The U.S. and Cuba have agreed to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, a move that officially restores diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time since 1961.
President Obama made the announcement Wednesday from the White House’s Rose Garden, calling the agreement a “historic step forward.”
“The progress we make today is another demonstration we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said.
Obama added: “This is not merely symbolic. With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people. We will have more personnel at our embassy and our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island.”
Obama confirmed that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Havana to raise the American flag over the U.S. embassy, which is expected to re-open on July 20.
Back in December, Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, hammered out a deal to normalize relations, essentially bringing down the final remaining pillar of the Cold War. In May, the U.S. also announced it was taking Cuba off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Critics, including several Republican presidential candidates, are arguing that the president – in ending 50 years of frozen relations with the communist country—is rewarding Cuba’s dictatorial regime.
“Throughout this entire negotiation as the Castro regime has stepped up is repression of the Cuban people, the Obama Administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession,” Florida senator and GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio said in a statement Wednesday ahead of Obama’s address. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, added, “The administration’s reported plan to restore diplomatic relations is one such prized concession to the Castro regime.”
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is also running for the GOP presidential nomination, tweeted that the move was “unacceptable and a slap in the face of a close ally that the United States will have an embassy in Havana before one in Jerusalem.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a statement that Obama was “further legitimizing the brutal Castro regime” in a statement.
During his remarks, Obama noted there are still serious differences between the countries, including on human rights and freedom of speech. “We won’t hesitate to speak out when we see contradiction to those values,” Obama said.
The president also urged Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. “Americans and Cubans alike are looking to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same,” said Obama.