President Barack Obama urged Congress to follow his decision to reopen the American embassy in Havana by lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
“The best way to support our values is through engagement,” Obama said at the White House. “Americans and Cubans alike are looking to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same.”
The embassy will reopen on July 20 and Cuba will reopen its embassy in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry intends to go to Havana for the occasion and he will “proudly raise the American flag” over the embassy, Obama said.
Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who heads the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and would be the initial envoy heading the reopened embassy, delivered a letter from Obama confirming the plans addressed to Cuba President Raul Castro, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The president hasn’t decided on who might be nominated as ambassador or whether he would make the nomination in the immediate future, according to an administration official.
The question for Obama is whether he has the political momentum to get a U.S. ambassador to Cuba confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate or get the embargo lifted.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has said he would block any ambassador nominee offered by the White House. Ted Cruz, a Texas senator also seeking the party’s nomination, has echoed that threat.
Obama is coming off of series of high-profile legislative and political victories. Congress last month gave him expanded authority to negotiate trade deals and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key portion of his signature health care law and legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
During a White House press conference Tuesday, Obama said he’d use the political capital he had built up on a long list of priorities.
“We are going to squeeze every last ounce of progress that we can make as long as I have the privilege of holding this office,” he said.
Word of the embassy reopenings brought renewed criticism from a U.S. lawmaker who’s among those opposed to normalizing ties with Cuba’s Communist regime, citing its poor record on human rights.
“Opening the American embassy in Cuba will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida.
Obama said the U.S. must not be “imprisoned by the past.” He said there are tourists who want to travel to Cuba and businesses that want to invest there.
Public sentiment may be moving Obama’s way. A Pew Research poll released in January, one month after the president first announced plans to reestablish diplomatic times, found that 63 percent of Americans favored re-establishing diplomatic relations, while 28 percent disapproved. Two-thirds of respondents favored ending the trade embargo.
The thaw between the U.S. and Cuba has triggered an explosion of interest in the island nation from businesses and governments worldwide. They’re betting that the prospect of a tourist boom will unleash the $68 billion Cuban economy through development.
Cuba’s government anticipates that 10 million Americans eventually will be visiting annually as travel restrictions are liberalized, up from about 1 million this year. The country now receives about 3 million foreign visitors a year, mostly from Canada and Western Europe, according to the government’s data.
U.S. state governors are jockeying to get trade delegations to Cuba to promote agricultural products and business deals. After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo led a mission to Cuba, officials said they made four deals, including one with JetBlue Airways Corp., which will offer direct flights between New York and Havana starting this week.
France, the U.K. and Japan are among the countries also seeking to bolster trade. China recently signed a deal with Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism to build a golf course on the island.
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower cut diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961 after President Fidel Castro’s decision to nationalize foreign assets, including U.S. property, on the Caribbean island. The next year a U.S. trade embargo was extended to include almost all imports.
–With assistance from Justin Sink in Washington.
This article was written by Margaret Talev and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.