WHITE HOUSE —
President Barack Obama said Wednesday the United States and Cuba have agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations and plan to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana later this month, in the latest move to end years of hostility between the two countries.
Obama said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Havana this summer to raise the U.S. flag over the first American embassy in more than five decades.
The U.S. trade embargo and Cuba’s human rights record are among the issues still blocking normalizing relations broken following Fidel Castro’s revolution.
Speaking in Vienna, where he was attending nuclear talks with Iran, Kerry didn't give a precise date for opening the embassy, but he called the announcement of normalized diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba “long overdue.”
“The United States and Cuba continue to have sharp differences over democracy, human rights and related issues," Kerry said. But the two countries have identified areas for cooperation, including law enforcement, emergency response, environmental protection and migration, he added.
Earlier Wednesday, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries' respective capitals.
In his own response, Cuban President Raul Castro said he is “pleased” to confirm his country will resume diplomatic ties with the United States, writing to Obama that Cuba is doing so because it is “encouraged by the reciprocal intention to develop respectful relations and cooperation between our people and governments.”
However, a separate statement from the Havana government said reopening embassies is just the first step in “a long and complex process toward normalization of bilateral ties.” It then demanded an end to the U.S. embargo, the return of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, a halt to U.S. radio and TV broadcasts aimed at the island, and other grievances.
Castro's letter and the government statement were read on state television Wednesday morning. Obama's announcement was also broadcast on state television.
WATCH: Cuban President Castro agrees with U.S. plan to reopen embassies
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the announcement that Cuba and the U.S will reopen embassies in each other's capitals. Ban called it an important step on the path toward normalizing relations.
Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuban Study Group in Washington, said this is a historic moment after 54 years of severed diplomatic relations.
"I think that re-establishing diplomatic relations puts us in a better position to be able to work with the Cuban government to resolve many of those issues. It will be necessary, again, for the full normalization of relations, including expropriations, and issues of human rights, and others. But, having senior diplomats present [in Havana] on the ground and at the embassy will help us be able to advocate for those positions [those issues].”
Roger Noriega, who is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and who served as a U.S. diplomat and policy maker, specializing in Western Hemisphere Affairs, had a contrarian reaction to the White House announcement the embassies will reopen.
“Well, I certainly hope that the president hasn’t lowered our standards in defense of democracy in order to raise the [U.S.] flag in Havana," said Noriega. "He wasn’t particularly candid with the American people in explaining what’s at stake, and explaining how dangerous that Cuban government continues to be today.”
He also was blunt about how the two countries will resolve the years of court judgments, sanctions, frozen assets, and more.
“Well, quite frankly, it’s going to take a new government in Havana, because these standards on trade, on property rights, are extraordinarily complicated – and the stakes are very high," said Noriega. "I just do not see the regime in Havana today with any interest or capability – and flexibility – to respond on those important issues. It’s going to require meaningful change in that country before we can have a real interlocutation [discussion] on those issues.”
Restoration of official ties is the latest step in the process since Presidents Obama and Castro announced in December the two countries were renewing diplomatic relations.
The leaders held face-to-face talks at April’s Summit of the Americas in Panama.
In May, the United States removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move seen as crucial to restoring diplomatic ties.
Geoff Thale, director of programs for the Washington Office on Latin America, said Wednesday, "This announcement is a positive step for the United States and the hemisphere. It's a long overdue policy change, and opens up the prospects for practical collaboration while allowing us to discuss our differences in a serious way.”
“Though Congress still needs to remove the embargo on trade and travel to Cuba, this announcement is historic and the result of President Obama’s deeper process of updating U.S. policy towards Cuba for the 21st century,” Thale said.
Commercial air and ferry service between the two countries have been, or are being, restored and communications restrictions have been eased, although U.S. citizens can only travel to Cuba under limited guidelines.
