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Officials: U.S. will have embassy in Havana soon

Hundreds of Cubans wait in line to apply for tourist visas to visit the U.S., a common occurrence, at the American Interests Building in Havana, Dec. 18, 2014.
Hundreds of Cubans wait in line to apply for tourist visas to visit the U.S., a common occurrence, at the American Interests Building in Havana, Dec. 18, 2014. New York Times

The U.S. hasn’t had an embassy in Cuba for more than 50 years, but establishing one may not take much time.

Although President Obama’s decision Wednesday to normalize relations with the Castro government in Havana upends long-standing U.S. policy, a State Department official said Thursday that the process of restoring diplomatic ties between the former adversaries is “relatively straightforward.”

Full diplomatic recognition can be established through an exchange of letters or notes and doesn’t require a formal legal treaty or agreement, said Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who will attend talks with Cuban officials in January in Havana to begin hammering out the details of an agreement.

Following that, the U.S. would sever the 53-year arrangement it’s had with the Swiss government in Havana to protect U.S. diplomats, who work out of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

“That will be done as soon as possible,” Jacobson said. “Whereupon we would transition to becoming an embassy and we would change the sign on our mission.”

Appointing an ambassador to Cuba could take longer, Jacobson said, adding that it’s not “necessarily one of the first things that we’ll get to.”

Senate Republicans vehemently opposed to Obama’s move to ease restrictions already have pledged to block any potential nomination or any proposal to remodel or enlarge the Interests Section, charging that relaxing sanctions will only serve to enrich the Castro government.

The administration expects to have an embassy before making a nomination for an ambassador, Jacobson said.

“We hope to get there, obviously,” she said. “That’s what a full diplomatic restoration means, ambassadors in both countries. But I can’t tell you exactly when that will happen.”

At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration would evaluate its needs for embassy space as it works with Cuba. “The range of engagement that American diplomats have with Cuban government officials will expand as a result of this decision,” he said.

Earnest singled out Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has pledged to use his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block Obama’s changes in Cuba.

Earnest said he found it odd that Rubio would seek to block an ambassador to Cuba when he earlier this year voted to confirm former Sen. Max Baucus as ambassador to China.

He quoted Rubio as saying that the American Embassy in China “should be viewed as an ally of those within the Chinese society that are looking to express their fundamental rights to speak out and to worship freely.”

Earnest added, “We think the exact same thing can be said of the new American embassy in Cuba.”

Rubio blasted the deal at a news conference in Miami, saying Cuba will get increased trade and U.S. dollars without improving its human rights record.

“This deal the president has come up with is a terrible tradeoff,” Rubio said. “This is the kind of deal you get when you send your speechwriter to negotiate with tyrants.”

Changing regulations

Other changes Obama announced Wednesday, including the easing of travel restrictions and allowing Americans to bring home Cuban goods, including cigars, will require the Treasury Department and other agencies to write regulations.

Those regulations – which will be published in the Federal Register – will be completed within “days or weeks, certainly not months,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said the talks will include human rights, but he said the U.S. will not necessarily make meeting certain human rights requirements a condition of diplomatic relations.

The U.S. will want to ensure that its diplomats “have the full range of privileges, if you will, to carry out their functions, which includes being able to talk to lots of different people in society,” she said.

She noted there are other items unlikely to be resolved even as diplomatic relations are restored, including U.S. claims against the Cuban government and a lawsuit the Cuban government has against the U.S.

The State Department already has begun reviewing whether it can recommend to Obama that Cuba be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, Jacobson said. Cuba was put on the list, which also includes Iran, Sudan and Syria, in 1982.

Obama wants a recommendation within six months. The review will include ensuring that Cuba hasn’t participated in or supported acts of international terrorism in the last six months, and whether it has renounced the use of terrorism.

The report will go to Congress, though Jacobson said it will be Obama’s decision to remove the country from the list. Cuba’s removal from the list could lift some sanctions on the country.

Secretary of State John Kerry has talked with his European counterparts about the U.S. moves, and Jacobson said she briefed ambassadors and other officials from European Union countries, Western Hemisphere countries, Switzerland and the Holy See, which was deeply involved in pushing the two countries to a deal.

She called the global response “overwhelmingly positive from the diplomatic perspective.”

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