U.S. to Reopen Embassy in Cuba, for Now Without an Ambassador

U.S. to Reopen Embassy in Cuba, for Now Without an Ambassador

That the United States is finally ready to reopen its embassy in Cuba comes as little surprise; U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration had hoped to plant its diplomatic flag in Havana back in April, more than a half-century since the two nations severed relations. But Obama’s announcement Wednesday was absent a salient detail: a decision on who will serve as the ambassador.

For months, U.S. officials and experts believed career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, had the inside track on the ambassador post in Cuba. But in recent days, former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has been floated as a potential leading candidate for a job that will be among the highest-profile State Department missions for the rest of Obama’s term. Dodd was an early proponent of relaxing sanctions on Cuba.

A senior administration official did not immediately respond when asked whether Dodd was on the shortlist, and several officials said a decision about who would serve as ambassador was not imminent.

Obama announced the embassy openings in brief remarks to reporters in the White House Rose Garden about an hour after Cuba’s Foreign Ministry confirmed it will unshutter its diplomatic mission in Washington. The moves are part of an effort, to be formalized July 20, to broaden diplomatic relations between the two nations, which cut their ties in 1961.

Obama quoted former President Dwight Eisenhower, who expressed hope when he closed the U.S. Embassy in Havana 54 years ago that normal relations would be re-established “in the not-too-distant future.”

“Well, it took a while, but I believe that time has come,” Obama said. “And a better future lies ahead.”

The thaw in relations between Washington and Havana began in December 2014, when Cuba released imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross in exchange for three of the so-called Cuban Five — a group arrested in 1998 after being dispatched to Florida to spy on Cuban exile groups.

Along with the release of Gross, who was in a Cuban jail for five years, a wide array of other restrictions were removed in December (including the import of Cuban cigars). A number of travel restrictions were lifted, though tourism is still not allowed. U.S. debit cards now work in Cuba, and U.S. financial institutions have opened accounts at their Cuban counterparts.

The next high-level step in the détente was an April meeting between Obama and current President Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. The two shook hands, marking the first time the leader of the free world and his communist counterpart 90 miles south of Miami met in more than 50 years. In late May, the United States took another step toward normalization of relations when it removed Cuba from its official state sponsor of terrorism list.

The embassy announcement was long awaited, but Obama’s real challenge will be naming an ambassador, an appointment that faces a rough road in the Senate. Some of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates — among them Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), both fervently anti-Castro — have vowed to block the appointment.

Obama called on Congress to quickly lift a U.S. travel embargo against Cuba in order to open business opportunities and tourism between the two nations. He said Washington will not always agree with Havana — most notably on suppressing free speech and assembly — but maintained that policy differences should not stand in the way of diplomatic engagement.

“There are those who want to turn back the clock and double down on a policy of isolation, but it’s long past time for us to realize that this approach doesn’t work,” Obama said. “It hasn’t worked for 50 years.”

This story was updated Wednesday morning with Obama’s remarks. 

Photo credit: Stringer/AFP

Corrections, July 1, 2015: The Cuban Five were dispatched to spy on Cuban exile groups in Florida; they were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said they were dispatched to spy on then-President Fidel Castro and were arrested in 2001.