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US, Cuba to Reopen Embassies


US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands during their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, Saturday, April 11, 2015.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands during their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, Saturday, April 11, 2015.

After nearly seven months of negotiations, the United States and Cuba are announcing Wednesday an agreement to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana, in the latest move to end decades of hostility.

The U.S. trade embargo and Cuba’s human rights record are among the issues still blocking normalizing relations broken following Fidel Castro’s revolution.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana is expected to reopen later this month and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated he will attend the flag-raising ceremony.

Restoration of official ties is the latest step in the process since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced in December the two countries were renewing diplomatic relations. The leaders held face-to-face talks at April’s Summit of the Americas in Panama.

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​In May, the United States removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move seen as crucial to restoring diplomatic ties.

Speaking through an interpreter Tuesday at the White House, visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff welcomed warming relations and its impact on the rest of Latin America.

"It is really about putting an end to the last lingering vestiges of the Cold War, and it ultimately elevates the relations between the U.S. and the entire region," Rousseff said.

"May I acknowledge the importance of that gesture to all of Latin America and to world peace at large. It is an important example of relations to be followed," she added.

Restoration of services

Commercial air and ferry service between the two countries have been, or are being, restored and communications restrictions have been eased, although U.S. citizens can only travel to Cuba under limited guidelines.

Cuba

Cuba

Obstacles, however, remain including a decades-long U.S. trade embargo of Cuba that only the Congress can remove.

Just last week, Washington released its annual human rights report, which cited Cuba for violating basic freedoms in 2014, including the arbitrary arrest of dissidents and limiting access to uncensored, independent information.

Reopening embassies

Latin America analyst Mark Jones of Rice University said he thinks reopening embassies will help both countries grapple with such issues.

"What the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and an embassy will do is allow the countries to begin addressing this host of issues that face both countries -- be it human rights violations in Cuba and issues regarding compensation for U.S. citizens and also issues related to fugitives from U.S. justice who are residing presently in Cuba and doing something about that for people who have been accused of capital crimes, murder for instance, in the United States and have fled to Cuba," Jones said.

"Cuba is likely to be less and less a safe haven for those individuals in the years to come," he added.

However, Jones said he does not necessarily expect warming ties to change Cuba’s one-party Communist system.

He said other Westerners have been visiting the Caribbean island nation for decades with no change in the governmental system.

FILE - French President Francois Hollande, left, and Cuban President Raul Castro talk during a meeting at Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba, May 11, 2015.

FILE - French President Francois Hollande, left, and Cuban President Raul Castro talk during a meeting at Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba, May 11, 2015.

Embassies criticized

In a statement, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtine, a Republican, denounced the move to reopen an embassy as emboldening the Castro regime “to continue its attacks against the Cuban people.”

Ros-Lehtinen said opening the embassy “will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”

However, Ted Henken, Cuba analyst at Baruch College in New York, said the anti-regime policies Ros-Lehtinen supports have done nothing to improve the human rights of the Cuban people.

"Her strategy, the one that she favors, has failed. She’s on the wrong side of this issue," Henken said.

"Having diplomatic relations with Cuba doesn’t mean we approve of the Cuban government nor do we approve of their treatment of the Cuban people. I think we’ll have a better chance of having some kind of influence in Cuba with a relationship that’s engaging, empowering [rather] than one that is isolating and impoverishing the government and the people," he said.

Henken said changing policy toward Cuba is about American interests and influence, not about regime change.

"This is not a silver bullet – it’s not a concession to the [Cuban] dictatorship. It’s a concession to the U.S. people – it’s a concession to pragmatism and to common sense," he said.

Henken said normal ties can foster cooperation on matters such as the environment, drug interdiction, refugees and family reunions.

He added that with improved relations, the Cuban government will no longer be able to use U.S. hostility as a scapegoat for suppressing the Cuban people and it will be under growing pressure to meet their demands.

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