The United States has just reopened its embassy in Cuba more than 54 years after it was closed. It was indeed a very symbolic step signalling the warming of ties between the erstwhile estranged countries. John Kerry who achieved the milestone of becoming the first US Secretary of State to visit Cuba in 70 years presided over the ceremony in Havana, Cuba. The US flag was presented by the same US marines who brought it down in 1961.
Cuba had reopened its embassy in Washington in July. Even as both countries are coming together former Cuban leader Fidel Castro blasted the US for not lifting its trade embargo. In an open letter, Castro said the US owed Cuba millions of dollars because of its 53-year-long embargo. Curiously, Castro’s letter made no mention of the reopening of the US embassy.
Kerry who described the hoisting of the flag as a “historic moment” however warned that the US would not stop pressing for political change in Cuba, stressing: “The people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders.”
History was made on Wednesday, November 17, when the United States President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, in simultaneous speeches from Washington and Havana, said they had exchanged American and Cuban prisoners each had held for years. Both leaders announced that they would also open a path to increased economic and travel ties between the two erstwhile feuding countries. This marks the end of more than a halfcentury of diplomatic isolation wrought in the course of the Cold War. U.S. It was indeed ennobling seeing President Obama announcing this major shift in U.S. relations with Cuba after the Cuban leaders released Alan Gross, an American who had been imprisoned in Havana for five years.
According to Obama, “Isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach. I believe this contact will do more to empower the Cuban people.” The Cuban leader Castro on his part said: “We have decided to re-establish diplomatic relations. This decision by President Barack Obama deserves respect and recognition by our people.” Castro went ahead to call for a complete end to the U.S. economic blockade. Obama and Castro had talked by phone for more than 45 minutes on Tuesday, December 16, the first substantive presidential contact between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.
The negotiations for the release of Gross lasted about a year. Pope Francis played a pivotal role in the exercise. Of course both Obama and Castro thanked Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, in starting a dialogue between the two countries. Pope Francis had written letters to Obama and Castro, inviting them to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations” between the two countries.
Both countries are expected in the coming weeks to negotiate an agreement that will lead them to opening embassies in each other’s capitals. Obama has revealed that business and travel ties will be launched, but then he will have to negotiate with the U.S. Congress over ending the country’s economic blockade against Cuba. The U.S. Treasury said that financial sanctions on Cuba will be amended in the coming weeks. The White House also announced that the U.S. will unfreeze U.S. bank accounts of Cubans who no longer live in Cuba.
Matching his words with instant action, Obama then asked the US Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Obama said: “This review will be guided by the facts and the law. A nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.’’
Kerry believes that as the U.S. did with Vietnam, changing the relationship with Cuba will require an investment of time, energy and resources. It is hoped that in the coming months the U.S. will also work with Cuba on such issues as migration, counternarcotics, human trafficking and the environment.
The sad dimension though is the counterpoint of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner who said: “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner. … If anything, this emboldens all state sponsors of terrorism. …” Also, U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Florida Republican who is Cuban-American, said: “The White House has conceded everything, but gained little.” The United States had imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1960; thus the two countries have not had official diplomatic relations since 1961. The U.S. enacted the embargo shortly after the 1959 Fidel Castro revolution that overthrew the General Fulgencio Batista regime. The normalization of ties between the U.S. and Cuba has met with worldwide acclaim which we cherish.