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Obama: US embassy in Havana marks 'new chapter' in Cuba ties

Published:Thursday | July 2, 2015 | 7:00 AM
President of Cuba Raul Castro (left) meets with President of the United States Barack Obama in Panama on April 11, 2015.

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

The embassy agreement marks the biggest tangible step towards normalising relations since the surprise announcement in December that the two countries were restarting diplomatic ties.

The posts in Washington and Havana are scheduled to open July 20, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said.

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

In a highly unusual move, Cuban state television broadcast Obama's remarks live with translation in Spanish.

Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba for the opening of the US Embassy.

Obama has long touted the value of direct engagement with global foes and has argued that the US economic embargo on the communist island just 90 miles (145 kilometres) south of Florida was ineffective. Besides Cuba, in recent years, Obama has broken the ice with several long-standing adversaries, like Iran and Myanmar.

The president on Wednesday reiterated his call for Congress to lift the embargo, which he said has failed to bring political change in Cuba. The US cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the year Obama was born, after Fidel Castro's revolution. The US spent decades trying to either actively overthrow the Cuban government or isolate the island, including toughening the economic embargo first 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.

Ahead of Obama's remarks, the top US diplomat in Havana delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries' respective capitals. US Interests Section chief Jeffrey DeLaurentis arrived at the Cuban Foreign Ministry in Havana on Wednesday morning to hand-deliver the message.

While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the US and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalise relations. Among them: talks on human rights; demands for compensation for confiscated American properties in Havana and damages to Cuba from the embargo; and possible cooperation on law enforcement, including the touchy topic of US fugitives sheltering in Havana.

- AP