Obama announces US to open Cuban Embassy

President Obama announced Wednesday the U.S. and Cuba have reached a deal to re-establish full diplomatic ties and open embassies that were shuttered five decades ago. 

"This is a historic step in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and the Cuban people," said Obama, who added that, when the embassy was shuttered a half-century ago, few would have thought it would have remained closed for so long.

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Obama said Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryWarren taps longtime aide as 2020 campaign manager In Virginia, due process should count more than blind team support Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents MORE will be in Cuba to open the U.S. Embassy later this summer. The Cuban government said the two embassies would be reopened on July 20, though Obama did not mention a date in his remarks from the White House. 

“This is a historic step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and people," Obama said.

“We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn’t working, we can and will change.”
 
The move is the biggest step yet in Obama’s push to end hostilities with Havana that date back to the Cold War, which he announced in December with Cuban President Raúl Castro. 

The Obama administration cleared the biggest obstacle to the shift, after it formally dropped Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in May.

But U.S. and Cuban negotiators still had to work through thorny issues, such as freedom of movement for American diplomats in Cuba and their ability to speak with people outside of the government. 

Several Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, blasted the decision.

“I oppose the decision to further embrace the Castro regime by opening an embassy in Havana," Bush said in a statement. The Republican presidential candidate cast the announcement as an attempt by Obama to burnish his legacy and questioned whether improved relations would lead to better human rights in Cuba.

Ending the policy of isolation against Cuba is a major foreign policy goal for Obama, who was elected president promising to use diplomacy to change the U.S. relationship with its allies and enemies alike. 

But many obstacles still stand in the way of bridging the divide. Leaders in Congress staunchly oppose lifting the U.S.’s trade embargo with Cuba, arguing it would reward a Castro government that continues to oppress its people. 

The president and his allies say the 55-year-old embargo has failed to bring down the Castros, and it’s time to take a new approach.

“Nobody expects Cuba to be changed overnight, but I believe that American engagement through our embassy, our businesses and most of all through our people is the best way to advance our interests in support for democracy and human rights,” Obama said.

Wednesday’s announcement could bring renewed attention a bipartisan push to lift the embargo in Congress, led by Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Ariz.) and Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Can Bernie recapture 2016 magic? Leahy endorses Sanders for president ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire MORE (D-Vt.) 

“I am confident that this move will lead to increased travel and contact between U.S. citizens and everyday Cubans, to the benefit of both,” Flake said Tuesday.

Progress in the talks, however, could also be slowed by ongoing concerns about Cuba's human-rights record. 

The announcement drew criticism from Cuban-American lawmakers in Congress who favor a hard-line approach toward the Castros. 

“Opening the American Embassy in Cuba will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a statement.

Obama could also encounter heavy resistance if he decides to appoint an ambassador to Havana. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump escalates fight with NY Times The Hill's Morning Report - Can Bernie recapture 2016 magic? Venezuela puts spotlight on Rubio MORE (R-Fla.), a 2016 presidential candidate, has said he would block the confirmation of any nominee Obama puts forth until Cuba takes steps to end human-rights abuses and guarantees more political freedoms for its citizens. 

“I intend to oppose the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed,” the Cuban-American lawmaker said in a statement Wednesday. “It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”

A senior administration official indicated Obama might dodge a contentious confirmation battle by leaving in place the current top U.S. diplomat to Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis. 

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not rule out the appointment of another ambassador but said the administration has not selected a nominee. He said the administration is “very comfortable” keeping DeLaurentis, a seasoned diplomat, in Cuba.

Obama is “very interested” in visiting Cuba while he is president, the official added, but a trip is unlikely to happen this year. 

“We will want to see that the conditions are right in Cuba,” the official said. “If things continue to move forward on a positive trajectory, it’s certainly something the president is very interested in.”

— This story was updated at 12:22 p.m.