US-Cuban relations: ′There is something between us′ | News | DW | 20.07.2015
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US-Cuban relations: 'There is something between us'

As the clock struck midnight on Monday, the US and Cuba restored full diplomatic ties, ending more than half a century of mutual hostility. The Cuban embassy is set to hold a ceremony in Washington to mark its reopening.

The new era of US-Cuban relations began with little fanfare on Monday when the diplomatic missions in both countries were upgraded from interests sections to embassies.

The reopening of the embassies in Washington and Havana is part of an attempt by the administration of US President Barack Obama to normalize relations between the two countries.

The historic thaw in over 50 years of animosity was set to be marked later in the day with a formal inauguration of the Cuban embassy in Washington. Cuba's blue, red and white-starred flag will fly for the first time since the two countries severed ties during the Cold War in 1961. The American stars and stripes will not fly in Havana, however, until US Secretary of State John Kerry visits for a ceremonial flag-raising in August.

'Radical change'

Wayne Smith, who headed the US Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982 and is a careful observer of the present change of course in US-Cuban relations, welcomed the restoration of ties between the countries.

"It is a radical change but a very positive one," Wayne Smith told DW.

"The United States has followed an utterly unproductive path," he said. "Rather than trying over time to engage with Cuba, we turned down every opportunity."

Only about 145 kilometers (91 miles) of water separates Cuba from the southern tip of Florida in the United States. But for several decades, all diplomatic ties between the two countries were on ice.

A mere change of sign

Surprisingly enough, the US has had a huge diplomatic presence in Havana over the past years, consisting of about 50 American and 300 Cuban employees, Obama's former Cuba policy adviser Dan Restrepo told US broadcaster CNN. "The US Interests Section is the largest diplomatic gathering in the country," he said.

The US Interests Section is housed in the building that was the US embassy before both countries broke off all diplomatic ties. The State Department's plans for the future mission and work of the embassy after the reopening are unclear at this point. Decisions in this area are dependent on the funds that are currently in the hands of the US Congress.

But after Obama announced his intention to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba on December 17 last year, a backlash from that very Congress was not long in coming.

Cuba expert Ana Quintana from the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, agrees with the president's critics.

"As part of his normalization bid with the Castro regime, the president has granted the dictatorship another in a series of dangerous concessions," says Quintana on the Foundation's website. She slams Obama for the way he, in her words, "drastically eased sanctions, lobbied Congress to lift the embargo and removed Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list."

Majority support

According to Wayne Smith, however, Obama's new Cuba course equates with the political realities: "As we began the policy back in the sixties, Mexico was the only Latin American country to maintain trade relations with Cuba, but by 2014 it was the United States that was isolated. Every country in the hemisphere had established diplomatic trade relations with Cuba."

The supporters of Obama's Cuba policy are in the majority. According to the fact tank Pew Research Center, 63% of Americans support stronger US ties with Cuba.

pedals past the Cuban Interests Section is seen in Washington REUTERS/Gary Cameron

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington is to become a full-fledged embassy

But the opposition is not easily impressed. The Republicans who dominate the House of Representatives have announced that they will try to block Obama's moves on Cuba.

The question is, however, what they can really do.

"Though Congress can vote against an ambassadorial appointment or block supplemental appropriations requested for opening the embassy, there is nothing it can do to stop the administration from putting a sign in front that says 'embassy,'" explains Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C.

An embassy but no ambassador

As for the US ambassador to Cuba, the chances are high that Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chief of Mission at the US Interests Section in Havana, will be the person proposed by Obama's administration.

Latin America expert Hershberg predicts that the Senate will refuse to consider that nomination and adds that DeLaurentis "will remain as the Chief of Mission in Havana in an embassy. But at an embassy where he will not hold formal ambassadorial rank."

Embargo likely to stay

According to the results of the polls run by Pew Research Center, about 66% of Americans are also in favor of the US ending its trade embargo against Cuba.

But optimism that the embargo will actually be lifted is hard to find among experts. Observers in Washington predict that Congress will not vote to overturn it, despite encouragement from the administration to do so.

Given the present Congressional boundaries, it is very unlikely that the Republicans will lose their majority in Congress.

"My assessment is that as long as they have it, they will keep the embargo in place" Hershberg says. "That is, unless there is a change of government in Cuba. But there is not going to be, so I don't expect that we will see the embargo formally lifted for at least the next five years."

Regardless of the embargo, the lives of the Cuban people are going to change after the reopening of the US embassy in Havana. Smith is convinced it will bring many advantages to the country.

"I think the opening of the embassy will benefit the Cubans. Cubans and Americans really get along. There is something between us."