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“A New Chapter”: After Half a Century, U.S. and Cuba Unveil Reopening of Embassies & Restored Ties

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After half a century, the United States and Cuba have announced they will reopen embassies in each other’s capitals and formally re-establish diplomatic relations. Secretary of State John Kerry said he will travel to Havana to open the U.S. Embassy there. In a statement, the Cuban government said relations with the United States cannot be considered normalized until trade sanctions are lifted, the naval base at Guantánamo Bay is returned, and U.S.-backed programs aimed at “subversion and internal destabilization” are halted. But in a letter to Obama on Wednesday, Cuban President Raúl Castro acknowledged much progress has already been made, and confirmed the openings of permanent diplomatic missions later this month. We are joined by Peter Kornbluh, author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with the historic news announced on Wednesday by President Obama that after more than half a century, the United States and Cuba will reopen embassies in each other’s capitals and formally re-establish diplomatic relations.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than 54 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the United States closed its embassy in Havana. 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. This is a historic step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and people, and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement, the Cuban government said relations with the United States cannot be considered normalized until trade sanctions are lifted, the naval base at Guantánamo Bay is returned, and U.S.-backed programs aimed at, quote, “subversion and internal destabilization” are halted. But in a letter to Obama on Wednesday, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro acknowledged much progress has already been made, and confirmed the openings of permanent diplomatic missions later this month.

PRESIDENT RAÚL CASTRO: [translated] It pleases me to confirm that the republic of Cuba has decided to re-establish diplomatic relations with the United States of America and open permanent diplomatic missions in our respective countries on the 20th of July, 2015. On Cuba’s part, we make this decision based on the reciprocal action to develop respectful and cooperative relations between our peoples and our governments.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday he’ll travel to Havana to open the U.S. Embassy there, while Cuban officials say Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez will lead a delegation of “distinguished representatives of Cuban society” at an official ceremony to reopen the Cuban Embassy in Washington. All of this follows the U.S. decision in May to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror. It was just in December that Obama first announced loosened travel and economic restrictions between the two nations.

For more, we are joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archives at George Washington University. He’s co-author of the book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. An updated edition comes out in September with a new epilogue that tells the story of how President Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Well, Peter Kornbluh, welcome back to Democracy Now! First, your reaction to President Obama’s announcement?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, thank you, Amy, for having me on the show, the first day of what Obama calls a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations. I don’t think that the true magnitude of Obama’s speech yesterday has quite sunk in, but this is a historic moment in bilateral relations. It’s a historic moment for Latin America as a whole. And it’s certainly an extraordinary kind of change of events in the whole history of U.S. foreign policy, which, as you know better than anybody and as your listeners know better than anybody and your audience knows better than anybody, has been a bitter history of imperial and imperialist intervention in Cuban affairs. And Barack Obama yesterday stepped forward, basically said we’re going to change the past and have a very different future. He actually said, “This is what change looks like.” And it was very dramatic.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what this change looks like. What has been agreed to at this point? Tell us about the Cuban mission in Washington and the U.S. mission in Cuba, in Havana, and how they’ll change.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, you know, Jimmy Carter, back in the 1970s, 1977, initiated the first truly serious efforts of a president to normalize relations with Cuba. And he got as far as kind of reopening kind of mid-level diplomatic kind of representations called “interest sections.” The United States would have an interest section in Havana; Cuba would have an interest section in Washington. They would not be headed by ambassadors. They would not have full embassy status. And today, President Obama and President Castro have now agreed that we are going to re-establish official diplomatic relations and kind of upgrade these interest sections to full embassies.

And this has a symbolic meaning. President Obama set out to accomplish this starting in 2013, when he directed his aides to find a way to change our policy towards Cuba and to arrive at this point where we have arrived today. That is what he could do as president without having to deal with the Congress on the issue of lifting the embargo.

And, you know, it’s a symbolic move in many ways, but it creates a kind of a new framework of our interaction and certainly is going to pave the way, I think, to an acceleration of ties—bilateral ties, cultural ties, economic ties, political ties—between the United States and Cuba. And I think it’s going to accelerate leaving the past in the past and creating a very different kind of ambiance and environment of the ties between the two countries, which really have a lot of common interests, which will now rise to the surface of the relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us the history of the U.S. mission in Cuba? I remember when I was in Havana, there were sort of major billboards that the U.S. mission had to face, that the Cubans had put up. But the U.S. had done things with the U.S. mission that Fidel Castro wanted to cover, what, with a series of flags?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, that was during the last Bush administration, where George Bush decided that he would kind of stick it to the Cubans by putting a ticker tape on the top of the building of the U.S. interest section that kind of, you know, broadcast news, like down there in Times Square, that was hostile to the Cuban government. And Fidel Castro’s response was to erect 119 flagpoles and put 119 black flags, kind of with a pirate-type sign on the top, to mask the ticker tape and to kind of make a statement of how evil the United States was.

