Obama: U.S. and Cuba will resume diplomatic relations, open embassies

WASHINGTON -- President Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba have reached an agreement to open embassies in Havana and Washington, marking a major step in ending hostilities between the longtime foes.

"Today I can announce that the United States has agreed to formally re-establish diplomatic relations with the republic of Cuba and reopen embassies in our respective countries," the president said.

The U.S. and Cuba have been negotiating the reestablishment of embassies following the Dec. 17 announcement that they would move to restore ties. Earlier Wednesday, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the U.S. Interests Section chief in Havana, hand-delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries' respective capitals. The Cuban Foreign Ministry then announced Havana and Washington will restore full diplomatic relations and reopen embassies July 20, which was confirmed by a Senior State Department official with knowledge of the diplomacy.

The president announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba later this summer to help reopen the embassy.

"This is not merely symbolic. With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people. We'll have more personnel at our embassy and our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island," Mr. Obama said, adding that includes the Cuban government, civil society, ordinary Cubans who "are reaching for a better life."

CBS News State Department Correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that Laurentis, the chief of mission, will become the charge d'affairs once relations are restored until a permanent ambassador is nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress. He is on his third tour of Cuba.

Other American diplomats will operate under standards similar to "other restrictive environments," a name that refers to non-Democratic states like China and Russia. The U.S. diplomats will notify the Cuban government before they travel but no longer have to request the government's approval, Brennan reports.

Direct flights to Cuba will be available soon

The political work to restore diplomatic relations won't end there, though. CBS News' Pamela Falk reports that members of the Senate are moving to block any appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba and a lot of negotiation will need to occur, not just between the U.S. and Cuba, but between the president and Congress in order to move forward on both diplomatic and trade relations.

Mr. Obama's announcement Wednesday is intended to pave the way for the first real relationship with Cuba since the 1960's - although obstacles remain before the trade embargo will be lifted. Americans support the reopening of diplomatic ties and the raising of the American flag over the old embassy building in Havana, a foreign policy victory for the Obama administration.

This is also a legacy item for Mr. Obama, who promised during his presidential campaign to open dialogue with Cuba. He has long touted the value of engagement and argued that the U.S. embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective.

And Cuba stands to gain increased trade with Europe, more lending by international financial institutions, as well as in influx of U.S. visitors, Falk reports.

At the same time President Obama announced the new U.S.-Cuba policy last year, he also announced Cuba's release of 5-year prisoner Alan Gross. Also, a spy swap took place: the U.S. released three Cuban intelligence officers in exchange for an unnamed Cuban national "intelligence asset."

On April 11, Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro sat down together in Panama during the Summit of the Americas, the first time heads of state from the two countries had met in more than 50 years. Also, on May 28, the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror.

Since the late 1970s, the United States and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interests sections in each other's capitals. The missions are technically under the protection of Switzerland, and do not enjoy the same status as full embassies.

While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalize relations. Among them: talks on human rights; demands for compensation for confiscated American properties in Havana and damages to Cuba from the embargo; and possible cooperation on law enforcement, including the touchy topic of U.S. fugitives sheltering in Havana.

The U.S. and Cuba agreed to discuss fugitives and law enforcement and property claims in future negotiations, the State Department official said.

Mr. Obama also wants Congress to repeal the economic embargo on Cuba, though he faces resistance from Republicans and some Democrats. Those opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba say Obama is prematurely rewarding a regime that engages in serious human rights abuses.

But the president said the status quo was not working.

"Yes, 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. It hasn't worked for 50 years. It shuts America out of Cuba's future and it only makes life work for the Cuban people," Mr. Obama said.

The president also will face strong opposition in Congress to spending any taxpayer dollars on building or refurbishing an embassy in Havana. Congress would have to approve any administration request to spend money on an embassy.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: U.S. Embassy in Cuba not a step forward

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said in a statement that opening a U.S. embassy in Cuba "will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping."

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the opening of embassies was part of the administration's "common sense approach to Cuba." However, he called for Cuba to recognize that it is out of step with the international community on human rights.

"Arrests and detentions of dissidents must cease and genuine political pluralism is long overdue," Cardin said in a statement.

The State Department official said the administration notified Congress Wednesday of the reopening of relations, more than the 15-day notification that is the minimum legal requirement. It did not include a request for funding.

Landmark meeting between Obama, Castro in Panama

Mr. Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met in April during a regional summit, marking the first time U.S. and Cuban leaders have met in person since 1958.

For Obama, the embassy announcements come amid what the White House sees as one of the strongest stretches of his second term. He scored major legislative and legal victories last week, with Congress giving him fast-track authority for an Asia-Pacific free trade deal and the Supreme Court upholding a key provision of his health care law.

The court also ruled in favor of gay marriage nationwide, an outcome Obama supported.