President Barack Obama on Wednesday leveled one of the world’s last Cold War relics — one that stood for 54 years — when he announced that the United States and Cuba will reopen their embassies in each other’s countries, allowing Cuban officials to raise their flag on July 20 in front of the colonial revival mansion in Washington that currently houses Havana’s de facto mission in the U.S.
With the president’s announcement, the U.S. becomes the last country in the Western Hemisphere to extend a diplomatic hand to Cuba after Fidel Castro swept into power on Jan. 1, 1959. The move solidifies a shift that brings U.S. policy in line with the rest of the Americas and much of the world. The Organization of American States, an intercontinental entity that promotes regional solidarity, lifted its suspension of Cuba in 2009, a year after the European Union re-established ties. The United Nations has been calling for the U.S. to end its economic embargo of Cuba for the last 23 years.
Although Congress has 15 days to weigh Obama’s announcement, there is little lawmakers can do to keep the administration from upgrading the current U.S. interests section — a de facto mission in Havana — to an official embassy. That’s because the administration is unlikely to request money for an upgrade. Any improvement to the embassy that requires funding would need congressional approval, and with Republicans controlling the House and Senate, that would likely prove a tough task.
Naming a U.S. ambassador to Cuba also represents a big hurdle. Ambassadors require Senate approval, and two Republican senators, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have already vowed to block any Obama nominee for the post.
But the biggest barrier to normalized relations remains the 54-year-old embargo, the lifting of which would also require congressional approval. Although Obama has chipped away at the restrictions, the embargo’s backbone remains in place: U.S. companies doing business with Cuba still face bureaucratic hurdles and sanctions. Trade and travel restraints remain in place, and Cuban businesses may not invest in the U.S.
Obama on Wednesday called for Congress to lift the embargo, but that is unlikely to happen during his tenure. Still, there are signs that the GOP is increasingly receptive to shifting public opinion on Cuba, highlighted by a younger generation of Cuban-Americans who are warming to the idea of normalized ties.
“It’s long past time for U.S. policy toward Cuba to be associated with something other than five decades of failure,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R- Ariz., said Tuesday after news of the embassy openings was leaked to the media. “It is difficult to overstate the importance of resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, in furthering our own national interests, benefiting our relations in the region and encouraging a positive future for the Cuban people.”