WASHINGTON - The restoration of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba sparked overwhelmingly positive reactions around the world, except in the United States, where opinions diverged widely.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he “welcomes the announcement today that Cuba and the United States will reopen embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C.”
“The restoration of diplomatic ties is an important step on the path toward the normalization of relations. The secretary-general hopes that this historic step will benefit the peoples of both countries,” the spokesman added.
For decades, Switzerland has served as a go-between for Washington and Havana, housing the U.S. Interest Section in the Cuban capital. In a statement, the Swiss government said: “Switzerland strongly believes that the reopening of the two embassies and the normalization process will overall be beneficial for the two states and contribute to security, stability and prosperity in the region. Switzerland views the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. as very positive – not only for these two countries but for the whole region and for world stability.”
‘Incentivizing a police state’
By contrast, reactions are decidedly mixed in Washington and across the United States.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican John Boehner, said in a statement, “The Obama administration is handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship.”
Echoing the criticism, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the son of parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, said: “Our demands for freedoms and liberty on the island will continue to be ignored, and we are incentivizing a police state to uphold a policy of brutality. A policy of the United States giving and the Castro brothers freely taking is not in our national interest and not a responsible approach when dealing with repressive rulers that deny freedoms to [their] people. An already one-sided deal that benefits the Cuban regime is becoming all the more lopsided.”
‘New era of possibility’
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi disagreed. “Reopening embassies lays the foundation for a new, more productive relationship with Cuba that can support and advance key American priorities, including human rights, counter-narcotics cooperation, business opportunities for American companies, migration, family unification, and cultural- and faith-based exchanges,” she said. “President Obama’s bold leadership has opened a new era of possibility in U.S.-Cuban relations.”
That sentiment was echoed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
“Finally, after 55 years, a failed, punitive and ineffective policy of isolation is ending,” Leahy said. “After 55 years, the wealthiest, most powerful nation - which stands for ideals aspired to by people around the world will be represented by an official embassy where we can put our best face forward on behalf of the American people as well as the Cuban people.”
‘Unclear what… has been achieved’
Some U.S. lawmakers like Senator Marco Rubio - another American-born son of Cuban immigrant parents - are threatening to try to block confirmation of the first U.S. ambassador to Havana in more than 50 years.
“Throughout this entire negotiation, as the Castro regime has stepped up its repression of the Cuban people, the Obama administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession,” said Rubio, who is also campaigning for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2016.
“It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the president's December 17th announcement [that the U.S. and Cuba had agreed to talks on resuming normal diplomatic relations], in terms of securing the return of U.S. fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to U.S. citizens for properties confiscated by the regime, and in obtaining the unequivocal right of our diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba and meet with any dissidents, and most importantly, securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people,” he continued.
Other lawmakers are already looking ahead to breaking another barrier between Washington and Havana: the decades-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba. Taking to Twitter, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar wrote: “Glad president announced plans to open embassy in Cuba. Major step forward. Next we need to pass my bipartisan bill to lift trade embargo.”
‘Caving to Castro’
Reaction extended beyond Capitol Hill. A former U.S. envoy to the Organization of American States, Roger Noriega, tweeted, “Obama rationalizes his capitulation on #Cuba with deceitful rhetoric. Perhaps some LatinAm govts applaud #Obama's caving to Castro because he will join their shameful chorus of silence on human rights.”
By contrast, the president of the New York-based Council of the Americas, Susan Segal said, "We congratulate the U.S. government on the sweeping changes it has taken to end a policy of isolation towards Cuba. The overwhelming support that this new course has received from leaders and people around the hemisphere and the world confirm that the Obama administration is moving in the right direction. We look forward to seeing Congress further the goals of these new policies to bring positive tangible benefits to the people and businesses of the U.S., Cuba, and the region."
Some appear to have had a change of heart on the matter. Two months ago, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson told VOA, “If we are going to have a normal relation with Cuba, they have got to open up, stop human-rights abuses, and [accept] the rule of law.”
Wednesday, Nelson signaled a shift in thinking. Rather than setting reform as a pre-condition for diplomatic ties, he said those ties might work toward the reform he wants to see.
“I still distrust Castro, but we have to get that regime to open up, stop human rights abuses, and give the Cuban people their basic freedoms,” he said. “I think reopening the embassies is a necessary step in the long process toward achieving that goal.”
Not all reaction was political. Individual Americans tweeted their thoughts as well, with one wondering when Cuban rum might be available for purchase in the United States, and another urging U.S. carmakers to mark the occasion by re-introducing vehicle models from the 1950s – a nod to vintage cars still found on the streets of Havana.
Yet another tweeted, “Wake me up when they start shipping the stogies" - a reference to Cuba’s world-famous cigars.