What You Need to Know About U.S. Diplomatic Relations With Cuba

Jul 1, 2015

On Wednesday, President Obama announced that the U.S. has agreed to formally restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, which were severed 54 years ago.

It is the first major piece of the plan Obama laid out on December 17 to normalize ties with the communist island.

The U.S. and Cuba have also reached an agreement to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to be in Cuba to open the U.S. embassy.

Here are six things you need to know about the reopening of the embassy.

1. Diplomatic relations, according to the State Department, will be officially restored on July 20.

A ceremony to open the U.S. embassy in Havana, complete with the raising of the stars and stripes over the building there (which currently serves as the U.S. Interests Section), should take place a few days after that, according to diplomatic sources.  Kerry will preside.

2. The two countries were able to come to an agreement to restore diplomatic relations largely because the U.S. is satisfied that its diplomats will be able to travel freely around Cuba and meet with ordinary Cubans, including dissidents.

State Department officials say the embassy in Cuba will operate in a fashion similar to that of embassies in “other restrictive environments” around the world.

That means, for example, that U.S. diplomats will need to notify the Cuban government about their movements around the island, but they will no longer need permission, as they did previously.

3. The Obama administration feels that restoring diplomatic ties is crucial to its new policy of engaging rather than isolating Cuba, which has been U.S. policy for more than half a century.

President Obama in his speech on Wednesday insisted the latter approach "was not working."

"Instead of supporting democracy and opportunity for the Cuban people," he said, "our efforts to isolate Cuba despite good intentions increasingly had the opposite effect -- cementing the status quo and isolating the United States from our neighbors in this hemisphere."

Obama added, "With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people."

4. The Cuban-American congressional caucus in Washington opposes Obama’s policy.

The caucus argues that the president made too many concessions to Cuba – including Havana’s removal from the State Department’s list of state-sponsors of terrorism - in order to restore diplomatic relations and that he did not get enough in return from the Castro government, including a firmer commitment to democratic and human rights improvements.

“It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the President's Dec. 17 announcement in terms of ... securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people," said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is also a Republican presidential candidate. "I intend to oppose the confirmation of an Ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed. It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”

5. Restoring diplomatic ties is the only first part of the ongoing process of normalizing relations between the two countries.

Other issues, such as Cuban exiles' legal claims to property confiscated by the Cuban Revolution, and the elimination of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba (which only the U.S. Congress can do), still have to be worked out.