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Cuba rushes to upgrade its D.C. mission to full-fledged embassy status
Diplomatic Pouch / July 6, 2015

By Larry Luxner

Washington’s newest embassy will be inaugurated July 20, when the Cuban Interests Section officially becomes a relic of the past — and the Caribbean island resumes full diplomatic relations with the United States after a 54-year hiatus.

For years, Cuba’s stately mission fronting Sixteenth Street, N.W., has been an annex of the Swiss Embassy, which has also been the de facto protector of the seaside U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Workers have already installed a shiny new flagpole at the Cuban mission, which will formally be reopened by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and a delegation of “distinguished representatives of Cuban society,” according to Havana’s state-run media.

Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the Cuban capital to raise the Stars and Stripes over the six-story U.S. mission there — becoming the first secretary of state to visit the island since 1945.

“This is another demonstration that we do not have to be imprisoned by the past,” President Barack Obama said in a televised White House speech July 1, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side. “A year ago, it might have seemed impossible that the United States would once again be raising our flag over the embassy in Havana. This is what change looks like.”

Ever since the 1961 rupture in bilateral ties two years after communist revolutionary Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, relations have been frozen in time. Yet the bitterness—one of the last vestiges of the Cold War—began thawing late last year, culminating with Cuba’s release of imprisoned Maryland resident Alan Gross on Dec. 17, 2014, and Obama’s announcement the same day that ties would be re-established.

For years, Switzerland has officially run both missions. Jeff DeLaurentis, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, will become charge d’affaires at the newly reconstituted embassy, while his counterpart in Washington, José R. Cabañas, will likely be promoted to ambassador as well, though officials of the Cuban Interests Section couldn’t be reached for comment.

Most Washington-based think tanks were quick to praise the resumption of bilateral ties as historic, productive and more than half a century overdue.

“The Latin America Working Group celebrates this major milestone in U.S.-Cuba relations,” said Mavis Anderson, LAWG’s senior associate on Cuba. “It is a long-awaited development, supported by the majority of Americans, Cuban-Americans, and Cubans alike. A relationship based on equality and respect is now possible, and we congratulate the diplomats and policymakers who have worked on this new reality for our two countries. Work well done.”

Retired diplomat Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), called it “wonderful news.”

“It is high time to reopen the U.S. embassy in Cuba. We are at last moving towards normal relations. At last under Obama it worked,” said the 83-year-old Smith, who not only took down the last flag in 1961 as a young diplomat, but was in Havana on Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama made the announcement that relations would be re-established.

Smith has worked at the forefront of U.S.-Cuba policy for 56 years, serving as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1978 to 1982, and at CIP has since worked tirelessly to bring about a more sensible policy between the U.S. and Cuba.

“While we must continue all efforts to lift the embargo, we strongly believe that President Obama has the authority to lift most of its elements and that a full legacy achievement on Cuba depends on his using it,” said Elizabeth Newhouse, Cuba program director at CIP. “It is futile to expect that a Republican-controlled Congress will do it for him in the 18 months remaining in his presidency.”

Geoff Thale, program director at the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, said he’s struggled for this day for more than 20 years.

“I sometimes have to stop and do a reality check to be sure it’s really happening,” he said. “After years of what felt like pounding on a brick wall, it’s both gratifying and amazing to see common sense finally prevail in U.S. policy towards Cuba. This announcement is a positive step for the United States and the hemisphere. It’s a long-overdue policy change, and opens up the prospects for practical collaboration while allowing us to discuss our differences in a serious way.”

The Americas Society and Council of the Americas, with offices in New York and Washington, called the development a “major milestone” in a series of substantive decisions driven by engagement.

“We congratulate the U.S. government on the sweeping changes it has taken to end a policy of isolation towards Cuba,” said Susan Segal, AS/COA’s president and CEO. “The overwhelming support that this new course has received from leaders and people around the hemisphere and the world confirm that the Obama administration is moving in the right direction. We look forward to seeing Congress further the goals of these new policies to bring positive tangible benefits to the people and businesses of the U.S., Cuba, and the region.”

Not everybody is celebrating, however.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who’s campaigning for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, called the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement just one more of Obama’s “dubious diplomatic achievements and photo-ops,” while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) — also a presidential candidate —called it an “unconditional surrender” to Castro and vowed to block any nomination for U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

Even so, the momentum in U.S.-Cuba ties is unlikely to slow down, especially in light of surveys showing the vast majority of Americans favor free travel to the island and an end to the trade embargo that has crippled Cuba’s economy for decades.

“The tempered hope and expectation we found from our recent trip to Havana is given a big boost with the announcement of the opening of embassies,” said Alana Tummino, AS/COA’s policy director and head of its Cuba Working Group. “The news is symbolic as much as it is practical to AS/COA members and U.S. businesses who are laying the groundwork to fulfill the administration’s goals of greater connectivity and empowerment.”

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