POLITICS

Cuba embassy opens in Washington D.C. in major step toward diplomatic relations

It was the most powerful symbol yet of a new era, a step toward a friendship, of sorts, that had seemed unfathomable after half a century of animosity.

On Monday, the flag of Cuba was raised at the island nation’s new embassy in Washington D.C. – seven months after presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that diplomatic relations between the two countries would resume.

But even as the nations have moved toward normalizing relations, officials of both have reminded the public that huge gaps remain between them.

Though normalization has taken center stage in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, there remains a deep ideological gulf between the nations and many issues still to resolve. Among them: thorny disputes such as over mutual claims for economic reparations, Havana's insistence on the end of the 53-year-old trade embargo and U.S. calls for Cuba to improve on human rights and democracy.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who presided over the flag-raising ceremony hours after full relations with the United States were restored at the stroke of midnight, said the United States had to take further key steps for there to be a true restoration of diplomatic ties.

"The historic events we are living today will only make sense with the removal of the economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes so much deprivation and damage to our people, the return of occupied territory in Guantanamo, and respect for the sovereignty of Cuba," Rodriguez said after the flag-raising.

Some U.S. lawmakers, including several prominent Republican presidential candidates, have vowed not to repeal the embargo and pledged to roll back Obama's moves on Cuba. They say that Cuba should not be rewarded with more tourism and trade from the United States as long as they continue to violate human rights and resist democratic reforms.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, denounced the restoration of relations and reopening of the embassies in several interviews in recent days.

"Cuba has a very sophisticated espionage network operating in the United States, and we're giving them license to operate the espionage activities,” Ros-Lehtinen said to a CBS affiliate in Florida. "[The Cuban government] has not changed their feelings about the United States being the enemy — no matter what deals they sign. I think it's dangerous. I think it puts us at risk — it doesn't make us any safer.”

Several hundred people gathered on the street outside the embassy, cheering as the Cuban national anthem was played and three Cuban soldiers in dress uniforms stood at the base of the flagpole and raised the flag.

The United States and Cuba severed diplomatic relations in 1961 and since the 1970s had been represented in each other's capitals by limited service interests sections. Their conversion to embassies tolled a knell for policy approaches spawned and hardened over the five decades since President John F. Kennedy first tangled with youthful revolutionary Fidel Castro over Soviet expansion in the Americas.

Rodriguez was to meet later with Secretary of State John Kerry and address reporters at a joint news conference. Kerry will travel to Havana Aug. 14 to preside over a flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy there.

Shortly after midnight, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington switched its Twitter account to say "embassy."

In Havana, the U.S. Interests Section uploaded a new profile pictures to its Facebook and Twitter accounts that says US EMBASSY CUBA. And, Conrad Tribble, the deputy chief of mission for the United States in Havana, tweeted: "Just made first phone call to State Dept. Ops Center from United States Embassy Havana ever. It didn't exist in Jan 1961."

Monday's events cap a remarkable change of course in U.S. policy toward the communist island under President Barack Obama, who had sought rapprochement with Cuba since he first took office and has progressively loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island.

Shortly after midnight, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington switched its Twitter account to say "embassy." 

Obama's efforts at engagement were frustrated for years by Cuba's imprisonment of U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross on espionage charges.

But months of secret negotiations led in December to Gross's release, along with a number of political prisoners in Cuba and the remaining members of a Cuban spy ring jailed in the United States. On Dec. 17, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would resume full diplomatic relations.

Declaring the longstanding policy a failure that had not achieved any of its intended results, Obama declared that the U.S. could not keep doing the same thing and expect a change. Thus, he said work would begin apace on normalization.

That process dragged on until the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in late May and then bogged down over issues of U.S. diplomats' access to ordinary Cubans.

On July 1, however, the issues were resolved and the U.S. and Cuba exchanged diplomatic notes agreeing that the date for the restoration of full relations would be July 20.

Proponents of lifting the embargo praised Monday’s events.

James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, lauded the opening of the embassies.

“American diplomats will now be much better equipped to engage with the Cuban people and civil society,” Williams said in a statement. “They will be in a stronger position to elevate issues of concern, like human rights, as well as expanding on areas of cooperation with Cuba.”

“Still, too many barriers stand in the way of more meaningful change,” Williams added.

“Restricting the freedom of Americans to travel and trade has not brought greater freedom to the Cuban people. Instead it is time to allow Americans to be our best ambassadors by opening the doors to travel. And, it is time to allow American businesses to compete in a market of 11 million people just 90 miles off our coast.”

Although the Interests Section in Havana won't see the pomp and circumstance of a flag-raising on Monday, workers there have already drilled holes on the exterior to hang signage flown in from the U.S., and arranged to print new business cards and letterhead that say "Embassy" instead of "Interests Section." What for years was a lonely flagpole outside the glassy six-story edifice on Havana's seafront Malecon boulevard recently got a rehab, complete with a paved walkway.

Every day for the last week, employees have been hanging hand-lettered signs on the fence counting down, in Spanish, to Monday: "In 6 days we will become an embassy!" and so on.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter & Instagram