Ramon Espinosa / AP

US, Cuba to reopen embassies after 50 years of hostility

Secretary of State Kerry calls move ‘long overdue’; GOP leaders criticize Obama for handing Castro ‘a lifetime dream’

President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba will reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington, heralding a "new chapter" in relations after a half-century of hostility.

"We don't have to be imprisoned by the past," Obama said from White House Rose Garden. "Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward."

Cuban television broadcast Obama's statement live, underscoring the new spirit. A state television anchor read a letter from Cuban President Raúl Castro to Obama in which he wrote that Cuba is "encouraged by the reciprocal intention to develop respectful relations and cooperation between our people and governments."

The embassy agreement marks the biggest tangible step toward normalizing relations since the surprise announcement in December that the U.S. and Cuba were restarting diplomatic ties. The posts in Washington and Havana are scheduled to open July 20, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said.

Secretary of State John Kerry said he will travel later this summer to Havana to raise the American flag over the new U.S. Embassy to Cuba. He called Wednesday's announcement of normalized diplomatic relations "long overdue,” crediting Obama and Castro with making the necessary change.

Raúl Castro is the younger brother of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who has stepped back from public life.

Speaking in Vienna, where he was participating in nuclear talks with Iran, Kerry said the former Cold War foes still have sharp differences over democracy, human rights and other matters. An embassy, he said, will allow the U.S. to engage the Cuban government and people and help Americans traveling to the island.

Many Republican leaders expressed opposition to normalizing relations with Cuba. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a press 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." He maintained that relations with Cuba should not be revisited — let alone normalized — until the Cuban people enjoy freedom "and not one second sooner."

A statement from the Cuban government said reopening embassies is just the first step in "a long and complex process toward normalization of bilateral ties," demanding an end to the U.S. embargo, the return of the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay and a halt to U.S. radio and TV broadcasts aimed at the island.

Obama also wants Congress to repeal the economic embargo of Cuba, though he faces resistance from Republicans and some Democrats. Those opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba say he is prematurely rewarding a regime that engages in serious human rights abuses.

The U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after the revolution. The U.S. spent decades trying to overthrow the Cuban government and isolate the island, including toughening the economic embargo imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Since the late 1970s, the United States and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interests sections in each other's capitals. The missions are technically under the protection of Switzerland and do not enjoy the same status as embassies.

While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, significant issues remain. Among them: talks on human rights, demands for compensation for confiscated U.S. 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.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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