• US, Cuba to announce embassy openings

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    WASHINGTON, D.C.: The United States and Cuba will announce an agreement Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) to open embassies in each other’s capitals, formally re-establish diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

    President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will make the announcement Wednesday morning, said the three officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to allow the president to make the formal announcement.

    Obama has made rapprochement with Cuba a key part of his second-term agenda, arguing that 55 years of freezing out the Communist country has been counterproductive to establishing human rights on the Caribbean island nation.

    With some initial help from Pope Francis, the United States and Cuba have been negotiating the move for more than a year, going public with their diplomatic efforts last December. Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met personally in Panama in April.

    Obama cleared the way for a normalization of relations a month ago when he removed Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list. But a key sticking point after three rounds of embassy talks through the spring has been freedom of movement for U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

    The president hinted at progress earlier on Wednesday, as he hosted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the White House.

    “I very much appreciate President Rousseff and Brazil’s strong support for our new opening toward Cuba. I updated Dilma on our progress, including our work to open embassies in Havana and Washington,” Obama said. “And I believe that Brazil’s leadership in the region, as well as its own journey to democracy and a market economy can make it an important partner as we work to create more opportunities and prosperity for the Cuban people.”

    Rousseff called the move “a very decisive milestone and point in time in U.S. relations with Latin America.”

    “It is really about putting an end to the lingering vestiges of the Cold War,” she said in Portuguese through an interpreter. “And it ultimately elevates the level of the relations between the U.S. and the entire region.”

    Even without a formal diplomatic relationship with Cuba, the Obama administration has relaxed trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, although the embargo remains as a matter of law and tourism is still banned.

    The move could face opposition in Congress: Republicans — including Cuban-American senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both seeking the Republican nomination for president — have threatened to withhold funding for an embassy in Havana. An ambassador would also face a Senate confirmation hearing.

    The State Department says that relations aren’t truly normalized until flags go up at each nation’s embassy. Establishing embassies could be almost that simple.

    Cuba maintains a Cuban Interests Section — now legally part of the Swiss embassy — on 16th Street Northwest in Washington, 10 blocks from the White House. A similar arrangement through the Swiss allows for a United States Interests Section in Havana.

    TNS

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