President Obama and the Cuban Foreign Ministry have announced that both countries will reopen their embassies on July 20, after being shuttered for more than five decades. The reopening of the Cuban and U.S. embassies is the latest step in a dramatic shift in the relationship between the two countries that began last December, when Obama pledged to end an isolationist approach to the island. President Eisenhower closed the U.S. Embassy in Havana on January 3, 1961, cutting diplomatic ties with Cuba. The U.S. embargo against the island, imposed after the 1959 revolution, currently remains in place. Speaking from the White House Rose Garden this morning, Obama said, "The progress that we marked today is yet another demonstration that we don't have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn't working, we can and will change."
Though Obama has yet to visit the island, Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the embassy's reopening. A U.S. presence in Havana signals not only a thaw in hostilities between the two nations, but also brings both Cubans and Americans one step closer to long-awaited travel and educational opportunities. "It's such an important signal to the Cuban people that the U.S. is ready to open up to them. It's so important, because the Cuban family has been divided for so long because of politics," Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas told us. "Family members haven't seen each other for decades. It's been very difficult." And for Americans, restored relations mean more than a new vacation spot. "American businesses are really focusing on the opportunities that are going to open up to them in Cuba, as a market and as a partner," Stephens explained, citing industries like biotech, agriculture, and telecommunications. Located along Havana's Atlantic coastline, the building that held the pre-embargo embassy has housed the United States Special Interest Section (USINT) since 1977. As its name suggests, USINT — which has a corresponding Cuban Interest Section in Washington — represents American interests in Cuba. Officially, it is a branch of the Swiss embassy, though it is staffed by American personnel. But the excitement about re-establishing relations has been met with opposition by Republicans, like GOP Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, who believes Obama should not work with Cuban President Raúl Castro. "It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the President's December 17th announcement.... 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," Rubio said. Whether Rubio will achieve his goals is unclear. In the meantime, Cuban-Americans and politicians on both sides of the debate have taken to Twitter to express their views.