Castro: U.S. and Cuba to Exchange Ambassadors

Cuban President Raúl Castro reported Tuesday that his country and the United States will name ambassadors once Cuba is removed from the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism later this month, according to an Associated Press report. The United States and Cuba have not had full diplomatic relations since 1961. Currently, they have lower-level missions called “Interests Sections” in each other’s countries, under the protection of the Swiss government.

At the Summit of the Americas (Cumbre de las Américas) in Panama last month, President Barack Obama and Castro met face-to-face to discuss fully rebuilding diplomatic relations between the two countries. This was also Castro’s first appearance at the 35-country summit, which is composed of the leaders of North American, Central American, Caribbean, and South American countries. For decades, the U.S. had blocked Cuba from participating, so this was the first summit in which every country in the Americas had a representative present.

The meeting between Barack and Castro was the first time in over 50 years that the leaders of both countries had spent significant time together. The last face-to-face discussion between an American president and a Cuban leader was in Panama in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower met with dictator Fulgencio Batista. This historic encounter appeared to be the first of many as the tense relations caused by the Cold War finally dissipate.

“That hopefully marks the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the Caribbean, in some ways the last vestiges of an era — a bygone era,” said Cuba expert Peter Kornbluh, who is attending the summit and co-authored the book, Back Channel to Cuba. “This summit will go down in history as a turning point in U.S.-Cuban relations and U.S. relations for the region.” A normalized relationship between the U.S. and Cuba would mean shedding the decades of isolation and a trade embargo imposed during the regime of Fidel Castro, the older brother of Raúl Castro.

Cuba had insisted on the removal from the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries as part of the ongoing process to repair its relationship with the United States. Obama made the final decision after a State Department Review of Cuba’s presence on the list, which also includes Iran, Sudan and Syria. Havana had described the terror designation as unjustified and unfair. U.S. policies on Cuba had been a obstacle in working with the rest of the Latin American world. The designation had also been a major stumbling block for efforts to restore formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba and reopen embassies that have been closed for more than five decades.

“This sort of unjust accusation is about to be lifted,” Castro said in an interview at Havana’s international airport at the conclusion of a state visit by French President François Hollande. “Then we’ll be able to name ambassadors.”

Last month, President Obama ordered Cuba to be cleared from the terrorism list. Congress was given 45 days during which they can propose legislation to block the decision. That waiting period expires May 29, and opponents of Obama’s Cuba policy have acknowledged that they do not have enough votes to stop this move.

According to the Washington Post, Cuban negotiators are due to arrive in Washington as soon as this week for a fourth round of talks. Secretary of State John F. Kerry could possibly travel to Havana as early as June to hoist an American flag over the 1950s-era U.S. diplomatic compound along the city’s famed seaside boulevard, the Malecon. The building has served as the U.S. Interests Section, under protection of the Swiss government, since 1977.

Two issues still need to be attended to first: U.S. diplomats insist they must be allowed to bring secure shipping containers into the country, in accordance with global diplomatic protocols. They also want the ability to travel freely on the island without seeking Cuban government permission beforehand. U.S. diplomats in Havana, and Cuban diplomats at their country’s Interests Section in Washington, are prohibited from traveling beyond the two capitals without government permission.

Obama administration officials say they have no problem with Cuban diplomats traveling at will throughout the U.S., but Cuba insists that restrictions are necessary because of active American support, much of it illicit, for opponents of Cuba’s communist system. Castro has warned against U.S. diplomats engaging in “illegal” activity, but the Obama administration said it will continue to support pro-democracy activists.

“We have expressed quite often in public and in private the concerns that we have with the Cuban government and the frequency with which they trample on the basic universal human rights of their people,” press secretary Josh Earnest said at a White House briefing Tuesday. “The president feels strongly that by changing our policy, by seeking greater engagement not just between the Cuban government and the American government, but between the Cuban people and the American people, that we can continue to support the Cuban people as they seek the kind of government that respects their rights and allows them to fulfill their ambitions,” he said.

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Photo via NBC News

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