic embargo on the communist island just 145km south of Florida was ineffective.

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.

Legacy shopping

Republican Congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that 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 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 US cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the year 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 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 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 on Wednesday morning to hand-deliver the message.

In a highly unusual move, Cuban state television broadcast Obama's remarks live with translation in Spanish.

While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the US and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalise 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 US fugitives sheltering in Havana.

Common sense

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 recognise 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 US and Cuban leaders have met in person since 1958.

For Obama, the embassy announcements come amid what the White House sees as one of the strongest stretches of his second term. He scored major legislative and legal victories last week, with Congress giving him fast-track authority for an Asia-Pacific free trade deal and the Supreme Court upholding a key provision of his health care law.

The court also ruled in favour of gay marriage nationwide, an outcome Obama supported.


Read more on:    barack obama  |  cuba  |  us

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