- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2015

Secretary of State John F. Kerry hailed the re-establishment of regular diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana on Monday, but stressed the drive for full normalization of relations with Cuba “will be long and complex.”

With congressional critics, including Republican and Democratic Cuban-American lawmakers, slamming the thaw with the government of Cuban President Raul Castro, big questions continued to swirl Monday over how hard the Obama White House will work to lift the long-standing U.S. embargo on trade with the communist island.

Mr. Kerry told reporters after a State Department meeting with senior Cuban government officials that the reopening of a Cuban embassy in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Havana after more than five decades “does not signify an end to the many differences that still separate our governments.”

“But it does reflect the reality that the Cold War ended long ago, that the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement,” said Mr. Kerry.

Standing beside Mr. Kerry was his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez, whose presence at the State Department Monday afternoon marked the first time since 1958 a foreign minister from Havana has visited the U.S. diplomatic headquarters.

Mr. Kerry said the two men “touched on a wide range of issues of mutual concern, including cooperation on law enforcement, counternarcotics, telecommunications, the Internet, environmental issues, human rights, including trafficking in persons, and of course we also discussed the opening of our embassies.”

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But Mr. Rodriguez asserted that relations won’t be truly normalized until the U.S. trade embargo is ended and Havana regains sovereignty over the U.S. naval base and detention center in Guantanamo, Cuba — two items that will require congressional approval that President Obama has so far failed to secure.

While Mr. Rodriguez thanked Mr. Obama “for his determination to lift the blockade,” he also stressed that the way forward will require Washington to avoid “interference in our internal affairs.”

At the same time, he said Havana now holds open an “invitation to all U.S. citizens to exercise their right to travel to Cuba as they do to the rest of the world and to the companies of that country to take advantage on an equal footing of the opportunities offered by Cuba.”

Earlier in the day, the Cuban foreign minister presided over the official reopening of Cuba’s embassy on the District’s 16th Street not far from the White House, with the raising of the Cuban flag signaling the latest breakthrough in the rapprochement first announced last December by Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro, the 84-year-old younger brother of longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In Havana, the U.S. Interests Section upgraded its own status to that of a full embassy Monday. But U.S. officials said the American flag will not be raised over the facility — shuttered to regular diplomatic business since 1961 — until Mr. Kerry makes his own path-breaking visit to Havana in mid-August.

While the Obama administration’s plan for lifting the embargo remains murky, the number of U.S. citizens traveling to the island has risen 37 percent during the seven months since Mr. Obama signaled his intention to reach a detente.

Human rights advocates in Congress — the loudest among them a delegation of conservative Republicans and Cuban-American lawmakers — remain deeply critical of the policy, asserting that the Castro government in Havana continues to stifle free speech and political freedom, and regularly jails peaceful opposition figures.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen lashed out at Mr. Obama during a news conference held at her Miami district office on Monday with fellow Florida Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo.

“While human rights activists are imprisoned and jailed for speaking out for freedom and justice, the Obama administration is rejoicing and looking the other way today as embassies are opened,” she said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to block funding for the expansion of a U.S. embassy in Cuba and to stop the confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to the island.”

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