The United States and Cuba plan to officially seal the renewal of diplomatic ties begun last year, announcing the reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana for the first time in more than half-a-century. The re-establishing of embassies is a final step in the full renewal of diplomatic relations which President Barack Obama initiated in December. Since then, the United States has loosened some travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed for some new economic ties. In April, Obama met with Raul Castro during a summit meeting in Panama, the first time the leaders of Cuba and the United States had met in more than 50 years. The United States also officially removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror earlier in June, eliminating a remaining stumbling block in the diplomatic renewal. In Havana, the American embassy will likely occupy the same building where the Interests Section currently operates, White House aides have said. That’s the same structure, situated on the Havana waterfront, which housed the American embassy prior to the severing of diplomatic ties after the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s.
For Obama, ending the U.S. 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 U.S. embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective. 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. Obama also wants Congress to repeal the economic embargo on Cuba, though he faces resistance from Republicans and some Democrats. Those opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba say Obama is prematurely rewarding a regime that engages in serious human rights abuses. The president also will face strong opposition in Congress to spending any taxpayer dollars on building or refurbishing an embassy in Havana. Congress would have to approve any administration request to spend money on an embassy.