WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington, calling the formal restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba a “historic step” and another demonstration that the U.S. doesn’t have to be imprisoned by the past.
Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Havana over the summer to raise the American flag over the embassy.
The reopening of a full embassy in Havana means American diplomats will be able to engage directly with Cuban government officials, civil society leaders and ordinary Cubans, Obama said. Such freedom of movement for U.S. diplomats had been a sticking point in negotiations to reopen the embassies.
Obama is also calling on Congress to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba, saying lawmakers should listen to the Cuban people and the American people who oppose maintaining economic sanctions against the island nation.
Obama’s remarks were broadcast live on Cuban television, with a translation into Spanish. It is highly unusual for Cuban TV to carry a U.S. presidential speech, although Havana broadcasters also did so in December when the two countries announced a historic detente.
The Cuban government Wednesday said Havana and Washington will restore full diplomatic relations and reopen embassies on July 20.
The Foreign Ministry in Havana made the announcement Wednesday morning after receiving a letter from Obama to Cuban President Raul Castro.
The onetime Cold War foes have not had full diplomatic ties for more than five decades. The announcement of the embassies’ reopening marks a major step in ending hostilities between the longtime foes.
Earlier in the day, the United States’ top diplomat in Havana delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries’ respective capitals.
U.S. Interests Section chief Jeffrey DeLaurentis arrived at the Cuban Foreign Ministry in Havana on Wednesday morning to hand-deliver the message.
The U.S. and Cuba have been negotiating the reestablishment of embassies following the Dec. 17 announcement that they would move to restore ties.
For Obama, ending Washington’s half-century freeze with Cuba is seen as a major element of his foreign policy legacy. He has long touted the value of engagement and argued that the U.S. embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective.
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 full embassies.
While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalize 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 cooperation on law enforcement, including the touchy topic of U.S. fugitives sheltering in Havana.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, responded to the announcement by saying the Obama administration is handing Fidel and Raul Castro “a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing” for the Cuban people who have been oppressed by a brutal communist dictatorship.
In a statement, the Republican leader maintained that relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — “and not one second sooner.”
The statement underscores the heavy lift for the administration in persuading Congress to end the embargo or even approve any taxpayer dollars on a U.S. embassy in Havana.
Contributing: Julie Pace, AP White House Correspondent