Now, you can contrast kind of the animosity, the—what Henry Kissinger once called the perpetual hostility of that kind of interaction, with what’s going to happen today. And that visual contrast will be John Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official since the Cuban revolution to travel to Cuba, overseeing the hoisting of the American flag of the new U.S. Embassy on the Malecón there in Havana. The visuals will be rather dramatic and, I think, will appeal, quite frankly, to Cubans and to the American public here in the United States in a very dramatic way. And I think it’s going to help visually push the idea of a normal relationship forward in a big way.

AMY GOODMAN: The restoration of relations with Cuba is not sitting well with Republican presidential contender, Cuban-American Marco Rubio. He issued a statement that read, quote, “I intend to oppose the confirmation of an Ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed. It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.” Peter Kornbluh, talk about Rubio’s attitude toward Cuba and his own history.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, he distorted his own history for many years. He left the public impression, and even stated it specifically, that his parents had fled after Fidel Castro took power, that they were political refugees, when in fact they had left Cuba three years before the revolution, and they were simple economic refugees, just like anybody else, so many others who have come to the United States from Latin American countries or other Third World countries, seeking better economic situations for themselves and their families. So his parents and his family, he does not have a background of persecution during the Castro regime.

But, of course, he is beholden and a fixture in the dwindling community of hardline anti-Castro Cubans in Florida, and he is catering to them in his presidential bid. There are still a number of older Cuban Americans who have made a lot of money and who are going to be supportive financially of Rubio’s candidacy. But in terms of broad numbers, his position no longer reflects, in any way, shape or form, the majority view of Floridians and Cuban Americans in Florida.

Having said that, let me be clear that Cuba is obviously going to be a political hot potato, and Cuban policy is going to be a political hot potato, in the next presidential election. Hillary Clinton came out very early calling for an end to the embargo. She sees that there is financial support among the more moderate Cuban-American community in Florida. And she also, I think, sees that this is much in the interest, both international and domestic, of the United States of America to normalize fully relations with Cuba. On the other side, you have, you know, Republican candidates like Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, who, like Marco Rubio, is vying for the support of the anti-Castro Cuban community in Florida, who are obviously going to attack the president on this policy change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in Havana, Cubans welcomed news that U.S. and Cuba will open embassies in each other’s country.

CUBAN MAN: [translated] We’ve been in this situation for 56 years, and I think this will benefit the country in certain respects, and I think it benefits those of us who want to see our families, our children, who are in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to read a comment made by Elián González. He was the boy at the center of a bitter international custody battle in 2000 that highlighted the poor relations between the United States and Cuba. In a 2015 interview with Granma, he said, quote—Granma is the Cuban newspaper—”Sometimes we young people think that if we stop being a socialist country, and give way to capitalism, we will become a developed country like the United States, France, Italy … But it must be understood that if Cuba stops being socialist, it won’t be like the U.S., it would be a colony, it would be Haiti, a poor country, a lot poorer than it is now, and everything that has been achieved would be lost. It is true that we could have accomplished more, but we can never forget the most important historic question: we have been a country besieged by a blockade.” And, of course, for people who don’t quite remember who Elián González is, he was made famous with the standoff with his relatives in Florida and his father, who was trying to take him home to Cuba. He had come in a boat, and his mother had died on the boat. And the image of the U.S. military with a gun at his head as the U.S. government took him away from his Miami family to reunite him with his father and brother. Your comment, Peter Kornbluh?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, Elián González raises an important point that a number of Cubans feel, which is that they don’t want to lose all the vestiges of the revolution. And Raúl Castro himself has said, “We want to have an economic model that allows us to have sustainable socialism.” The problem for Cuba is that they can’t sustain the advances of the Cuban revolution in education and health unless their economy changes and they are able to be a productive society generating the resources to do these social programs in the future. And that is why, in a opening of the economy, the economy is—under Raúl Castro, is evolving away from a strict communist model to a much more kind of—more social democratic model, eventually, and perhaps like Vietnam, perhaps like China. It’s hard to know where it will end up. But it is evolving steadily towards that new model of the economy, and it’s up to the Cuban government, of course, to decide what kind of interaction they’re going to have with American economic interests. We can no more tell them what to do now than we can—than we could before the normalization of diplomatic relations. But they know what’s in their interests, and I’m sure that they are going to act accordingly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Peter Kornbluh, talk about what has to happen now. And what does Congress have to do, which President Obama alluded to as he spoke yesterday? And how could a change of a presidential administration, or even the current Congress, stop anything—or could they—from moving forward?

