U.S., Cuba To Reopen Embassies In Step Toward Normal Relations

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The White House announced Wednesday the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, which is seen as a key step toward more normal diplomatic ties with the Cold War foe.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. and Cuba took one big step closer to normalized ties today. The countries announced they will re-establish diplomatic relations on July 20 and reopen embassies after more than 50 years. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to travel to Cuba later this month to make that official and raise the U.S. flag over an embassy in Havana. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Obama says the U.S. should not be imprisoned by the past or cling to a policy that wasn't working. He says part of America's leadership in the world is its capacity to change.

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BARACK OBAMA: A year ago, it might've seemed impossible that the United States would once again be raising our flag - the stars and stripes - over an embassy in Havana. This is what change looks like.

KELEMEN: While Obama spoke in the Rose Garden, Secretary of State Kerry took a break from nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna to tell reporters there that he looks forward to going to Cuba soon to raise that flag.

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JOHN KERRY: This will mark the resumption of embassy operations after a period of 54 years. It will also be the first visit by a secretary of state to Cuba since 1945.

KELEMEN: One congressional critic - Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Legtinen - says she thinks this is all about legacy shopping, and she's vowed to withhold funding for an embassy. Sen. Marco Rubio, another Florida Republican, says the White House is making too many concessions to the Castro regime and getting nothing in return. When the deal was reported on Cuban state television, the announcer read out a long list of government demands.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KELEMEN: "There cannot be normal relations between Cuba and the United States as long as the economic blockade remains in place," the announcer says. Cuba also wants the U.S. to close its naval base at Guantanamo Bay and stop funding radio and television programs on the island. A top State Department official says these are demands that Cubans often make but were not part of negotiations. The talks focused on the nitty-gritty of how to turn the so-called intersections into full-fledged embassies. Currently, U.S. diplomats can't travel outside Havana without getting permission. Now they will only have to notify authorities. President Obama says there will also be more diplomats there.

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OBAMA: 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.

KELEMEN: He says it's time to move forward, and he's urging Congress to do the same and formally end the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has co-sponsored a bill to do just that.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: This is gaining more momentum than I thought possible at the beginning. A lot of this is because people around America are genuinely excited about going to Cuba and doing business with Cuba.

KELEMEN: Minnesota already does $20 million in agricultural sales to Cuba, she says, adding businesses are eager to do more. But she cautions it will take time to get over political barriers in Congress. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.