US and Cuba restore diplomatic ties after 50 years

On 17 December 2014, USA and Cuba agreed to restore diplomatic ties that Washington severed more than 50 years ago, and President Barack Obama called for an end to the long economic embargo against its old Cold War enemy.

After 18 months of secret talks, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed on a breakthrough prisoner exchange, the opening of embassies in each other’s countries, and an easing of some restrictions on commerce. The two leaders made the announcement in simultaneous televised speeches. The Vatican and Canada facilitated the deal.

Obama’s call for an end to the economic embargo drew resistance from Republicans who will control both houses of Congress from January and who oppose normal relations with the Communist-run island.

Obama said he was ending what he called a rigid and outdated policy of isolating Cuba that had failed to achieve change on the island. His administration’s policy shift includes an opening to more commerce in some areas, allowing use of US credit and debit cards, increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cubans and allowing export of telecommunications devices and services.

Travel restrictions that make it hard for most Americans to visit will be eased, but the door will not yet be open for broad US tourism on the Caribbean island.

Obama’s announcement also will not end the US trade embargo that has been in force for more than 50 years. That is codified in legislation and needs congressional approval.

Cuba and the United States have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959 revolution that brought President Raul Castro’s older brother, Fidel Castro, to power. Washington broke diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961 as Cuba steered a leftist course that turned it into a close ally of the former Soviet Union on the island, which lies just 140 km south of Florida.

The hostilities were punctuated by crises over spies, refugees and the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. After the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Washington was increasingly alone in its efforts to squeeze Cuba. Raul Castro, who took over from Fidel Castro when his brother retired in 2008, has maintained a one-party political system.

Critics said Cuba should not be rewarded, having yet to change, and the path to completely normal ties is strewn with obstacles, in particular lifting the embargo that the White House said Obama would like to see dismantled by the time he leaves office in 2017.

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