PETER KORNBLUH: I think what President Obama has done in normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba is irreversible. And Congress can certainly stand in the way—the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dominated by Republicans like Marco Rubio, can thwart kind of a naming of a new ambassador. They can hold up any ambassador—ambassadorial nomination that President Obama gives them. But I think what he is going to do is simply assign the diplomat that is there, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who’s head of the interest section and who already is an ambassador, in the sense that he was ambassador previous to his posting in Cuba, with the kind of interim status. So, 'til the end of the Obama administration, I believe that he's not going to pick a fight with Congress over this nomination.

You know, Obama has two years left. He’s going to move quickly and with all the power that he has as president to kind of consolidate this change in policy. He has normalized diplomatic relations. To normalize overall relations, of course, we do have to lift the embargo. The United States does have to address Cuba’s interest in the return of the Guantánamo military base. And these regime change programs that USAID has been running for all these years, kind of in a kind of bureaucratic imperative mandated by Congress, do have to be reconfigured to some kind of more educational-oriented or economic sharing, as opposed to an effort to roll back the Cuban revolution. Those things are down the road. I think Obama wants to create an ambiance, a very new ambiance, a very new framework of relations, and then have the countries negotiate accordingly.

A new president could certainly create a much more hostile policy towards Cuba. A new Congress with Democrats could actually vote to lift the embargo and lift the travel ban that prevents people like you and I from freely going on vacation in Varadero Beach, to Cuba, at this point. But I think that Obama’s strategy is simply to create constituencies in the business community, among American citizens, as well as support in Cuba for going forward with this relationship, to the point where it will be very difficult for a Republican president, like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, to reverse this process.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of trade, Peter, what exactly is going to happen now? I mean, many Republican and Democratic governors, for example, not to mention CEOs, have been going back and forth to Cuba. What happens next?

PETER KORNBLUH: You’ve had the president of Google going. You’ve had the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce going to Cuba. There are all sorts of businessmen who have been there. And President Obama has kind of looked at the embargo like a dam, and he’s used his executive powers to poke holes in it, with the hope that as the kind of economic waters pour through the holes that he has created in the embargo, the dam weakens and eventually collapses. I think that’s his strategy, and it’s being supported by the business community and by the advocacy community. There’s a new organization out there called Cuba Engage, which is trying to organize business and advocates to lift the travel ban—very important to support that. And I think that that’s his idea.

And Obama, using executive orders, has created all sorts of clauses in the—for the business community. The United States can now import goods from Cuba from private businesses in Cuba. We can sell them more food. Internet companies of the United States of America are now going to Cuba and are going to work with Cubans to build a Internet network there. So there’s a loosening of the restrictions on trade. You still are not going to see, you know, Hilton Hotels building hotels in Cuba. You’re not going to see a McDonald’s or a Wal-Mart or major U.S. mining companies arriving in Cuba and investing in Cuba, unless Congress lifts the trade embargo on Cuba. But you are going to see quite a bit more economic activity in the years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: And the visits—President Obama says he personally will go next year, and the pope, before he comes to the United States, will be going to Cuba first. Is that right, Peter Kornbluh? And the pope’s role in the negotiation that has opened up the relationship between Cuba and the United States?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, the next edition, the paperback edition, of the book that I did with William LeoGrande, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, is going to have a whole new 50-page epilogue that tells the story of how the pope got involved with the secret talks to improve relations between the United States and Cuba. And certainly, when the pope goes to Cuba in mid-September, he is going to raise the issue of the embargo. He’s going to come to the United States afterwards, and I’m sure the issue will actually come up.

The pope will be following John Kerry, who is going to be going to Cuba later this month. That is going to receive quite a bit of media attention. And, of course, there’s going to be a parade of celebrities, businessmen, political figures continuing to go to Cuba 'til the end of the year. Obama—certainly the White House has said that Obama would relish his own trip to Cuba in 2016. That would be history making. That would be Obama's Nixon-in-China moment, and he would go down in history as the president who ended the Cold War in the Caribbean once and for all, and actually took steps to set foot on the island of Cuba while the Cuban existence—while a Castro was still in power. I think that will go a long way to normalizing simply the kind of people-to-people relationship between this country, and I hope we all live to see the day that a president of the United States sets foot on the island of Cuba in the near future.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, I want to thank you for being with us. He directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, which is at George Washington University in D.C., co-author of the book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. Updated edition with that epilogue that tells the story of President Obama, the pope and President Castro are all in that book. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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