Restoration of services (Click here to see White House Cuba Fact Sheet)
However, obstacles remain, including a decades-long U.S. trade embargo of Cuba that only Congress can remove.
Obama must deal with strong resistance to lifting the embargo from Republicans and some Democrats, who say he is prematurely rewarding a government that engages in serious human rights abuses.
He also would have to gain congressional approval to use taxpayer dollars to build or refurbish an embassy in Havana.
Last month, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted to restrict Obama administration efforts to work on an embassy in Cuba.
A $48-billion foreign aid bill for next year bars any work on an American embassy there unless Obama certifies that Havana is meeting the terms of a 1996 law aimed at pushing the island nation's government toward democracy. That law's conditions include Cuba's extradition of people who are accused of crimes in the U.S.
And just last week, Washington released its annual human rights report, which cited Cuba for violating basic freedoms in 2014, including the arbitrary arrest of dissidents and limiting access to uncensored, independent information.
Latin America analyst Mark Jones of Rice University said he thinks reopening embassies will help both countries grapple with such issues.
"What the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and an embassy will do is allow the countries to begin addressing this host of issues that face both countries -- be it human rights violations in Cuba and issues regarding compensation for U.S. citizens and also issues related to fugitives from U.S. justice who are residing presently in Cuba and doing something about that for people who have been accused of capital crimes, murder for instance, in the United States and have fled to Cuba," Jones said.
However, Jones said he does not necessarily expect warming ties to change Cuba’s one-party Communist system.
He said other Westerners have been visiting the Caribbean island nation for decades with no change in the governmental system.
In a statement, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, denounced the move to reopen an embassy as emboldening the Castro regime “to continue its attacks against the Cuban people.”
Ros-Lehtinen said opening the embassy “will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”
However, Ted Henken, Cuba analyst at Baruch College in New York, said the anti-regime policies Ros-Lehtinen supports have done nothing to improve the human rights of the Cuban people.
"Her strategy, the one that she favors, has failed. She’s on the wrong side of this issue," Henken said.
"Having diplomatic relations with Cuba doesn’t mean we approve of the Cuban government nor do we approve of their treatment of the Cuban people. I think we’ll have a better chance of having some kind of influence in Cuba with a relationship that’s engaging, empowering [rather] than one that is isolating and impoverishing the government and the people," he said.
Obama stressed in his short announcement Wednesday, "I’ve been clear that we [the U.S. and Cuba] will also continue to have some very clear differences that will include America’s enduring support for universal values like freedom of speech and assembly and ability to access information.
"We will not hesitate to speak out when we see actions that contradict those values," he said.
Henken said changing policy toward Cuba is about American interests and influence, not about regime change.
"This is not a silver bullet – it’s not a concession to the [Cuban] dictatorship. It’s a concession to the U.S. people – it’s a concession to pragmatism and to common sense," he said.
Henken said normal ties can foster cooperation on matters such as the environment, drug interdiction, refugees and family reunions.
He added that with improved relations, the Cuban government will no longer be able to use U.S. hostility as a scapegoat for suppressing the Cuban people and it will be under growing pressure to meet their demands.
Human rights issues
Democratic Congressman Ben Cardin said the opening of embassies was part of the administration's “common sense approach to Cuba.” However, he called for Cuba to recognize that it is out of step with the international community on human rights.
“Arrests and detentions of dissidents must cease and genuine political pluralism is long overdue,” Cardin said in a statement.
Guillermo Farinas, a Cuban dissident and former political prisoner, said, “President Obama has the right to make this decision, but it does not mean that he is not mistaken.
"In his speech, [Obama] ignores those of us who believe this is an error and something that goes against democratic principles. Our friends are abandoning us and our enemies continue to suppress us," Farinas said. “We are skeptics and believe it is a mistake to make political concessions and we hope that there are no more concessions to the Castro regime.”
VOA's Jeffrey Young contributed to this report. Gioconda Reynolds of VOA's Spanish news service contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from AP and Reuters.