In the most significant move yet toward normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the Obama administration said Tuesday that the two had agreed to open embassies in each other’s countries.
The diplomatic development is the most authoritative move the Obama administration can make unilaterally without an act of Congress, which still holds the power to lift or retain the Cuban economic embargo that has been in place for decades. It comes six months after President Barack Obama ordered the opening of relations, ending more than half a century of Cold War standoff as he promised to “cut loose the shackles of the past.”
Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry plan to address the decision publicly on Wednesday, a senior administration official said, as the two nations open the door to an entirely new relationship of trade, travel and tourism.
Less than three months ago, Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro held a historic face-to-face meeting at a summit in Panama, and the countries’ diplomatic corps began a series of intense meetings to clear the remaining barriers.
Still, negotiators for weeks have been arguing over a couple of sticking points. The U.S. side wanted American diplomats to be able to travel and move freely in Cuba. Cuban negotiators said their diplomats could not open an embassy in the U.S. without being able to open a banking account.
The apparent resolution suggests that those points have been worked out. On Tuesday, senior advisers to Obama said that the conversations had gone well and that the two sides were now prepared for the much more serious commitment of opening embassies.
But the thawing of the diplomatic freeze is far from complete, as members of Congress now wrestle with their concerns — and those of influential Republican communities. As the party gears up for a contentious presidential nomination process, Republicans are staking out positions on issues including the state of human rights in Cuba and broader questions of U.S. immigration policy.
Lawmakers could still put up hurdles to a fully operational U.S. Embassy opening in Cuba. The Republican-led Senate could block the confirmation of a new ambassador, and lawmakers in both chambers have threatened to deny full funding for an embassy.
Opposition crosses party lines. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and a member and former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, raised concerns at a recent hearing about continued human rights abuses by the Castro government.
“I have not seen any movement toward greater freedom for the Cuban people. I have not seen movement toward greater tolerance, democracy, or the rule of law,” he said in late May.
An appropriations bill recently passed by the House included provisions that would restrict commercial flights and cruise ships from traveling to Cuba. The White House has threatened a veto if it reaches the president’s desk.
The moves toward rapprochement rose to the highest levels of both governments and to the Roman Catholic Church, as well, in talks that opened two years ago far behind the scenes.
Quiet talks began between two midlevel Obama advisers and Cuban representatives in the summer of 2013, focused at first on winning the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.
After a series of meetings in Canada, the negotiators began talking about the release of Gross as the basis for a broader warming of relations between the two countries.
In December, the two sides announced the release of Gross and several Cuban prisoners, and the State Department took over talks.
The latest developments are far from good news to key lawmakers.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a senior Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Obama administration “has continued to turn its back on the Cuban people” in pursuit of its goal of normalizing relations.
“Not surprisingly, this administration has shown that politics trump policy in its decisionmaking process,” the Cuban-born South Florida lawmaker said. “Opening the American Embassy in Cuba will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”
The chief of the U.S. mission in Havana is Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. His name has come up in conversations about who would serve as ambassador, according to senior administration officials.